A Review of J M Coetzee’s Disgrace

David Lurie is a man who has, at fifty two, sorted his life and his sexuality out nicely. He has a tidy job teaching poetry at the Technical University of Cape Town, a once a week visit to a discrete and quiet prostitute and three published books on opera, eros and Wordsworth. It doesn’t take much to destroy his conveniently arranged life, and when he spies his prostitute with her children, his arrangements begin to unravel, he has a brief affair with a student, loses his job and retreats to his daughters isolated property. This is ostensibly the story on which Disgrace is built, however, the story is about much more than David’s loss of status.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Disgrace
by J M Coetzee
April 2000, Vintage
ISBN 0-09-928952-0
SRP $A21.95, 220 pages

David Lurie is a man who has, at fifty two, sorted his life and his sexuality out nicely. He has a tidy job teaching poetry at the Technical University of Cape Town, a once a week visit to a discrete and quiet prostitute and three published books on opera, eros and Wordsworth. It doesn’t take much to destroy his conveniently arranged life, and when he spies his prostitute with her children, his arrangements begin to unravel, he has a brief affair with a student, loses his job and retreats to his daughters isolated property. This is ostensibly the story on which Disgrace is built, however, the story is about much more than David’s loss of status. Tidy though it might be, there is something intrinsically empty about David’s twice divorced and self-centred life prior to his “fall”. In addition, there is a curious dialogue between David’s own justification of eros in the latter half of life, something which he presents half-heartedly, but with enough conviction to endure punishment, and the combination of apathy and confusion which he begins to fell as his life falls apart. What kind of life has he lost? What is he gaining? There is also a desperation and lack of care involved in the way in which he David first chases after his prostitute Soraya and then his student Melanie Issacs. In neither case is there engagement, respect or concern beyond the very superficial level – the women he courts are merely beautiful and thereby open game: “Beauty does not own itself”. David doesn’t know much about either Soraya or Issacs, nor does he feel he is meant to. They are merely tools for expelling what he feels to be a very reasonable and justifiable passion. He may not “do rape” like the men we later meet, and Melanie may not have been coerced into their brief ‘relationship’, but it would appear that her indifference, youth and intellectual innocence are part of her charm for him.

In addition to the psychological terrain of David, there is also the political world of South Africa, which forms the setting of Disgrace. As a respected white academic, David occupies a certain place, and a position – something which has begun to lose its meaning, not only in the face of David’s resignation, but also in the face of a changing power structure. This is no longer a world where rhetoric, literary beauty and intellect (or status) carry weight: “The pentameter, who cadence once served so well to oil the serpent’s words, now only estranges.” On his daughter Lucy’s farm, David experiences violence, powerlessness and significant pain as his notions of self in both the particular and the wider sense of where he fits are further challenged. The men who attack David and Lucy are not good guys. Power redistribution may be inevitable, but it isn’t necessarily any more humane that its precedent. An act of rape is an act of rape, regardless of the colour or status of those who are attacked, or is it? Melanie Issacs is passive, even resistant: “When he takes her in his arms, her limbs crumple like a marionette’s. Words heavy as clubs thud into the delicate whorl of her ear. ‘No, not now!’ she says, struggling. ‘My cousin will be back!’ But nothing will stop him.” This is hardly a gentle romance between equals. David also makes much of Melanie’s youth, perfect childlike body and dark skin, calling her “Meláni: the dark one”. His attraction to Soraya is similar. Lucy says to David “You are a man, you ought to know”, and equates the male sexual act with murder. One suspects that Lucy too, has known sexual pain in the past, not just because of her sexual preferences and her lack of attention to her physical appearance, but because of her anger and wariness towards men in general. Certainly David’s two failed marriages and “romantic” attachments present no idealised view of love or male/female relationships.

Another important theme running through the novel is the relationship between humans and animals. David arrives at Lucy’s farm with the notion of humans occupying a higher form of eros, a higher form of life, and perhaps of there being different types of humans as well. Lucy confronts him with her “new age” sense of equality between people, and animals: “They are not going to lead me to a higher life, and the reason is, there is no higher life. This is the only life there is. Which we share with animals.” David makes the valid point that “We are of a different order of creation from the animals. Not higher, necessarily, just different.” Again he would probably argue with equal validity (although less comfortably) that different people are of different orders of creation from one another too – that Bev is perhaps of a different order, and certainly the men who violate him and his daughter are also of a different order. Melanie and Soraya too. This is not necessarily wrong. He certainly can’t quote Shakespeare or use words to reach his attackers: “English is an unfit medium for the truth of South Africa. Stretches of English code whose sentences long have thickened, lost their articulations, their articulateness, their articulatedness, stiffened.” He has no way of reaching these people, or even of reaching his own daughter.

In the end David does find redemption, but it is of a Pangloss variety and small indeed. David’s affair with “Bev”, the angel of death for lost dogs is perhaps the start of that, fuelled not by lust or physical attraction, but simply human compassion – a sense of shared loneliness. As David faces loss from all sides – the loss of his daughter, his beliefs, his job and status and even his sense of what matters – his ‘thesis’ if you will, he comes to understand something else, comes to grow in a way that is so subtle it is easy to miss it in this tightly written and fairly depressing, though not existentially empty book. He learns that he must take “the shocks of existence” more lightly. He creates, not a wispy and consumptive Theresa, but a solid one – a simple and solid comic opera with an aging and clingy mistress for Byron, the most romantic of the romantic poets. But life goes on: “a line of existences in which his share, his gift, will grow inexorably less and less, till it may as well be forgotten.” Small comfort, but a comfort nonetheless, like that of easing the pain of an unwanted dog, or letting go of ones vanities: “the gentle sun, the stillness of mid-afternoon, bees busy in a field of flowers; and at the centre of the picture a young woman, das ewig Weibliche, lightly pregnant, in a straw sunhat.” A very delicate and fleeting kind of beauty.

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