Aesthetic Value of Disgrace

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

The Man Booker Prize awarded to JM Coetzee’s controversial Disgrace and its corresponding praise and criticism, both subjective and objective, vindicates my view that this novel has great aesthetic value as a literary work of art. It has both inherent and consequential value as literature and can be placed in the category of high art.

Disgrace has inherent value through its scholarly use of literary devices and its sophisticated use of language which is aesthetically pleasing to the reading eye. A popular phrase used in literary circles to describe Coetzee’s prose is “narrative which is chiselled and razor-sharp “. It cuts to the bone.  Creative writing teachers have advised against the merits of using the present tense narrative voice and advocated use of the more familiar past tense. I favour use of the present tense, because it places the story in context with its immediate space and is dramatic.

The opening sentence to Disgrace is powerful and memorable;

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

In one short sentence the reader is introduced to David Lurie. The reader’s expectations, already heightened through the suggestion of sex, may be perturbed to find that Soraya, a prostitute, is “surprisingly moralistic”. Lurie does not question her morality, but the reader may. The first page thus sets the tone for what is to follow and invites a psycho-analytical and consequential analysis of the text.

byron

Themes of alienation, post colonialism and intertextuality are used in conjunction with the theme of ethics.

The narrative derives its consequential value not only in characters’ responses to the behaviour of the story’s protagonist, and to each other, but in the readers’ responses to the text. The reader’s awareness of Lurie’s predicament and his unaccustomed place in a changing landscape is accentuated through the foregrounding of the above-mentioned literary devices.

The protagonist’s alienation and isolation in a new administrative order, and his love for Romantic poetry is highlighted through intertextual references to Byron and Wordsworth, two Romantic poets. The state of affairs on Lucy’s farm before and after her rape is emphasised through Lurie’s critical concern for his daughter’s well-being and his comments about the rapists and her neighbour, Petrus, particularly when Petrus dismisses the behaviour of the African youths.

Coetzee’s deployment of the intertext is masterful. He juxtaposes present day events in the lives of Lurie, his daughter, Lucy, his student, Melanie, and Petrus, Lucy’s custodian, precisely with past historical events such as the life and times of Byron, the Romantic poet. His concern with colonialism is influential in lending detail to his characters’ interactions with the landscape, both physical and metaphysical.

J M Coetzee has often been described as a literary aesthete. He does not advocate such a loud response to the consequential value of his novel, however, he is assured that his work is ultimately of more inherent value as a literary tour de force.

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