Thursday, June 21, 2007


I just finished reading Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee. You may have heard of it... the book took the Booker Prize in 1999, the author was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. A well-regarded book from a well-regarded author, obviously, and not at all my usual sort of thing. But my father was reading it on our flight home from Toronto (we had been attending Spring Reunion at Trinity College— it's been 10 years for me, and 40 for him), and he kept laughing to himself and muttering things. So, of course, I had to know what was so funny.

Disgrace is very well written, but it wasn't my cup of tea, and I doubt I'll ever re-read it. This is in no way a criticism of the writing, which is superb: it's the subject matter that I disagree with, and that is my priviledge.

The disgrace referred to in the title (or at least the chief and most obvious disgrace) comes about when 52-year-old protagonist Professor David Lurie has an affair with one of his students, a girl named Melanie, and of course he ends up being dismissed for harassment and abuse of power. I found the whole premise distinctly off-putting, and the protagonist rather distasteful: an old professor lusting after a young college student, but then acting on it (and once rather against her will too), and then admitting his guilt but refusing to be sorry. The slyness and flirtatiousness of the girl affected me in a negative way also, almost as if these attributes somehow were supposed to mitigate the professor's behaviour. Coetzee makes the point that what ostensibly started as a mutual relationship became the basis for a harassment accusation after the fact, and equally the point that a confession of guilt may be demanded but repentance can't be compelled— but that doesn't make me like these characters any better. The fact that the professor uses prostitutes, including one younger than the college student, not once but twice during the novel, only serves to alienate me further. He also has an unemotional affair with a woman that he considers dumpy and unattractive, which seems vaguely offensive as well.

Actually, I feel rather badly saying I didn't completely enjoy such a well-written novel. The prose itself is clever and beautiful. The dry humour is entertaining; I can see what made my father laugh— in particular, the portrait of modern academia is killingly apt. And there were elements of the plot that I found very good indeed. There is some political subject matter in Disgrace, which is set in South Africa, switching between Cape Town and "the uplands of the Eastern Cape"; I am no expert, but to me it was interesting and well-handled. There is also a gritty storyline about recovery from robbery and rape, which is needfully grim and distressing, and again well-handled. Coetzee is clearly a master writer.

I think what I wanted, and didn't get, from this novel was one uplifting moment. That's a personal bias of mine; I like some hope with my fiction. The professor sees himself as "just an old lag serving out [his] sentence", equating the remainder of his existence with imprisonment. And the very last scene of the book, while poignant and beautifully written, is... well... not how I wanted it to end. Just more gritty reality, no light at the end of the tunnel.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Birth of Venus

For some reason, I just had to re-read The Birth of Venus for what must be the third or fourth time.

Subtitled "Love and Death in Florence", this powerful novel by British writer Sarah Dunant is described by Simon Schama as being "a beautiful serpent of a novel, seductive and dangerous". I don't know about "dangerous", exactly, but edgy and subversive it certainly is at times. "Serpent" may also seem to be an odd choice of word to describe a novel, but in this case it makes sense on reading the book.

A classic coming-of-age tale, the story centres around Alexandra, a young girl growing into womanhood in Renaissance Italy. She is surrounded by privilege and luxury, but also by education, fabulous art and artists, creativity... and splendid fabrics; her father is a cloth merchant. All the requisite elements of the coming-of-age story are present: sibling rivalry, rebellion against parents, independence and adventurousness in the heroine, and of course love in many forms.

Be warned, though, that despite a Renaissance backdrop, this book takes a swing at a number of edgy issues, including homosexuality and adultery. People who are uncomfortable with a discussion of these topics may not enjoy this book.

Sarah Dunant, originally a writer of mysteries & crime fiction, has lost none of her skill in creating suspense with this move away from genre writing. Clever plot twists and moments of discovery keep the story moving along at an exciting pace.

Note: Try to figure out the identity of the Painter before the end of the book. Bonus points for guessing the secret that Alexandra's mother keeps.