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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Who Tells the Story and How is it Told?

J. M. Coetzee

In J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace the answer to this question is in first paragraph. The point of view (pov), the use of tense, and the lean prose remain throughout this engaging novel.

At the beginning of chapter one, we read: “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well. On Thursday afternoons he drives to Green Point. Punctually at two p.m. he presses the buzzer at the entrance to Windsor Mansions, speaks his name, and enters.”

He drives, he speaks, he enters. The story is told in present tense. Which is to say the main character will experience all that is going on as it happens, and so will the reader. Yet until page 18 in chapter three, we do not know the name of “he,” though we already know a lot about this professor, whose name is David Lurie.

I find Coetzee’s use of limited third much less cumbersome than first person. For example, page 68 (chapter 8) begins this way. “He has forgotten how cold winter mornings can be in the uplands of the Eastern Cape.” First person would force the narrator to say, “I had forgotten how….could be…” More than this, third person allows “he” who experiences what happens… to be also an alter-ego that reflects upon it. Professor Lurie is a divided man, a womanizing intellectual, and a human being, in need of existential rotations in a novel worth reading.

The novel being read with Disgrace in an experimental book club is Too Late the Phalarope (*bird in South Africa). Alan Paton wrote his novel almost fifty years before Coetzee won the 1999 Booker prize for Disgrace. From teaching for decades and being in several book clubs, I know how confusion at the beginning of a novel defeats many readers. And the first chapter of Too Late the Phalarope is difficult.

Alan Paton

On the novel’s first page, who is “I?” a reader asks. The first paragraph has 28 words, and three of them are “I.” In the second paragraph, “one” is used three times. Yet in this paragraph the “I” belongs to other than the initial narrator. In the third paragraph, who is he? And then seven more times “I” occurs for the first narrative voice. In the fourth paragraph, two more of “I.” But no one is named. And no time or place markers. Just a “voice” to tell a tragic story, and a narrator who has knowledge of all that has happened in time frames of past and present. On page two the reader is told that the unnamed boy has a father and the father’s sister will tell the story. Then at last, a name is given, Pieter; and the reader is told about him, though vaguely. The narrator does make a claim that “he was always two men.”

A reader, one would hope, senses the seriousness of this novel, hears its elevated language, and takes in the religious references. We also learn of a secret book, which the narrator has. How else could she tell the story? Then boom, we are shot into chapter two. “The Lieutenant was in Pretorius Street, in the shadow of the tall gum trees, when he heard the sound of bare feet running.” Then the paragraph gives a detailed setting, followed by third person narration in past tense. Throughout the novel, an inventive and flexible narrative voice recounts a haunting and tragic story. It is not a novel to be read only once, I assure you.

Next week: Why these novels are relevant now…

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