Re-reading/Coetzee’s Disgrace


1. If the Chinese writing system is not part of your cultural repertoire, this sentence is quite literally unreadable. You may recognize it as Chinese but is it Mandarin or Cantonese? Recasting it in pinyin may make it more legible in the most basic sense—that is pronounceable—if you are familiar with Latinate writing systems:

Tā juédé, duì zìjǐ zhèyàng niánjì wǔ’èrshí suì, jiéguò hūn yòu líle hūn de nánrén lái shuō, xìng xūqiú de wèntí kě suànshì jiějué dé xiāngdāng bùcuòle.

Yet, even in this form, you are still likely to be left guessing. How exactly do you say ‘xìng’, for instance? Even if English is not your first language, you will probably feel more comfortable with the following translation:

In his opinion, as a 52-year-old man who got married and then divorced, he solves the problem of sex very well.

By this point, if you have read J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999), you may have recognized this as a version of his own first sentence:

For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well. (1)

Like the back translation, these twenty familiar English words pose no real difficulties when it comes to pronunciation and even their sense, individually and grammatically, is clear. And yet this is one of the most opaquely transparent opening sentences ever written, making it, for the English-reading world, the literary equivalent of a koan. Why is this? And what sense are we to make of it?

2. To get a purchase on its koan-like qualities we need to look not only to the tradition of creative doubt which is central to Zen Buddhism, but to the history of the European novel and, more particularly, to Coetzee’s dialogue with Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857). Disgrace itself draws attention to this key literary relationship at a number of levels. For one thing, Flaubert’s boldly and, in its day, scandalously innovative novel is explicitly tagged as a part of the central protagonist David Lurie’s cultural repertoire. While dwelling on the pleasures of his ‘assignation’ with the Muslim prostitute Soraya, Lurie identifies himself with Flaubert’s heroine: ‘He thinks of Emma Bovary, coming home sated, glazen-eyed, from an afternoon of reckless fucking’ (5). Later, after his dutiful, adulterous ‘congress’ with Bev Shaw, the ‘dumpy’ vet who runs an animal refuge in which he ends up working as a volunteer, he boastfully imagines Bev singing to herself in front of the mirror—‘I have a lover! I have a lover!’—again like Emma (72, 150). These allusions reflect back on the content of Disgrace itself, inviting readers to think of it as a self-conscious recasting of Flaubert’s disaster story of illegitimate desire, now told not from the perspective of a young, provincial bourgeois woman in post-revolutionary France but from Lurie’s point of view as a middle-aged, middle-class, white academic of Jewish heritage in post-apartheid South Africa.

3. Yet it is at the narrative rather than the character level that the idea of Disgrace as a creative re-writing of Madame Bovary becomes most compelling. Like the basic content of the story, this is visible on every page, since it concerns Coetzee’s use of style indirect libre, Flaubert’s innovative narrative technique that contributed both to Madame Bovary’s initial notoriety and to its subsequent canonical status in the history of the European novel. The consequences of this, which are not only technical, can be seen most clearly through comparison.

3.1 I’ll take just one example from Madame Bovary: the account of Emma’s fantasies about Rodolphe, her latest lover, in Chapter 12. By this stage, she is already long-settled into her boring marriage and the disappointments of motherhood. After explicitly signalling that ‘she lay awake, dreaming other dreams’, the third-person narrator, who uses the conventionally novelistic past tense throughout, describes the glamorous life she anticipates leading with Rodolphe, shifting into the hypothetical future conditional. Among other things, Emma imagines they would ‘ride in gondolas, they’d laze in swaying hammocks, and their life would be free and flowing like their silken garments, warm and star-studded like the soft night skies they’d gaze at’ (174). In a move characteristic of Flaubert’s technique, the narrator not only enters the time of fantasy—the future conditional—he (?) ventriloquizes Emma, adopting the language she herself borrows from the popular romances she read as a girl. During her convent-school education, as we learn in Chapter 6, she developed a taste for pre-revolutionary aristocratic love stories that describe ‘wounded hearts, vows, sobs, tears, and kisses, gondolas by moonlight, nightingales in woods, and “gentlemen” brave as lions’ (34). The allusion to the Venetian scenes she read about earlier is understated, but the narrator ensures that when they resurface in Chapter 12 via the device of style indirect libre the deflationary, ironizing effect is clear. ‘Everything hovered in a harmonious, sun-drenched, bluish haze along the boundless horizon’, the sequence ends, ‘but then the child in her crib would cough, or else Bovary would give a louder snore, and Emma would not fall asleep till morning’ (174). At this point, as we move from the romanticized fantasies Emma articulates in her own borrowed idiom to the narrator’s external commentary and from the hypothetical future conditional to the dull routines of Emma’s daily life, her dream-world implodes and we are left thinking about the very different love story that is Madame Bovary itself.

3.2 Contrast this with Coetzee’s opening sentence: ‘For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well’ (1). Again, as in Flaubert, we have a disembodied third-person narrator reporting what is going on in the mind of the central protagonist. The only difference is that this narrator adopts the present tense—in this instance, the present perfect, signifying a completed action—and gives no cues about the provenance of the idiom used. Though the phrase ‘to his mind’ relativizes the second clause, there is no indication at this point that any of the words belong to Lurie himself. A few pages on, after Lurie becomes embroiled in a sexual scandal with a student, which ultimately costs him his job, various subsequent cues indicate otherwise. This is not just because, as the plot reveals, Lurie clearly has not solved the problem of sex at all, but because we begin to see that thinking of sex as a ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’ is one of Lurie’s many problems. As this phrasing suggests, Lurie is not only a devotee and teacher of English Romantic poetry, he is also an adherent of the European Enlightenment tradition. Both traditions play a part in the way he thinks about desire. In his various attempts at justifying his sexual adventurism to his lesbian daughter Lucy, for instance, he switches from citing William Blake—‘Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires’—to making rationalistic appeals to what he calls the ‘rights of desire’ (69, 89).

4. Seen against this background, we can not only identify the phrase ‘solved the problem of sex’ as Lurie’s. We can begin to appreciate its oddly self-cancelling status. It is as if we can, on a second reading, re-write the first sentence as follows: ‘For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.’ The same can be said for many other passages in which the third-person narrator adopts Lurie’s idiom. Take the following account of the forced sexual encounter with the student Melanie that precipitates his fall from grace:

He carries her to the bedroom, brushes off the absurd slippers, kisses her feet, astonished by the feeling she evokes. Something to do with the apparition on the stage: the wig, the wiggling bottom, the crude talk. Strange love! Yet from the quiver of Aphrodite, goddess of the foaming waves, no doubt about that. (25)

This represents a significant re-working of Flaubert’s style indirect libre. Unlike Flaubert, who ironizes Emma’s romantic idiom, playing her future conditional fantasies off against her mundane life as a wife and mother, Coetzee uses and then cancels Lurie’s high-minded phraseology, inviting us to take it, on a first reading, as an unmarked, apparently secure justification in the voice of the narrator, and then, on a second, as a marked, and now suspect self-description or rationalization on Lurie’s part. The fact that all this takes place, for us as readers, in the perpetually unfolding narrative present only compounds the uncertainties.

Disgrace title
Title as represented on the initial cover design for the first UK edition

5. A passage from the postscript to Coetzee’s next foray into literary writing Elizabeth Costello (2003)—Lady Chandos’s letter to Lord Bacon which its itself a reworking of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Ein Brief (1902)—sums up the peculiar, koan-like effect of continuous composition and decomposition Disgrace creates when we consider its dialogue with Madame Bovary at the level of form. ‘Like a wayfarer (hold the figure in mind, I pray you),’ Lady Chandos writes, attempting to describe her own growing scepticism about language, ‘like a wayfarer I step into a mill, dark and disused, and feel of a sudden the floorboards, rotten with wetness, give way beneath my feet and plunge me into the racing mill-waters’ (228). By turning the technique of style indirect libre, which Flaubert used for ironic purposes, into a device of linguistic self-cancellation, Coetzee patched together a narrative of rotten floorboards, and, in the process, fashioned a literary critique not just of the English language but of the Humboldtian ‘worldview’ Lurie’s culture-laden idiom encodes (see the ‘Re-Reading Humboldt’ post).

6. This is true not just of the way Lurie thinks about desire but of his worldview more generally. Take his attitudes to animals. Initially he is indifferent to them, an indifference he characteristically rationalizes by citing chapter and verse from the European tradition. ‘The Church Fathers had a long debate about them, and decided they don’t have proper souls,’ he tells Lucy (78). Later, when he is thinking about two sheep bought to slaughter for a party, Descartes, another European exponent of the belief in animals as a sub-order of useful things, now couched in the terms of Enlightenment rationalism, surfaces in a passage of style indirect libre that might be rendered as follows:

Sheep do not own themselves, do not own their lives. They exist to be used, every last ounce of them, their flesh to be eaten, their bones to be crushed and fed to poultry. Nothing escapes, except perhaps the gall bladder, which no one will eat. Descartes should have thought of that. The soul, suspended in the dark, bitter gall, hiding. (123-24)

A few paragraphs later, all this assertion collapses when ‘a bond seems to have come into existence between himself and the two Persians, he does not know how’—all he knows is that ‘suddenly and without reason, their lot has become important to him’ (126).

7. Or take the account of his actions on the final pages. By surrendering the maimed dog he has befriended to be destroyed, Lurie reveals he no longer believes the Christian and Cartesian doctrines about animals he once held. Yet, in keeping with the way the Disgrace re-works Flaubert’s style indirect libre, the narrative continues to show him attempting to conceptualize his actions in various ways. The vet’s ‘operating room’ in which he works alongside Bev, Lurie now sees, having changed his mind about animals—or rather having had it changed for him—is a place ‘where the soul is yanked out of the body’, or, in another, less theological formulation, he thinks of it as a ‘room that is not a room Disgrace dogbut a hole where one leaks out of existence’ (219). Similarly, the concluding paragraphs do not resolve the question of what to call the ‘sessions’ in which he and Bev are engaged (218). Are they, as particularly freighted free indirect foreign word suggests, acts of ‘Lösung’ (218)? ‘German always to hand with an appropriately blank abstraction’, Lurie observes earlier (142). Though the word literally means ‘solution’—hence Lurie’s comments on ‘sublimation, as alcohol is sublimed from water, leaving no residue’—it inevitably carries echoes of ‘Endlösung’, the official Nazi term for the ‘Final Solution’ (142). We might also recall Lurie’s apparently final solution to another seemingly rational ‘problem’ in the first sentence. Or are the ‘sessions’ dignifying, even sacrosanct acts of ‘love’, as Lurie himself comes to learn from Bev (219)? In the penultimate paragraph he enters the surgery ‘bearing’ the maimed dog ‘like a lamb’, and, in answer to Bev’s question, declares: ‘Yes, I am giving him up’—perhaps, recalling Lurie’s Jewishness, we could say like Abraham when he is called by his Old Testament god to sacrifice Isaac (220).

8. Lurie may now understand his actions in this way, but Disgrace remains non-committal, given the use it makes of the device of self-cancellation. Probing the limits of Lurie’s world from within, it questions his language and all it carries in its wake at every turn, treating his English less as a transparent medium of expression than as a shaky assemblage of rotten floorboards badly in need of renovation—one of which is Madame BovaryYet, since Flaubert’s novel is also part of Coetzee’s repertoire as a writer, its status in Disgrace is double-edged: if it is a questionable element of Lurie’s European heritage, it is also an animating antecedent that enabled Coetzee to extend his interrogation of the European novel, prompting koan-like creative doubts among his English readers in new ways and, in the ideal case, plunging them into the racing mill-waters in which their own culturally-embedded idioms and forms of knowledge might be seen more clearly for what they are and be transformed. Compare the plunge the contemporary author-figure takes into other waters in the last section of Foe (1986), the first three parts of which are patched together out of Daniel Defoe’s turgidly dense eighteenth-century English (see Chapter 5 of the book and the ‘Timothy Garton Ash’ post).


This is a revised, edited and adapted version of an extract from ‘Coetzee’s Critique of Language’, my chapter contribution to Beyond the Ancient Quarrel: Literature, Philosophy and J. M. Coetzee, eds. Patrick Hayes and Jan Wilm (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). I am grateful to Liang Dong for his help translating the Mandarin edition of Disgrace.

J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace (London: Secker & Warburg, 1999).

———., 耻 (Chǐ, Disgrace or Shame), trans. 张冲 (Zhāng Chōng) and 郭整风 (Guō Zhěngfēng) (Nanjing: Yilin Press, 2010). This is the Mandarin edition.

———., Elizabeth Costello (London: Secker & Warburg, 2003).

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, trans. Margaret Mauldon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

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