Late last year I read J.M. Coetzee’s Booker and Nobel Prize-winning 1999 novel, Disgrace. No surprise, perhaps, that it was no ordinary reading experience, despite resemblances: the waffling intellectual recluse subject more and more, over time, to purely physical oeuvres—despite elsewise ambitions; the father out of step with the child now grown and maturer, it seems to him, than he himself ever was; the tragedy that wrenches past dormancies awake. Chances are you’ve heard and read this before. What makes Disgrace such a Trojan Horse, however, is that it allows this dark turn as much gravity as a black hole; not just another plot point or haunting chapter of the past, but as much the story and characters themselves as the lens through which they are eventually understood. While Lurie and his daughter Lucy are in no way singly defined by these horrific infringements on their persons, it is an event which profoundly changes them, and Coetzee’s novel spends its remaining time trying—as would any one of us—to make sense of it, triangulate its every retrievable moment, and to accept it finally as a wound that has, sewn or not, left an eternal scar.
In the exchange you are about to read between Coetzee and psychologist Arabella Kurtz, you will hear Coetzee express his not having “much respect for reality,” which is both fascinating and strange given that, as I say, the primary pull of Disgrace is its realism; its making so intimately, uncomprehendingly large what most of us would only (perhaps could only) credit as a small occurrence relative to the incessant flashes of words barked from nightly newsreels. It’s worth meditating over the fact that a writer can, like Coetzee or Flaubert (whom he discusses), have such a “low opinion” of reality and still write—as both do—characters forced to have, if not the highest opinion of it, the highest respect. (Think Madame Bovary.)
This discussion (a single chapter excerpted from the full book, which I now have every intention to read) asks whether the “truer” account of one’s history is always the “better” one. In Disgrace, Lucy decides simply not to believe what has happened to her, devising instead an alternate past with the awful chapter in question exorcised, and Lurie spends much of the novel’s breath trying to convince her that the truth, however horrible, must be believed.
Here it is Coetzee—who I’d assumed in reading Disgrace was more sympathetic to Lurie’s point of view than Lucy’s—arguing for the personally constructed history over its (not always laborious to expose) alternative. Kurtz, for her part, doubts of necessity (from her professional experience) the possibility—preferability aside—of personal histories that are not fundamentally constructed. I take this to mean that we are caught in an uncomfortable borderlands between making of reality what we “choose”, and making nothing of it at all. If that is true, then Flaubert’s aspiration to “write a book about nothing, a book that would be held together by the mutual tensions of its component parts rather than by its correspondence to any real world,” as Coetzee describes, is accomplished from the very first page by every book written.