Art Kavanagh

Talk about books: a newsletter about things I’ve read

Present discontinuous: Tense and tension in J M Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999)

Front cover illustration Disgrace

Two weeks ago I wrote about two short stories by Louise Nealon and said that I’d post separately about her first novel, Snowflake. That post about the novel is now on my personal site.

Today’s subject was suggested to me by a recent tweet by Philip Pullman in which he objects to the use of the present tense in fiction:

I don't care how many people enjoy it, fiction in the present tense is an ABDICATION OF NARRATIVE RESPONSIBILITY. I resent having to re-calibrate my entire attitude to time whenever I open a novel in the present tense. Away with them!

— Philip Pullman (@PhilipPullman) August 18, 2022

Not long before seeing that tweet, I had read J M Coetzee’s Booker prizewinning novel Disgrace for only the second time, the first having been at least 20 years earlier. I had hated Disgrace on first reading and had (after a long gap) decided to reread it as part of what’s developing into a project of second-guessing <a href=">my original dismissal of books I read long ago. I had decided that Disgrace is a much better novel than I had originally given it credit for, but that I didn’t want to write about it. Then I read Pullman’s tweet and had third thoughts.

First, let me say that I can, with some reservations, see Pullman’s point about the use of the present tense. What I sometimes call the present historic — describing past, completed events as if they were happening right now — can be very effective in creating a sense of immediacy. I believe that for that reason it tends to be overused. Quite often, it comes across as just a shortcut or a trick to induce in the reader a feeling of being close to the action. I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say it should never be used, but I’d encourage authors to be more sparing with it than many of them are at the moment.

Coetzee’s novel has at its heart a shockingly brutal act of violence and the unexpected and partly inexplicable reaction of its principal victim. Throughout much of the novel, the author seems to be taking care to allow the reader to view the violence and its aftermath with some measure of emotional distance, of objectivity. Why, then, would he undermine these efforts by using a technique calculated to heighten the sense of immediacy?

The novel itself makes it clear that its author had thought about tense. Its protagonist, a former university professor of modern languages (and more recently adjunct professor of communications), twice refers to “[t]he perfective, signifying an action carried through to its conclusion” (p. 71). He might well refer to what I have called the present historic as the present perfective. As soon as I started to reread the novel, though, I saw something I hadn’t noticed before: this is not the only variety of the present tense that Coetzee uses.

The first five pages describe situations that, while clearly now in the past, were at one time repeated, habitual or continuing. For example:

Because he has no respect for the material he teaches, he makes no impression on his students. They look through him when he speaks, forget his name. Their indifference galls him more than he will admit. Nevertheless, he fulfils to the letter his obligations toward them, their parents, and the state. Month after month, he sets, collects, reads, and annotates their assignments, correcting lapses in punctuation, spelling and usage, interrogating weak arguments, appending to each paper a brief, considered critique. (pp. 4–5)

For a while, it seems that the author may be going to avoid the present historic completely. “Then one Saturday morning everything changes” (p. 6). For the rest of the novel the predominant tense is the present historic.

The protagonist is David Lurie and the horrific act of violence I mentioned is the rape of his daughter, Lucy, who lives on a small plot of land — she gets annoyed with her father when, late in the book, he calls it a “farm” — in the Eastern Cape, where she keeps kennels for dogs whose owners are away, and grows vegetables which she sells at the local market on Saturdays. She appears to be a lesbian — she used to live on the plot with another woman, Helen, who has now gone back to Johannesburg, apparently for good — though she also suggests to her father that she once had an abortion and isn’t prepared to have another.

Her rapists are two grown men and one younger male, probably mid-to-late teens. As well as raping Lucy, they shoot the dogs she is looking after and steal some property, including David Lurie’s car. One of them sets Lurie on fire using methylated spirits but this doesn’t cause any long-term injury except to one of his ears. Lucy is naturally unwilling to talk to her father about the rape but she does eventually tell him that one particular aspect of the attack shocked her:

“It was so personal,” she says. “It was done with such personal hatred. That was what stunned me more than anything. The rest was … expected. But why did they hate me so? I had never set eyes on them.” (p. 156)

She confirms that she is afraid the men will come back, but denies that it was that fear that prevented her from reporting the rape to the police. (The theft had to be reported or they wouldn’t get any payment from the insurance.) She adds:

“… I think they are rapists first and foremost. Stealing things is just incidental. A side-line. I think they do rape.
“You think they will come back?”
“I think I am in their territory. They’ve marked me. They will come back for me. (p. 158; all ellipses added)

Lurie is perplexed and disturbed by Lucy’s response to the attack. She won’t report it to the police; she refuses his offer to help her to move away; she maintains contact with Petrus, her neighbour and sometime employee, who seems to be protecting the youngest of the rapists. Eventually he finds out that, though she saw her doctor, she did not ask for the morning after pill. She is pregnant and will not have an abortion.

Lurie finds it impossible to refrain from nagging his daughter, urging her to behave in the way he thinks is appropriate to her situation, so she eventually has to ask him to leave. She accuses him of thinking of her as a peripheral character in the story which has him as its hero.

“… You behave as if everything I do is part of the story of your life. You are the main character, I am a minor character who doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through. Well, contrary to what you think, people are not divided into major and minor. I am not minor. I have a life of my own, just as important to me as yours is to you, and in my life I am the one who makes the decisions. (p. 198)

Coetzee has written the novel in exactly the way she describes: Lucy appears about halfway through, when the reader is used to the idea that this is David Lurie’s story, that he’s its focus. This is one of the ways in which I’ve suggested that Coetzee maintains the reader’s emotional distance from Lucy’s predicament. One result of this is that Lucy appears as a puzzle to be solved, not quite a character with her own motivations, desires and fears.

When David Lurie comes to stay on his daughter’s holding, he is fleeing a debacle that has led to the loss of his job and most of his pension — he will get back only the amount of his original contributions. He says he is “in disgrace”, while his ex-wife Rosalind assures him that he has made a laughing-stock of himself. But it was a job he detested and despised, and he can sell his house near the university — downsize — to replenish his retirement fund. As he tells Bev Shaw, the woman who puts the sick, suffering and merely unwanted dogs to sleep:

“… Teaching was never a vocation for me. Certainly I never aspired to teach people how to live. I was what used to be called a scholar. I wrote books about dead people. That was where my heart was. I taught only to make a living. (p. 162)

The scholarly aspect of his job had already evaporated with the “rationalization” that turned the former Cape Town University College into the Cape Technical University. He hasn’t lost anything that he valued, at least not recently. The word “disgrace” reappears in his discourse but this time he applies it to his daughter, not himself:

She would rather hide her face and he knows why. Because of the disgrace. Because of the shame. (p. 115)

So, what is Coetzee up to, apparently trying to create immediacy and distance at the same time? My guess is that his aim is to disorient and disconcert the reader, to pull us in different directions. If that’s the aim, I have to admit to not enjoying the experience very much. I’m no happier than David Lurie is at being reminded “what women undergo at the hands of men” (p. 111), though maybe I should be.

Finally, then, I’m much more willing to acknowledge the strengths of Coetzee’s writing than I was on first reading, but this is still not a book I like. I don’t usually write about books or stories that I haven’t enjoyed. A reviewer might have a responsibility to do so — to warn readers about bad reads as much as to alert them to good ones — but I tend not to write reviews. Next time it will be something lighter.

Edition: Quotations are from the Secker & Warburg hardback, 1999

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