Disgrace is centred around David Lurie, a Romantic Poetry Professor at a Cape Town University, and an unapologetic lover of the firm, youthful, accommodating female form. He’s been married twice, and in the story satisfies his hunger with a prostitute, and then a student, becoming enamored with both (i.e. tracking down the prostitute at her home, and watching from a dark corner the student rehearsing her play). The affair with the student leads to a harassment case and Lurie, refusing to apologise for his nature, leaves Cape Town and exiles ‘in disgrace’ at his daughter’s isolated property. Here, the bulk of the novel takes place – a quiet series of misunderstandings, Lurie’s work with the dogs at the care centre, and the aftermath of an attack on the property.
The ‘aboutness’ of this novel is so large, and layered, that it is difficult to explain in a way that doesn’t undermine the gentleness of its weight on the reader. The big questions that arise cover true nature, instinct, care, nurturing, beauty and corruption, the interchangeability of these things in each moment, dual ugliness and attractiveness, hate and passion, growing, age and loss, and that old ‘good and bad’ pittance. There is also much about what constitutes stubbornness, denial or defiance, or what is simply as acceptance, in both Lurie and the characters around him – particularly his daughter Lucy, who makes some difficult choices.
The character of David Lurie I found confronting. As a woman, I found it difficult to understand sometimes how women bent to, and had no resistance to him – young and intimidated, or older and married. Even in conversation women do not berate him much (such as his ex-wife and daughter) for his outlook, but perhaps this is because those women know him so well, they know there is no point. Lucy does, however, resist his nature in her actions. Some of Lucy’s motivations remain unexplained, and this makes for much complexity, and I think it reflects in a way a lonely problem for Lurie (and perhaps men in general) that he/they may never truly know the heart of a woman, or what motivates some of her deepest decisions, especially when the body is involved. And while I say I found Lurie confronting, and don’t understand how the women in his life bend so easily, I have also met men like him, whose attentions and charisma, and intelligence (even if used deceptively) can have an effect – and the confidence that goes with the knowledge, has an effect. I see Lurie as this kind of man, and it’s great in the novel to also see the sides of him that bend, that struggle, that are helpless and alone and tragic. He is stuck in his condition, and his nature, as we all are.
On this, the inclusion of the dogs, and his role in ushering them to death, is a reasonably obvious but effective extended metaphor. The dogs have no choice but to act out their natures. They are caged, they seek food and procreation, they express with aggression. They tremble before the end and seek to lick the face or hand of their would-be killer. One last moment of comfort.
There are further layers to this slim novel, such as the dangers of South Africa – where there are rules, difficulties and unspoken things. The novel thus brings up notions philosophical, political and cultural – the Professor constantly references great works (e.g. Wordsworth). He is working on an opera centred on Byron (but the focus shifts through the novel, as the focus of Lurie’s life does).
I found Disgrace rich and challenging. It is a book I will think about again. The themes are deep and difficult and worthy of attention. I was so caught up in the realism I forgot I was reading at times – the best kind of experience, but also harrowing with a book like this. I am definitely going to read more of Coetzee’s works, and I’m looking forward to catching the film version, which has just been released.