What I learned from Disgrace

In Uncategorized on December 14, 2010 at 3:03 pm

You only get one chance to state your case.  So keep it sparse, but make every word count, as if your career depended on it.  It does.  It is by your words that you will be judged.  Each one has to earn its own keep.  If it doesn’t add, advance, inform or evoke then excise it from your manuscript.

On two levels this became apparent to me in J.M. Coetzee’s Booker Prize novel “Disgrace”.  On the story level, which speaks to me as a reader, the main character does not waste time with any unnecessary verbiage, as is clear in the excerpt I have included below.  On the technical level, which speaks to me as a writer, I am in awe of his economy.  His story is pared down, well-paced and extremely powerful.

 In this book, the Nobel Prize winning author tells the story of a literature professor at Cape Town University who gives in to his carnal desires and pressures a young female student into a sexual relationship. He is hauled before a university committee of inquiry to answer the charges against him.  Here is an excerpt of what follows:

”That is the sum of it? Those are the charges?”

“They are.”

He takes a deep breath. “I am sure the members of this committee have better things to do with their time than rehash a story over which there will be no dispute.  I plead guilty to both charges. Pass sentence and let us get on with our lives.”

Hakim leans across to Mathabane. Murmured words pass between them.

“Professor Lurie,” says Hakim, “I must repeat, this is a committee of inquiry.  Its role is to hear both sides of the case and make a recommendation.  It has no power to take decisions.  Again, I ask would it not be better if you were represented by someone familiar with our procedures.”

“I don’t need representation.  I can represent myself perfectly well. Do I understand that, despite the plea I have entered, we must continue with the hearing?’

“We want to give you an opportunity to state your position.”

“I have stated my position. I am guilty.”

“Guilty of what?”

“Of all that I am charged with.”

“You are taking us in circles, Professor Lurie.”

“Of everything that Ms Isaacs avers, and of keeping false records.”

Now Farodia Rassool intervenes. “You say you accept Ms Isaacs’s statement, Professor Lurie, but have you actually read it?”

“I do not wish to read Ms Isaacs’s statement.  I accept it. I know of no reason why Ms Isaacs should lie.”

“But would it not be prudent to actually read the statement before accepting it?”

“No, there are more important things in life than being prudent.”

Disgrace is a complex story of one man’s struggle with his nature, advancing middle-age, and his intransigent honesty about both, set against the violence, turmoil and racial tension in a changing South Africa. The economy of his words belies the complexity of the story.  We can all learn from Disgrace.  I encourage you to read it.


Click here to see Linda Dorrington’s biography.

  1. Great review. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks!

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