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The Nobel Prize in Literature 2003
J. M. Coetzee

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Prose

Excerpts from Disgrace

Illustration Excerpts selected by the Nobel Library of the Swedish Academy.

(Pages 111-112 and 183-184)

 

As gently as he can, he offers his question again. 'Lucy, my dearest, why don't you want to tell? It was a crime. There is no shame in being the object of a crime. You did not choose to be the object. You are an innocent party.'

Sitting across the table from him, Lucy draws a deep breath, gathers herself, then breathes out again and shakes her head.

'Can I guess?' he says. 'Are you trying to remind me of something?'

'Am I trying to remind you of what?'

'Of what women undergo at the hands of men.'

'Nothing could be further from my thoughts. This has nothing to do with you, David. You want to know why I have not laid a particular charge with the police. I will tell you, as long as you agree not to raise the subject again. The reason is that, as far as I am concerned, what happened to me is a purely private matter. In another time, in another place it might be held to be a public matter. But in this place, at this time, it is not. It is my business, mine alone.'

'This place being what?'

'This place being South Africa.'

'I don't agree. I don't agree with what you are doing. Do you think that by meekly accepting what happened to you, you can set yourself apart from farmers like Ettinger? Do you think what happened here was an exam: if you come through, you get a diploma and safe conduct into the future, or a sign to paint on the door-lintel that will make the plague pass you by? That is not how vengeance works, Lucy. Vengeance is like a fire. The more it devours, the hungrier it gets.'

'Stop it, David! I don't want to hear this talk of plagues and fires. I am not just trying to save my skin. If that is what you think, you miss the point entirely.'

'Then help me. Is it some form of private salvation you are trying to work out? Do you hope you can expiate the crimes of the past by suffering in the present?'

'No. You keep misreading me. Guilt and salvation are abstractions. I don't act in terms of abstractions. Until you make an effort to see that, I can't help you.'

He wants to respond, but she cuts him short. 'David, we agreed. I don't want to go on with this conversation.'

Never yet have they been so far and so bitterly apart. He is shaken.

/- - -/

Working as swiftly as he can, holding tight to Teresa, he tries to sketch out the opening pages of a libretto. Get the words down on paper, he tells himself. Once that is done it will all be easier. Then there will be time to search through the masters - through Gluck, for instance - lifting melodies, perhaps - who knows? - lifting ideas too.

But by steps, as he begins to live his days more fully with Teresa and the dead Byron, it becomes clear that purloined songs will not be good enough, that the two will demand a music of their own. And, astonishingly, in dribs and drabs, the music comes. Sometimes the contour of a phrase occurs to him before he has a hint of what the words themselves will be; sometimes the words call forth the cadence; sometimes the shade of a melody, having hovered for days on the edge of hearing, unfolds and blessedly reveals itself. As the action begins to unwind, furthermore, it calls up of its own accord modulations and transitions that he feels in his blood even when he has not the musical resources to realize them.

At the piano he sets to work piecing together and writing down the beginnings of a score. But there is something about the sound of the piano that hinders him: too rounded, too physical, too rich. From the attic, from a crate full of old books and toys of Lucy's, he recovers the odd little seven-stringed banjo that he bought for her on the streets of KwaMashu when she was a child. With the aid of the banjo he begins to notate the music that Teresa, now mournful, now angry, will sing to her dead lover, and that pale-voiced Byron will sing back to her from the land of the shades.

The deeper he follows the Contessa into her underworld, singing her words for her or humming her vocal line, the more inseparable from her, to his surprise, becomes the silly plink-plonk of the toy banjo. The lush arias he had dreamed of giving her he quietly abandons; from there it is but a short step to putting the instrument into her hands. Instead of stalking the stage, Teresa now sits staring out over the marshes toward the gates of hell, cradling the mandolin on which she accompanies herself in her lyric flights; while to one side a discreet trio in knee-breeches (cello, flute, bassoon) fill in the entr'actes or comment sparingly between stanzas.

 

Excerpts from Disgrace
Copyright © J. M. Coetzee 1999
Published by Secker & Warburg, London, 1999
ISBN 0 436 20489 4

Published by permission of J. M. Coetzee and Secker & Warburg, London.

 

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