domingo, janeiro 28, 2007

Pointing the way

Over the course of each month, John Mullan deconstructs a notable novel available in paperback.
He concludes his series on JM Coetzee's Booker-winning Disgrace by considering the title
Saturday June 22, 2002The Guardian

Both novelists and their publishers care very much about titles, knowing that they are the way in which a book first reaches out to its potential readers. Coetzee's title seems forbidding rather than inviting. It does not just declare an unconsoling theme, it insists on it. We are being told what the novel - for all its characters and locations and events - is really about.

The title sensitises a reader and shapes interpretation. "The whole thing is disgraceful from beginning to end," David Lurie's ex-wife says of his affair with his student. "Disgraceful and vulgar too." Because of the book's title, we notice her easy, vulgar use of "disgraceful", an empty expression of exasperation. People should not be so foolish. We notice too how "disgrace" means so much more than she realises. In this novel, disgrace is what enables an ultimate kind of self-recognition.

Refusing to display the token penitence demanded by his university, Lurie comes to experience a deeper feeling of disgrace. He is made to feel old, futile, ashamed. The would-be "servant of Eros" is a mere predator. He is driven to a strange "ceremony" of self-abasement before the family of the girl he has forced himself on; "he gets to his knees and touches his forehead to the floor". He tries to accept "disgrace as my state of being". He loses everything as a punishment for the affair and disgrace is his feeling that this is what he deserves.

Coetzee is not alone among practising novelists in announcing his works with one-word abstractions. In recent years, there have been plenty. Salman Rushdie's Shame and Fury, Peter Carey's Bliss, Anita Brookner's Providence and AS Byatt's Possession. Most recently there has been Ian McEwan's Atonement. They risk sounding like novels with theories in mind by writers with an academic training, taught to prize stories for their significant "themes". Each title is a hefty nudge to the future undergraduate, a clue as to how an essay should go.

Novelists started using abstract-noun titles at the beginning of the 19th century for essentially didactic purposes. As well as those that came in pairs - Elizabeth Inchbald's Nature and Art (1796) or Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility (1811) - there were novels like Mary Brunton's Self-Control (1811) and Maria Edgeworth's Patronage (1814). The lessons of these were unswerving. Brunton's heroine discovers the joys of "chastened affection" and "tempered desires". Edgeworth's novel displays in endless detail the evils of patronage.

The one subtle early example is Austen's Persuasion (a title decided by her brother after her death, but probably in accordance with her wishes). The novel explores what persuades people not to follow their inclinations, but does not exactly recommend or condemn "persuasion".
With modernism, such titles became open to ironical use by writers such as Joseph Conrad. His novel Chance (1914) shows how actions are determined by psychological necessity; Victory (1915) is about the salvation that may be found in defeat. When Conrad died, he left a novel, tantalisingly incomplete, called Suspense. He also wrote a wonderful novella called Youth (about not being young any more) which, not coincidentally, is the title of Coetzee's most recent novel.
In Disgrace, those who feel disgraced are also those who are punished. Lucy is gang-raped, but the men who do it are happy with themselves. It is she who seems to taste disgrace, taught the lesson of her weakness and made to suffer for the sins of her white tribe. As if she deserved it.

Lurie cannot save his daughter. "Lucy's secret; his disgrace". He is stripped of all that once gave him power and authority. He has become a "dog-man". He observes that the unwanted dogs he helps put down "flatten their ears" and "droop their tails", "as if they too feel the disgrace of dying". As if disgrace were the recognition of what is most terrible in life.

So, in the end, Coetzee's title is rather like those tutelary titles of the early 19th century. It suggests not just a theme but a lesson. Disgrace is salutary, even necessary. It also contests in advance the common assumption that the novel is some kind of allegory of the state of South Africa. The singular abstraction of this title suggests that the book wants to bring to life some universal condition.

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