If ever proof was needed that it’s possible to have a thoroughly distasteful and objectionable protagonist and yet be totally engrossed in their story, look no further than Disgrace by J M Coetzee.
This novel, which earned J M Coetzee his second Booker prize win, features David Lurie, a university professor in Cape Town. He’s a white South African in his early fifties, intelligent and good looking but somewhat out of synch with his newly post apartheid country.
His field of expertise is modern languages but that specialism has been abolished as part of a nationwide rationalisation of educational resources. He is allowed to run just a single course (he choses the Romantic poets) and the rest of the time is spent lecturing in what he considers the preposterous world of ‘communications skills’.
Coetzee shows a man who views his students with disdain, seeing them semi-illiterate products of a mediocre education system and lacking a basic grounding in the context and sources of the literature which they are studying.
If his academic life is stalling he considers he is rather more successful in his private life. As he describes it:
For a man of his age, 52, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.
That ‘solution’ of which he is proud is a weekly visit to a prostitute with whom he believes he has more than just a financial relationship. Such an arrangement doesn’t stop him embarking on an affair with Melanie, a girl half his age and one of his students.
Lurie tries to elevate this to a grander plane by arguing it is the duty of attractive women like Melanie to share their beauty. “She does not own herself. Beauty does not own itself” is one of his mantras. But actually Lurie is a predator and this is a pretty unpleasant seduction. He plies the girl with drink until she is unable to withstand his advances and almost refers to himself as “Daddy” when he is with her.
Revenge for Apartheid?
Denounced and called to account by the university he admits guilt but steadfastly refuses to repent or to indulge in the public handwringing apology the university believes is necessary. He resigns, abandons his home and seeks refuge with his daughter Lucy on her smallholding somewhere in the Eastern Cape. There they are subjected to a savage attack and a fire which causes a deep rift between father and daughter.
Lurie cannot comprehend his daughter’s response to the attack. Why won’t she report it to the police? It’s clear one of the attackers is connected with a black farmer whose property lies along side her own but why doesn’t Lucy want the man confronted?
Even more puzzling is Lucy’s attitude that her rape is an equal exchange for the way white settlers treated the black indigenous population. She wonders if rape is the price she has to pay for staying on?
Perhaps that is how they look at it; perhaps that is how I should look at it too. They see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying? Perhaps that is what they tell themselves.
Lurie’s previous feelings of complacency are shaken by his daughter’s willingness to accept her fate particularly because his own resources have been diminished. His good looks were destroyed in the fire, robbing him of his sexual identity. His much cherished idea of finishing an opera about Byron now seems irrelevant.
In a move that seems to suggest he is seeking atonement he throws himself into work at a local animal clinic, helping to deal fatal injections to unwanted and homeless dogs before chucking them into the incinerator. He also begins a relationship the woman who runs the clinic. He doesn’t really desire her, in fact describing her as ‘remarkably unattractive’, but seems to view their love making sessions on the floor as some kind of benevolent act towards a single, lonely woman. The price he pays in a sense for his previous egotistical attitude towards the opposite sex.
Shift in Power in New South Africa
Disgrace is a novel which clearly has some big ideas; ideas about race, about colonial guilt and responsibility.
Running through it is also a theme about the balance of power. In the new South Africa, a different relationship exists between black and white, one in which the latter understand sacrifices of their old power may be required. For Lurie the chain of events which began in Cape Town brings him to an insight into the suffering of others and a shift in his relationship with Lucy. he can no more tell her how to live her life than the white population can dictate to the black South Africans.
‘How humiliating,’ he says finally. ‘Such high hopes, and to end like this.’
‘Yes, I agree, it is humiliating. But perhaps that is a good point to start from again. Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level. With nothing.’
Lurie is talking about his own situation here but his comments could also be a reflection on the new reality of life in South Africa.
Disgrace is a dark novel in which the political and the personal coalesce. There are no resolutions here, the problems of the character’s lives are still open by the time we reach the final page.
Coetzee’s sparse style brings an emotional distance even though he deals with hugely emotive issues. Particularly impressive for me was that Coetzee makes us understand Lurie’s arrogance even if we don’t endorse his beliefs and shows us by the end of the novel that it’s possible to sympathise with a man who starts out as a thoroughly unsympathetic human being.
Disgrace by JM Coetzee: Endnotes
J M Coetzee was born in South Africa and lived there until 1962 when he relocated to the UK and subsequently to USA. He left the USA in 1971 having failed to be granted permanent residence status , in part due to his involvement in protests against the war in Vietnam.
He worked as an academic at the University of Cape Town until his retirement in 2002. That year he moved to Australia, becoming an Australian citizen in 2006.
J M Coetzee’s first novel was Dusklands published in 1974. He has twice won the Booker Prize – for Life and Times of Michael K in 1983 and Disgrace in 1999.
In 2003, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first author from South Africa to be selected by the Nobel Committee.
This review was posted originally in 2018. This is an updated version incorporating background info about the author and improving readability by shortening the paragraphs.