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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Disgrace and the notion that we read what we need to read

How strange it is that, so often, books appear to offer themselves up to readers, as if they know what is needed, they are aware that they are so closely attuned to what is going on in reader x's life.

Back in 1980, even before the dust and blood and rubble had settled in Beaufort Street, I read Anna Karenina and I had no idea why, but it was a sort of literary equivalent of being in the ring with Mohammed Ali. Every argument I tentatively held up to try to justify my indiscretions with an older, more intelligent, supremely beautiful married woman were retunred with such powerful and almost vindictive velocity by the text that I was dumbfounded, floored, forced to think again.

Maybe if I had read Madame Bovary instead I would have had a more comfortable Christmas?

Anyway, I had an echo of the same effect in the last few weeks when reading in quick succession, Zadie Smith's On Beauty and  Disgrace,  the Booker  and Nobel Prize winner by  J. M. Coetzee.

I had no idea that both books centred on the chaos caused by men in their late 50s having affairs with much younger women, girls in fact. On Beauty is thought of as Zadie Smith's tribute to the E M Forster school of big English novel of families, their sense and sensibilities. And indeed there is so much going on that it is possible to pick your own route through it and concentrate on that. Needless to say I concentrated on the far-from-pitiable figure of the art-historian dad.

He has it all, it seems; the reasonable successful academic career, the beautiful Trinidadian wife, the trio of interesting children - and above all, as Zadie Smith leaves us in no doubt about - he's an attractive and witty man, even in his late 50s. Oh yes, and he also has a bigger-than-average penis. Both he and Zadie know that this latter fact is truly at the root of his being.

So this novel has little choice but to show him messing up in a big way, which he does, against a skilfully painted landscape of ealry 21st century Anglo-American life, with all its social, religious, ethnic and political richness.

Disgrace is much tightly focussed on a man of similar age, similar career,  and similar predispositions. It is set in a harder landscape - South Africa in immediate post-apartheid years - and everything is rather sharper, tougher.

He's a divorced womaniser; when his intense but one-sided relationship with a beautiful call-girl ends abruptly, he's thrown into a bit of a crisis. "He ought to give up, retire from the game. At what age, he wonders, did Origen castrate himself?"

Well, that's the sort of question that really hits home. I wonder how many men of this sort of age in these sort of social positions ask themselves this one? Might one, he asks himself, approach a doctor and ask for it? "Severing, tying-off". Yes, we know this feeling, we also eye the kitchen knife, we also remeber Mathieu in Sartre's Roads to Freedom.

Ageing is not graceful, and old men are a hideous sight, with their priapic thoughts, and their wrinkled bodies.  I'd go for it: chemical castration on the NHS. That's why these two books fell quite by chance into my hands.

Of course, like x in On Beauty, he does not go for this drastic option and lands himself in a heap more trouble, in very similar circumstances. Which provides the grounds for the rest of the novel -  his disgrace and his struggle against notions of redemption.

The book clearly ticked all the boxes for the judges, but it does so in such a beautiful and economic stlye that you cannot begrudge its success. His stumbling steps towards redemption, the suffering he inflicts on himself and perhaps also his daughter, all these are  deeply  moving as well as shocking.

Maybe the knife is the answer after all.

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