One of the things that stands out the most to me in Disgrace is Coetzee’s narrative style. Although the novel is written in the third-person, at times it reads almost like David Lurie’s own first-person account, but with a difference-this is a first-person account told from a distance. This distancing is significant, because it also serves a performative function. That is, the distance that Lurie maintains from his own narration mimics the distance he feels from his whole life: from his strained relationship to his family, to his inabilities to make sense of social relationships in the new South Africa, and even to understand himself as a person.
Let’s take a look at a couple of examples:
Self-narrating: While David also narrates the lives of others, his narrating of his own life consumes the text. It appears as though David has spent so much time living in the past that he is unable to come to grips with the person he has become in the present moment. Take, for example, his reflections on aging. Although in earlier eras, “If he looked at a woman in a certain way, with a certain intent, she would return his look, he could rely on that” (7), at some point on his journey in life “his powers” in attracting women disappeared, and “he became a ghost [to them]” (7). Throughout the first sections of the novel, as the reader learns the story of David’s disturbing and disastrous interactions with Soraya and Melanie, we see quickly that David acts out of pure impulse in pursuing relationships with these women with little regard to what they think or feel about him. In my opinion, he does this because he is simply unwilling or unable to understand aging as a natural process in life. He is so disconnected from his present life that he cannot conceive of or accept that time has changed him as a person and has also changed how other people see him. His inabilities to process these things cause him to act on destructive impulses as a desperate attempt to cope.
Judging: Throughout the novel David is constantly judging other people, such as Lucy, Petrus and Bev Shaw, in a detached way. When he first arrives at the farm, his regard of his daughter Lucy is almost clinical in nature. David observes, “Dogs and a gun; bread in the oven and a crop in the earth. Curious that he and her mother, cityfolk, intellectuals, should have produced this throwback, this sturdy young settler. But perhaps it was not they who produced her: perhaps history had the larger share” (61). Detachment is achieved here through the way that David presents Lucy in a weird, anthropological manner, as a “sturdy” “throwback” to the current society. David invokes an additional layer of detachment in the way that he disclaims any involvement or influence in Lucy becoming the person that she is, instead chalking it up to “history.” This passage reveals how David is still stuck in the old South African ways, living out the city/country divide and absolutely unable to imagine his daughter as part of a landscape that those of his social sphere would not have previously inhabited. Oddly, the paradox here is that while David sees his daughter as a “throwback” within society, it is David’s failures to gain control of his life throughout the novel that suggest that he is the one that is out of step with the changing social environment of the new South Africa.