After years teaching Romantic poetry at the Technical University of Cape Town, David Lurie, middle-aged and twice divorced, has an impulsive affair with a student. The affair sours; he is denounced and summoned before a committee of inquiry. Willing to admit his guilt, but refusing to yield to pressure to repent publicly, he resigns and retreats to his daughter Lucy's isolated smallholding. For a time, his daughter's influence and the natural rhythms of the farm promise to harmonise his discordant life. But the balance of power in the country is shifting. He and Lucy become victims of a savage and disturbing attack which brings into relief all the faultlines in their relationship.
I specifically chose this book because it deals with the aftershocks of apartheid. Due to Coetzee's minimalist approach, the reader learns little about the various characters' previous experiences. No specific reasons are given for David Lurie's suspicions about Petrus, his daughter's black "dog man." No details are shared about the circumstances that left Lurie's daughter Lucy running a dog kennel and a farmer's market garden by herself in rural South Africa. Nonetheless, what Coetzee does choose to include paints a complex picture of human interactions -- between men and women, parents and children, victims and perpetrators of crimes and blacks and whites. Coetzee's characters are maddeningly inarticulate, but in many ways their inability and unwillingness to explain their motivations speaks for them. I was left in many places feeling that I would never understand Coetzee's characters' actions because I haven't lived their lives.
One of the most interesting aspects to me was the role that animals played in the story. As part of his disgrace, Lurie assigns himself to help at a local animal shelter which attempts to give unwanted dogs a dignified death. He even goes so far as to transport the dogs to the local hospital for incineration and oversee the process himself. Despite being a thoroughly despicable character, Lurie's tenderness with the dogs left me sobbing and gasping for breath. This was especially troubling because the terrible things that happened to other characters in the story didn't move me to nearly the same degree.
Although this was a dark, depressing book it is masterfully written and I have thought more about it after the fact than any book I have in several years.
***Warning: Spoilers Ahead***
In a nutshell, the novel concerns a middle-age scholar-cum-reluctant professor, David Lurie, living in post-Apartheid South Africa. After losing his weekly appointment with a prostitute because he semi-stalks her, he then begins a short-lived “affair” with one of his students after semi-stalking her as well and possibly raping her. He’s dismissed from the university and sends himself into exile at his daughter’s homestead in the Eastern Cape. While staying with his daughter, she’s gang-raped and he’s beaten by three black men at her home. David and his daughter clash over her decision of how to cope after the rape (he wants her to report the rape to the police and move away from her homestead; she refuses to do either).
I appreciate that Coetzee takes on a difficult and politically unpopular topic: how do white South Africans cope in the post-apartheid era. I’m sensitive and somewhat sympathetic the precariousness and fear that many white South Africans felt (and continue to feel); while in Malawi, I met a number of white Zimbabweans who had been forced out of---and sometimes fled under attack from---their homes during Mugabe’s regime. They had been born in Zimbabwe; their parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents had lived their whole lives in Zimbabwe. Many were still fearful that they could again be dislocated from Malawi. Moreover, I have the experience of being a white woman in Africa and understand (some of ) the ways that you are marked by your race and your gender.
That all said, I thought the main character was entirely unsympathetic and rather troubling. The author seemed to be asking me not only to sympathize with but to admire someone I thought was racist, elitist, and misogynist. I’m supposed to see David as heroic when he refuses to offer a full confession and apology as part of the university’s inquest into his affair with his student. I’m supposed to think that he was bravely taking on the culture of political correctness by refusing to apologize for giving in to “Eros.” Instead I read his actions as those of an entitled man who refuses to accept responsibility for his crime: using his power to coerce a girl into a sexual exchange. Even after his daughter’s rape, David again refuses--or simply can’t---make the connection between the abuse and exploitation she suffered and the ways that he exploited and abused other women (the prostitute, his student, another prostitute at the end of the novel). I would even argue that he contributes to the violation of his daughter by attempting to force her to adopt the position he thinks she should take regarding the rape (as the helpless victim). And again at the end of the novel, when we discover that the daughter’s tenant/worker is using the rape---and was possibly active in arranging it---to force her to marry him and turn over her land in exchange for protection, David still doesn’t make the connection between his own use of sex as an exploitative form of exchange (sex for money, sex for grades) and that being suffered by his daughter. Adding insult to injury is the great “revelation” of the novel: that David has been “enriched” by each of his sexual relationships---and he claims hundreds of them---and therefore should not have to apologize for his behavior: to the women, to the university, to God. (Never mind what the women might think about these exchanges; they only serve as symbols in the novel.)
I’m both intrigued and perplexed by Coetzee’s approach to race in the novel. He often doesn’t state a given character’s race outright. He makes vague illusions via physical characteristics, although never specific enough for me to be able to say definitively what race a given character is, or he’ll later clarify a character’s race. But he often leaves race unspoken. I’m torn on whether this is a clever commentary on the reader’s prejudices (that we assume the attackers are black Africans without being told immediately) or whether the author is revealing his own prejudices (of course the attackers are black Africans because they are the source of violence in post-Apartheid South Africa). (I’m still not clear on whether I’m supposed to read the character of Melanie, the student, as black, white, or other; given the context of the novel, I think it matters to how you interpret that exchange and the fall-out from it.)
So I feel like I’m missing something, that I’m not getting the joke, so to speak. Surely we wouldn’t celebrate someone who seems to valorize such a despicable character and, by extension, such deplorable views? Yet the novel doesn’t seem to be broad enough for satire. What am I not reading in this novel? Can someone smarter, better read, more insightful please explain this book to me?
I think I must have been in a foul humor when I wrote that. There is indeed a story here.
About disgrace, about the taking of grace from another being, about the horrors of which grace, in its religious meaning, is capable of holding back.
David Lurie, fifty-two, isn't a bad man. He isn't a good man, either. He is a human male possessed of a libido and enough facility of mind and tongue to service that libido's demands. This means he is also capable of performing, to the absolute minimum standard, the demands of teaching the youth of Cape Town, South Africa, a subject barely worthy of attention: "Communication." Not, you will note, English, or a language, but the abstraction of communication, whole and entire.
Bah. Modern "education" rots. So David, after he loses his erotic focus Soraya, leaves it and Cape Town behind to join his daughter Lucy in the countryside. She has a farm there, and it is the farm that leads to dis-grace, the shedding of grace, the negation of grace, for father and daughter alike. Horrors occur that I have no desire to relate to you, and that should keep those readers whose anxiety buttons are easily engaged far, far away from this book.
I don't think Coetzee likes people too terribly much.
The ending is the final act of dis-grace. I strongly strongly urge dog-lovers not to read the ending. Put it this way: I'd love the ending had it featured a cat. Now, does that scare y'all off? Good.
But the writing. Oh me, oh my.
A rik to own anything: a car, a pair of shoes, a packet of cigarettes. Not enough to go around, not enough cars, shoes, cigarettes. Too many people, too few things. What there is must go into circulation, so that everyone can have a chance to be happy for a day. That is the theory; hold to the theory and to the comforts of theory. Not human evil, just a vast circulatory system, to whose workings pity and terror are irrelevant. That is how one must see life in this country: in its schematic aspect. Otherwise one could go mad.
Thus the musings of a father after a horrific crisis. David Lurie is dis-graced. Grace is no longer part of David Lurie's mental furniture, and while he fights it for over 100pp, in the end, at the ending, David Lurie accepts his fate:
He is disgraced.
David Lurie is a Professor of Literature at a university in South Africa with a specialty in the romantic poets, particularly Wordsworth and Byron; he is 52 years old, twice divorced; he fancies himself Byronesque in his pursuit and conquest of women, especially it seems, those younger than himself; he has a regular weekly meeting with a woman from an escort service, but he accidently discovers her real identity as a housewife and mother of two small children; this introduces a strain in what had been a very comfortable and pleasant relationship for both; she terminates it on an excuse and is furious when David tracks her down through an detective and calls her at her home; the first example of David's inability to understand or perceive the limits to actions and spheres. He then seduces one his students, a 20 year-old who always seems to be a reluctant partner; and then things go bad when the boyfriend shows up, and so does the outraged father, and there is a hearing before the ethics committee of the university; Lurie refuses to play what he considers the game, will not show contrition, whether heartfelt or not, and practically invites the university to turf him out, which it does. David goes to visit his daughter, Lucy, a single woman, lesbian, not currently in a relationship, but trying to make a go of a market-garden farm and dog kennel operation with help from a neighbouring black farmer, Petrus, who is rising up in the world with the acquisition of land and animals. One day, when Petrus is away, David and Lucy are attacked in their home by two black men and a younger teenager; David is beaten and an attempt is made to set him on fire; Lucy is raped. Lucy, to the complete consternation of David, refuses to register the crime of rape, limiting her story to the police to things that were stolen. David, meanwhile, has been helping Lucy, and Petrus, with work around the farm, and has begun to help a woman who tries to help sick and abandoned animals. He suspects, although he cannot prove, that Petrus was conveniently absent on the day of the attack and that he knows more about it than he lets on. David finds himself increasingly distanced from what he thought was his life in the university, and having to adjust to many new ways of looking at things, and to acting. He visits the family of the young woman he seduced; he returns home and tries to work on an opera that he has had in mind for many years, based again on Byron and one of his loves, but that fades; he goes to see the young woman in a play and is immediately confronted by the boyfriend who tells him to stick with his own kind; David`s problem at this point is that he`s not sure what his kind is. He thought he was pretty secure in that knowledge before, but he has been jolted out of all his familiar universes and is not certain what track he should now follow.
This book can be read on various levels. As a comment on apartheid and the future of S.Africa, David can be seen as representing the old system: jolted out of is unreal world by forces that it cannot foresee, nor understand; Petrus represents the new S.Africa: competent, hard working, rasing his living standard and with an eye to the future and the acquisitions that will get him there; Lucy is perhaps the future for those of the old ruling class who do see the inevitability of the future and the futility of fighting against it: she agrees finally to sell her land to Petrus in exchange for being allowed to continue to live in the house. The role of Petrus in the attack is never made clear, but what is certain is that he has the authority to extend his protection to Lucy and that his pledge in that regard is sufficient to ensure that it will not happen again. Contrast this with a neighbouring white farmer who has lots of wire fences and gates and dogs to protect himself, but whom Lucy fully expects will end up with a bullet in his back. Lucy understands these shifts in basic power-relationships; David does not and continues to rail against what he sees as Lucy`s shortsightedness.
On another level, the novel says something about the treatment of women. David would be horrified to think of his seduction o f the student as being in anyway comparable to the rape of his daughter, but in fact I think he comes to understand the parallels even if he could not articulate them. While he might (as he did) argue that a 20-year old is an adult who can make up her own mind, and although he never physically forces himself upon her, it is clear that the young woman is ever a reluctant rather than a willing participant, and that a determining factor is the power relationship with an older, much respected professor who has a certain authority over her future. He is using her for his own ends and his own gratification, with no thought as to what it means and will mean for her, as compared to the men who attack Lucy and who, as she puts it, `do rape` with a hatred that surprises her. I think it is a sense of this that drives David to visit the family (parents and younger daughter) of the student he seduced and to express, for the first time, true contrition for his act.
Another angle involves the parent-child relationship between David and Lucy with his need to realize and recognize that he must deal with her as an adult, fully capable of making her own decisions, even if those are mistakes in his eyes, and that she is fully justified in resenting his interference, however sympathetic or positive the motivations, as interference with her life. He begins to see this, and at the end of the novel, there are clear signs that he is able to move to the more mature relationship.
In fact there are a few hopeful signs towards the end of the novel concerning David`s awakening to what is important in life. His grand plan for an opera fades away with his changing self-image. He becomes quite involved in helping with the animals and even perseveres in giving them dignity in death when he takes the bodies of those who have been put down to the hospital crematorium where he insists on delivering them into the furnace rather than leaving them to the hospital workers who would simply treat them as they would all the other hospital waste. His new-found compassion extends in particular to a dog of which he becomes quite fond, but which is paralyzed in the hindquarters and has to be put down. He could spare the dog`s life for another week, but chooses not to, recognizing that the dog is suffering. Bev, the animal-helper, believes strongly in soothing the transition to death by suffusing the atmosphere with a sense of calm and affection for each animal, a ritual that David inwardly scoffs at when he first sees it, but which I suspect, although the scene is not played out at the end of the novel, that he emulates with the death of this particular dog.
The story is also about spheres and recognizing the limits of actions. David does not at the beginning, whether with respect to the student, to Lucy, to the university, to Bev, even to the animals, but he comes to do so, and it is the sense of this, along with Lucy`s stance on the future of her life on the farm, that gives the novel a hopeful, uplifting sense at the end.
Coetzee has a wonderful, spare, clean writing style. It is amazing how much can be conveyed through one novel in such a style. A book worth re-reading.
Maybe this simply means I don't like novels about real(istic) people? I like people. I almost wonder if it's just that it's so hard to do people right. Like, harder than a dissertation, harder than fabulism. DH Lawrence'd be one great example of a writer who does people mildly wrong, and you can see the craft like I say but ultimately he doesn't seem to produce psychically real blood-and-nerve-bags, only behaviorally real simulacra.
Coetzee does people right. He makes you (me) feel that you so easily could have been David Lurie with a few different life circumstances (like being born a white-English South African--I know fuck-all about it, but if Die Antwoord can be believed, the Boers are doing much better at adapting to the brave new world and not mourning the cowardly old one). He perfectly conveys this situation in which people on both sides of the racial divide can feel themselves under threat, and entitled to take or at least fantasize about bloodsexcrime. But then the actual crime that occurs isn't at all sensationalized, not "…and then everything was different." It just feels like a really, really awful day, which in my limited experience is what this stuff feels like when it really happens. The narrative, the sensemaking, emerges in retrospect if at all.
The politics are there, and the deft observations about empathy and the animal in the man. But they emerge out of a story about people that seems, I want to avoid the cliche "reporterly," but matter-of-fact. Unchoreographed. He does it immaculately, and you walk away feeling like you learned something gut level, unnecessary to intellectualize, about how human beings behave and collide under a particular set of emotional and social pressures. Remember how that was supposed to be the thing the novel could do that nothing else could? I have to admit, though, that I would have been fascinated to see how this would have come out if it were written by a black South African writer with Coetzee's powers.
Later, Lurie's daughter is raped by intruders, and violently. She is white; her assailants – three of them – are black. We are in South Africa.
David is forced out of his position at the university for his ‘undesired’ liaison. An investigating committee asks him to issue a statement of contrition and regret, but he refuses to do so on principle. He insists on accepting his due punishment. He insists on what he calls his ‘freedom to remain silent’.
Later, David's daughter refuses to report her rape. She refuses to take medical precautions. She refuses to seek vengeance against one of the men when she sees him in the neighbourhood. She, too, insists on remaining silent. She, too, bases this on a moral principle.
Apartheid was in force in South Africa from 1948 to 1991. This book, published in 1999, is set after apartheid has ended.
There are many animals in this book. The way people talk about animals sounds a lot like the way that white South Africans once talked openly about black South Africans. ‘By all means let us be kind to them,’ Lurie comments. ‘But let us not lose perspective. We are of a different order of creation from the animals. Not higher, necessarily, but different.’
What is the moral of these correspondences (which I write down here only to order my thoughts, not to elucidate the book's point)? The answer is the novel, and it can't helpfully be further distilled. What makes Disgrace so impressive is precisely that it is no simple allegory, but rather a series of dynamics that echo and echo against each other in painful and confusing ways.
Lurie's employers talk primly about the undesirability of ‘mixing power relations with sexual relations’. But Coetzee suggests that the two might be – if not quite synonymous, at least tightly bound together. He writes about sex in an extraordinary way: unsentimentally, even anti-sentimentally, to the point of misanthropy. Libido is described in terms of
complex proteins swirling in the blood, distending the sexual organs, making the palms sweat and voice thicken and the soul hurl its longings to the skies. That is what [Lurie's regular prostitute] and the others were for: to suck the complex proteins out of his blood like snake-venom, leaving him clear-headed and dry.
Lurie's daughter, who is gay, addresses the link between sex and violence directly, in a monologue that is the more shocking for her tone of calm, dispassionate analysis:
‘Maybe, for men, hating the woman makes sex more exciting. You are a man, you ought to know. When you have sex with someone strange – when you trap her, hold her down, get her under you, put all your weight on her – isn't it a bit like killing? Pushing the knife in; exiting afterwards, leaving the body behind covered in blood – doesn't it feel like murder, like getting away with murder?’
Jesus. Coetzee's words hit like whiplash. And they are very carefully chosen, despite an expressed conviction in the novel that ‘English is an unfit medium for the truth of South Africa’.
Only the monosyllables can still be relied on, and not even all of them.
This is a very grown-up book (it reminded me a lot of Max Frisch's Homo Faber. But it isn't a hopeless one – it expresses confusion, anger, and sometimes despair, but also a certain sense of searching that at least imagines a different future. Perhaps, as one of the characters thinks, it is necessary, in order to build something up, for everything to be first brought down to nothing. For that, you need disgrace. And Coetzee offers that to everyone in the book – and everyone reading it.
Even in his autobiographical novels, Coetzee often presents his narrator as a very flawed man with feet of clay. But in this novel he goes farther and makes the narrator nearly irredeemable. And of course because it's Coetzee, he's a wonderful character who comes vividly to life. Though the narrator does change somewhat in the novel's third act, after a terrible incident, there is no upbeat ending. No happy resolution.
But it is a beautiful, searing story that will stay with you.
David Lurie, a protagonist simultaneously unlikeable and identifiable, teaches literature at a university in Cape Town. After an impulsive and unrepentant affair with a young female student, he is sent on what might be politely described as “administrative leave,” exiled to his daughter’s small farm. I already knew this was the set-up of the novel, but still found those early chapters entertaining, and was pleasantly surprised when the novel expanded into unexpected dimensions.
As an Australian – a Western Australian, for that matter – one has a certain perception of South Africa, and South Africa for white people. (90% of the new students introduced to class during my entire time at high school were white South African immigrants.) I naturally went into Disgrace assuming that it would have something to do with the state of post-apartheid South Africa and the plight of white South Africans, and then chastised myself for pigeonholing it as such. The white South African community is huge, after all, and must contain a relatively normal society and a multitude of stories, and assuming a novel written by a white South African author in the late 90s must be about race relations is like assuming that a novel written by an Australian author must be about the Outback.
I was wrong. Disgrace is very much a novel about South Africa as a nation, pivoting around an act of violence at the novel’s centre (which I won’t detail) which makes David’s affair with a student seem like an utterly pointless and irrelevant matter. The beauty of it is that it treats the event both as a symptom of a national issue, and as a personal, individual ordeal. One can be quite left-wing – as I myself am, as David’s daughter is, as David himself is more moderately implied to be – and believe that Africa is and was an African land, and that blacks are perfectly entitled to be angry after many years of oppression. (Australia, after all, has a very similar situation with crime and vengeance at the hands of our original inhabitants, and the only difference is that the weight of numbers favours whites.) But politics makes no difference in the heat of the moment. Violence is violence, and it’s a disgusting and horrific thing for whomever it is visited upon, no matter what the context.
“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 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 plagues pass you by? That is not how vengeance works, Lucy. Vengeance is like a fire. The more it devours, the hungrier it gets.”
Yet the consequences of David’s affair are revisited towards the end of the novel, as he returns to Cape Town. I thought it would be washed away, but it’s an integral part of his life, no matter what may have happened on the farm. Although it’s only 220 pages long, Disgrace is a deceptively complex book, containing divers themes, from white South Africa to women’s rights to animal rights’ to the condition of growing old, and it ties them all together as part of a deeper narrative, making them more than the sum of their parts.
Certainly, Disgrace is a depressing novel. There’s one scene, literally in the last few pages, where David has to make a decision, which would have been thematically appropriate either way, but which would have been the difference between making it an optimistic or a pessimistic novel, and Coetzee chooses the latter. It reminded me of The White Tiger, a fellow Booker Prize winner, in that I can safely say that it’s a deep and outstanding novel which genuinely moved me, but one which I will never read again, because I did not enjoy living inside it. That’s not an insult. The world is a dark place. J.M. Coetzee is a novelist.
Disgrace is doubtless one of the best of the Booker Prize winners, a rich and meditative novel that I found both compelling and easy to read. It’s a mark in Coetzee’s favour to be capable of such pure literature without rendering his prose tediously esoteric, and I’ll definitely be reading more of his works.
David Lurie is a middle aged man of questionable morality, whose passions lie with young women...girls, really. When he begins an affair with one of his students - the beautiful Melanie - David finds himself on the other side of a sexual harassment investigation. He retreats to his daughter Lucy's farm in the country where terror and unexpected violence unfold.
Throughout the novel, Coetzee intersperses the poetry of Byron, and the tangled life of this poet as he pursues a girl much younger than himself. David Lurie's desire to write an opera about Byron and his lover is largely symbolic of David's own struggle within himself.
In fact, the novel's largest theme seems to be about the confusing nature of language - filled with misunderstanding, second meaning, and the breakdown of communication - specifically that between the sexes, the generations, and the races. It is clear throughout the book that David's perceptions, as a man, are different from Lucy's (or Melanie's) female perceptions; and that David's understanding of African culture as a white man, are different from the black Petrus (who lives on Lucy's land). David's struggles to communicate and connect with his daughter are fraught with misunderstanding.
Coetzee won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003 - and it is easy to see why after reading Disgrace. His style is spare and shocking, and the novel is not one that a reader can put down and forget.
Highly recommended; rated 4.5
I went from disliking David Lurie to pitying him to having respect for him (the latter being due to his unwavering devotion to his daughter in her unimaginable plight and his humane attitude to homeless dogs). In my dislike of him, I even felt a whiff of "Lolita" there: he being driven by desire that much, in particular - his emotions when seeing Melanie's younger sister, not a pretty sight of his inner thoughts... Even though Lurie himself admits that "desire is a burden we could do well without", he is pretty much powerless in that respect. But after all, to various degrees, in all of us there is some duality of nature - the author certainly strikes a cord there.
The deplorable political and economical situation of South Africa is another focus of the book - sharp criticism mixed with disillusionment and resignation, both on the protagonist's, and, I felt, on the author's part.
Coetzee's relationship with his protagonist seems to be that of an aloof observer, an observer with no judgement, watching the man's unintentional, unscripted, unpredictable thoughts. This format worked so well. I certainly mean to put this author on my reading list.
This is a novel steeped in grace but the revelation is not the glory of man. It is a clear call to abandon all places of privilege.
It is, however, not at all clear that this is also a call to live or to let live. There is only inarticulable release in the final scene.
"We put our children in the hands of you people because we think we can trust you. If we can't trust the university, who can we trust? We never thought we were sending our daughter into a nest of vipers. No, Professor Lurie, you may be high and mighty and have all kinds of degrees, but if I was you I'd be very ashamed of myself, so help me God. If I've got hold of the wrong end of the stick, now is your chance to say, but I don't think so, I can see it from your face." Page 35
Disgrace is a first POV narration and it does carry its limitation. David Lurie is clearly an unreliable narrative but human in every sense. He's prideful, arrogant, narcissistic and a fool with many degrees. He's a smart man but still an idiot nonetheless. The book's narrative is observant and often contradicts his action in so many ways which made the process of reading engrossing. Along the while, I forgot that he's a middle age man character which the book continuously reminded about. But it was clear that he was ignorant about many things on woman.
Its hard to read the book without imagining a special Chinese water torture with him in it. Yes, he did get a karmic intervention which it took him by surprise and it does have its own facepalm moments when he became so obsessed about his daughter's situation and her apparently independence and stubbornness about the matter that he's literally taken off guard. The book is political and at times pushing his views through his characters. But at times, you did get caught up into his storytelling without anticipating it.
The book is moderately visual but very clinical about the subject of sex. From Lurie's sexual escapades with Soraya, Melanie and Bev Shaw to the gang rape of his daughter and to his horror the child resulting from that rape. But for what its worth, Coetzee is surprisingly feminist, sensitive and stark about woman's issue. He did show exactly how rape is used as a weapon to manipulate a woman into subjugation. How Lucy was being manipulated into seeing that she was admitting defeat if she reported her rape because to her, it meant she was admitting defeat against her attackers. But as a result, she accepted her fate and willingly let herself fall into Petrus's manipulation who himself had a hand on her attacks.
'Hatred . . . When it comes to men and sex, David, nothing surprises me any more. Maybe, for men, hating the woman makes sex more exciting. You are a man, you ought to know. When you have sex with someone strange - when you trap her, hold her down, get her under you, put all your weight on her - isn't it a bit like killing? Pushing the knife in; exiting afterwards, leaving the body behind covered in blood - doesn't it feel like murder, like getting away with murder?'
For all its worth, the core in this novel is about humanity with its flaws and adapting to change and forms of power abuse and difficulties when one faces frustrated views contradicting to oneself. Its hardly an enjoyable novel. Geographically unenticing. Stupid Marty Sue character with hedonistic tendencies. But still thought-provoking nonetheless.
'The question is, does he have it in him to be the woman?'
The story, powerful in its own right, interoperates* with J.M. Coetzee's almost deadpan style of narrative. Together, these elements resist the reader's attempt to ascribe meaning to the events. Events happen. Narrative happens. But where do we go from there? Are we permitted to go forth? David, who as character should have a right to be involved in the story, ratiocinates the hell out of his daughter's traumatic experience but everything resists him: the culture, the language, the landscape, Lucy herself. He forces meaning from what he sees to be obvious associations and conclusions but he is only left playing the fool.
Which begs the questions: Who is disgraced? David doesn't think himself to be disgraced (on matters of principle) but his colleagues and students do. He sees his daughter as having been disgraced but she relentlessly resists that conclusion. The maimed and decrepit animals he helps euthanize and incinerate on the weekends, are they disgraced? These questions continually hover in the margins of the next but are never permitted to enter. The only exception being when a character choses to accept their situation. At that moment, the disgrace waiting to devour is momentarily let in only to be devoured itself, entirely consumed by the character it should be consuming.
As reader, I wanted to see disgrace make an appearance. Like a medieval allegory, I kept expecting it to stride into the narrative, beaten and bloody, stripped bare, blinded and bald. Only, in wanting that I suffer the same delusion as David: that I can bestow disgrace upon others. Disgrace emerges from power: the power to thrust shame into the public sphere. But if shame is a private matter, can others draw it out into public? David resists the shame of having slept with a student 34 years his younger and in that sees himself as being above the disgrace. Yet he forces the name of disgrace upon his daughter's rape, threatening to steal her power to keep shame in the private sphere.
The book deserves a slower read that I gave it in my attempt to devour the few lines of fiction I manage to find time for each week. It lends itself to contemplation and certainly merits additional readings, especially at different (read: older) stages in one's life.
But this is not a simple story about a teacher/student affair. Coetzee's brilliance in Lurie's character is that we're only given the perspective of a man who has the emotional depth of a puddle. We see this scandal roll out and we know that there is more to the story, but we have to piece together the true nature of it from the occasional flashes our main character gets?
When our main character moves in with his daughter, we're given her life through his filter. So while this might have been a more interesting perspective on post-apartheid South African race relations, it becomes a self-absorbed commentary on how his daughter reflects on him, on how her relationships reflect on him, and how she won't remain attractive if she stays in the country. Is this the disgrace Coetzee refers to? The inability to remain nonjudgmental about your children and their choices?
The attack on David and his daughter is brutal, but we are only given David's perspective. Again, this is the beauty of Coetzee's novel. It is harsh and in watching David try to piece together the events of the afternoon, Coetzee's novel truly shines. This is where one has to remember that we've been given a tale called Disgrace, because we will be pulled emotionally into a number of directions that longs for a tale about anything else. But Coetzee's writing shows us that disgrace can come in many forms, can be self-inflicted, can be a product of environment, can be a product of perspective and can simply be a product of circumstance.
Much has been said of not liking the characters in the novel in other reviews. In reality, every character is seen through David Laurie's vision, and David Lurie is a deeply flawed man. We are seeing every character through this flawed vision. That I wanted to catch the few shards of truth in this vision is a testament to Coetzee as an author.
This book challenges all the moral boundaries, and then some more. There is hardly a thought, a line of argument I could agree with. Be it, "How she reconciles her opinions with her line of business he does not ask." comment in one of the opening pages where the protagonist questions the right of a prostitute to hold an opinion against public beaches, or one of the many he comes up with in the course of the book. A morally bankrupt character, shrouded in a veil of artistic pageantry, faux sophistication; a conjurer of expressions - I am now reasonably sure, we weren't meant to like him. But I couldn't like any of the other characters either - Lucy, Melanie, Bev Shaw, Petrus or any of the other minor characters, with the possible exception of Rosalind and Mr. Isaacs. In more ways than one, this book is more depraved in thoughts, if not deeds, to the very infamous, and brilliant, Lolita. There is no repentance, even as there is some understanding of his deeds, after his stay with his daughter and all the events that transpire.
For a major part of the book, and the belief hasn't disappeared even as I write this review after a good couple of weeks since reading the book, I have thought if the author is screwing with us, trapped in his perverse fantasy world. I believe I would know better once I read some of his other books, which I fully intend to do.
Coetzee's writing is poetical, lyrical, with the odd quality of not making you feel for any character, no matter how tragic their life story, revisit the weird cartoon reference. I can hardly remember being so detached from a book and yet unable to put it down. There is a not so subtle, undercurrent of the social and legal system in the then existing South Africa.
Hate the characters as much as I did, I couldn't hate the book.