Archive | March, 2011

“Disgrace,” by J.M. Coetzee

11 Mar

“Disgrace,” by J.M. Coetzee (218p)

South African Nobel Prize winning author J.M. Coetzee won the Booker Prize for 1999’s Disgrace. It is a story about a South African literary scholar and professor who “disgraces” himself at his job and in society, and runs away to redeem himself in the country in a telling of modern life in Post-Apartheid South Africa.

(plot summary from Wikipedia)
David Lurie is a South African professor of English who loses everything: his reputation, his job, his peace of mind, his good looks, his dreams of artistic success, and finally even his ability to protect his own daughter. He is twice-divorced and dissatisfied with his job as a Communications professor, teaching one specialized class in Romantic literature at a technical university in Cape Town in post-apartheid South Africa. His “disgrace” comes when he seduces one of his students and he does nothing to protect himself from its consequences. Lurie was working on Lord Byron at the time of his disgrace, and “the irony is that he comes to grief from an escapade that Byron would have thought distinctly timid.” He is dismissed from his teaching position, after which he takes refuge on his daughter’s farm in the Eastern Cape. For a time, his daughter’s influence and natural rhythms of the farm promise to harmonise his discordant life. But the balance of power in the country is shifting. Shortly after becoming comfortable with rural life, he is forced to come to terms with the aftermath of an attack on the farm in which his daughter is raped and impregnated and he is violently assaulted.

In many ways, Disgrace is a bit of an unusual novel, at least for me anyway. I say unusual because J.M. Coetzee has a very distinct style in the way he writes. His style lends itself to short, sharp and precise sentences which never meanders and drones on and on like authors have a tendency to do. Disgrace is also told at a relentless pace and moves from event to event, act to act, rather quickly. It is quite a short novel for this reason. But the skill in which Coetzee tells the story of David Lurie and his “disgrace” never suffers from the telling at such a swift pace, and the reader gets a full understanding of the self-destruction this man puts himself through with his inability to make the right choices. Lurie’s systematic destruction of his own life and career is met with a continual indifference to his own plight, as if he were a man that simply didn’t care about himself or the consequences of his own actions against himself because of his need to fulfil his vices and desires of lust.

Lurie is quite a complicated character and interesting in many ways. For one thing, even though he is the protagonist of the novel and the central figure of all the events which occur within it, he is a completely unlikeable character. Rude, pompous, arrogant, narcissistic, condescending, and conniving are all words I would use to describe David Lurie. That is not to say he doesn’t care about just himself. As he moves on from Cape Town and flees from his disgrace, Lurie’s deep love and care for his only child, Lucy, clearly becomes evident. From this readers understand Lurie would do anything for Lucy and indeed, I was under the impression she is the only thing Lurie cares more about than himself. Lucy is just as complicated and altogether messed up as her father is and displays a number of similar characteristics to him, with the difference being Lurie is a wildly passionate man while Lucy displayed a coldness and an unwillingness to do anything than her lot in life.

Lurie and Lucy are the two most prominent characters of note, but the other characters in Disgrace are similarly unlikeable. If I had to meet them, I wouldn’t exactly be on great terms with them I think. All of this is told against the backdrop of post-apartheid South Africa, a country in which the social issues run so deep it is hard to imagine. Coetzee does not shy away from this and explores the difficulties in rural South Africa between once dominant whites and the poor black majority. It is a dangerous place to be and one in which there is a daily struggle for survival amidst poverty, corruption, theft and rape. The fact that South Africa is probably one of the worst countries in the world is never left ignored in Disgrace – Coetzee never lets readers forget just what a dangerous country it is outside the relative safeties of Cape Town and other such cities.

As I said at the beginning of this review, J.M. Coetzee is a Nobel Prize winning author and received the Booker Prize for Disgrace, so when I picked up Disgrace a few months ago I did so in the knowledge that it would probably be good. An author doesn’t win the Nobel Prize for Literature by producing same old, same old unimaginative garbage. Certainly Disgrace did not disappoint and is an excellent novel, one in which I found no difficulty in reading or enjoying the story. The characters are different, the setting is one in which provides an immensely interesting backdrop, and the story is ultimately one of redemption – who can’t understand and relate to Lurie in some way? We have all made mistakes in our lives before. For that reason readers should enjoy Disgrace and find it a compelling story, if not find its main characters to be a pair of tosspots.

9/10.

“Azincourt,” by Bernard Cornwell

3 Mar

“Azincourt,” by Bernard Cornwell (453p)

Azincourt is a stand-alone novel by British author Bernard Cornwell. Published in 2009, Azincourt depicts the infamous Battle of Agincourt in 1415 of the Lancastrian Hundred Years War and the story of archer Nicholas Hook, a commoner with a dark past.

(plot summary from BernardCornwell.net)
Agincourt (Azincourt in French) is one of the most famous battles ever fought; the victory of a small, despised, sick and hungry army over an enemy that massively outnumbered it. Azincourt, the novel coming soon, tells the story of that small army; how it embarked from England confident of victory, but was beaten down and horribly weakened by the stubborn French defence of Harfleur. By the end of that siege common-sense dictated that the army sail for home, but Henry V was stubbornly convinced that God was on his side and insisted on marching from Harfleur to Calais to prove that he could defy the great French army that was gathering to crush him. He believed he could evade that army, but the march, like the siege, went disastrously wrong and the English were trapped and so forced to fight against an enemy that outnumbered them six to one. Azincourt is the tale of Nicholas Hook, an archer, who begins the novel by joining the garrison of Soissons, a city whose patron saints were Crispin and Crispinian. What happened at Soissons shocked all Christendom, but in the following year, on the feast day of Crispin and Crispinian, Hook finds himself in that small army trapped at Azincourt. The novel is the story of the archers who helped win a battle that has entered legend, but in truth is a tale, as Sir John Keegan says, ‘of slaughter-yard behaviour and outright atrocity’.

The story of Agincourt and Henry V’s army in northern France is told primarily through Nicholas Hook, an archer who escapes his enemies and a certain death sentence in England to seek his fortune and safety abroad. Hook is an interesting character, but not unlike most of Cornwell’s other heroes. You can clearly see the similarities between Hook and Sharpe, Uhtred, Derfel, and so forth. He has the same confidence, savagery in a fight, natural leadership, luck, and dare I say it, sex appeal as those characters have. But Hook is more than just a seemingly stock Cornwell character, and is his own man and stands alone as a protagonist. He is a complicated man and portrayed as a man struggling with his conscience, he tries to do the right and live life in the virtuous way seemingly expected of medieval men as followers of the church. Hook is also a violent, stuck in a long-lasting family feud with the Perrill family, and relishes the opportunities to exact his family’s revenge. He seemingly has no problem killing; and killing outside of battle, murdering. Parts of this generational feud shape Hook as the story goes on as well, indeed it was the conflict with the Perrill family and their ally, Sir Martin, which sends Hook to France in the first place.

As a character, I enjoyed Hook, and did not find too similar to Cornwell’s other heroes to become bothered by it and rather took in him for what he was. I found his personal battle with his conscience, something that is a theme of the story, to be quite interesting. Like I said, he was a man seemingly intent on doing good, but he enjoyed doing bad when he had to. I have no doubts if he was able to Hook would have murdered and destroyed the entire Perrill clan. On the other hand, he is a deeply religious man, yet seemed at odds with his faith, unable to make sense of the needless slaughter surrounding him and if his King’s cause was just. Hook allows the dead saints – fittingly Crispin and Crispinian – to speak to him and play a part in his battle with his conscience.

As is usually the case with Cornwell, the side characters are strong in their support of Hook. Cornwell writes Melisande as another complicated person with a dark past, and she is a fitting companion for Hook as the two mesh well. It’s a believable man/woman relationship. And of course, Cornwell laces the story with depictions of historical figures. Sir John Cornewaille, the famous knight, is a key part of the story and his prominence not only gives the story a consistent authority figure Hook can defer to, but also its light heartedness. Cornewaille is depicted as a brash knight unafraid to speak his mind and his rants and bouts of anger are actually rather comical than overly serious. There is also of course the King: Henry V. Henry, from what I know about him, is fairly accurately portrayed, and like Hook and the other side characters, is a pretty complicated man. Deeply religious and bound by his God, Henry is also a soldier’s king, known for willingly throwing himself into the fray and taking on all comers in battle. That aspect of Henry’s personality is never lost in the story. I think a lot of Henry’s dialogue and “screen time” is adapted from Shakespeare as well, and readers will be delighted to read the recounting of Henry’s pre-battle speech from Shakespeare ahead of the final battle.

Seasoned readers of Cornwell’s work will be accustomed to how his stories tend to go, and of course Azincourt follows all those which came before it. The fighting is savage and violent, told in near blood thirsty detail, and you are thrown into the Battle of Agincourt as if you were really there in 1415. The story of the archers’ plight and the hopelessness of the task they faced is never dumbed down or overlooked, he stresses just how monumental their task was: 5,000 archers and 1,000 men-at-arms and their king against the might of France and its 36,000 strong army. Not for a second is the difficulty and scope of their achievement not presented to the reader in a way that will make them not understand what happened, and appreciate it all the more. You get a great sense for what the men who drew these bows were like –ordinary people, tradesmen and journeymen the French held in contempt and fear. As for the rest of the novel, it is similar to most Cornwell work, but is still immensely enjoyable, and doubtlessly readers will find that same enjoyment I found taking in Nicholas Hook’s journey across France and redemption in England.

Azincourt is certainly recommendable. As a stand-alone novel it is great, and not encumbered by being a part of a long-running series, you can pick it up at any time. If you have read Cornwell in the past and enjoyed his stuff, but erred away from the long-running series then I think this is a novel you may enjoy. I certainly did, and found it to be one of his best for some time. It’s the perfect story for fans of action, adventure, violence, a little bit of romance and their heroes leading the way.

8.5/10.