The dialogue in Disgrace churns along with a quiet energy. Especially after David has arrived at his daughter Lucy’s farm, their conversations perfect and polish the novel’s thematic preoccupations.
During their extended greeting when she’s showing him about the property, Lucy asks David about his work and he replies that he’s working on an operatic play about Lord Byron. She expresses her surprise:
“I didn’t know you still had ambitions in that direction.”
“I thought I would indulge myself. But there is more to it than that. One wants to leave something behind. Or at least a man wants to leave something behind. It’s easier for a woman.”
“Why is it easier for a woman?”
“Easier, I mean, to produce something with a life of its own.”
“Doesn’t being a father count?”
“Being a father…I can’t help feeling that, by comparison with being a mother, being a father is a rather abstract business. But let us wait and see what comes.”
This back and forth settles so naturally into the action of the scene, and they move from this more important exchange to another mundane one with the turn of the next sentence. But these particular lines tell the reader so much about David Lurie and the kind of man we’re dealing with. They also show us Lucy’s subtle challenge and disapproval. It feels so natural – the uneasy dynamics of this father and daughter.
Coetzee accomplishes this kind of subtle revelation on nearly every page. Just after this conversation ends, Petrus walks in – to both the novel and the scene. Petrus shares the farm with Lucy. He’s a black African. And the tension between Petrus and David upon their first encounter is so strong:
He is left with Petrus. “You look after the dogs,” he says to break the silence.
“I look after the dogs and I work in the garden. Yes.” Petrus gives a broad smile. “I am the gardener and the dog-man.” He reflects for a moment. “The dog-man,” he repeats, savouring the phrase.
“I have just travelled up from Cape Town. There are times when I feel anxious about my daughter all alone here. It is very isolated.”
“Yes,” says Petrus “it is dangerous.” He pauses. “Everything is dangerous today. But here it is all right, I think.” And he gives another smile.
David thinks he’s being nice, engaging with Petrus like an equal but he’s nearly shouting his suspicion in the man’s face. And of course there is Petrus’s first big smile. It is a slightly exaggerated gesture so we know right away to pay attention. He’s either nervous or being just as arrogant. It’s so well done. Coetzee keeps things very subtle.
This is something particularly difficult for a developing writer to learn – how to keep things to the minimum and feel confident we’ve made the emotional tension clear. In a general sense, less tends to be more. But we often have to fight our instincts about how to go about doing this – especially in today’s world of TV series and daytime drama. We’ve become quite accustomed to kitsch emotional displays, so much so they start to feel natural.
But Coetzee manages to get his characters to carry out intense, difficult discussions about uncomfortable subjects. I think this works because of how clearly Coetzee has created David. There isn’t a moment in Disgrace when we doubt that David Lurie would say what he says. From the moment the narrator introduces him to us, we can hear his voice in our heads. He’s cynical but careful. A confident intellectual but less confident in emotional territory. He wants people to listen to what he says and so he speaks slowly, precisely, intelligently but yet everything is tinted with his particular prejudices. Part of his development is to move from a place of emotional dishonesty to truthfulness, and this process is reflected quite expertly in what he says. His dialogue is also supported by a lot of internal dialogue, but not too much. Too much would bog us down instead of informing the choices he makes between what he says out loud and what he thinks.