David Lurie has a pretty good life. He’s moderately successful at his job as a literature professor, and he has hopes of expanding on his Byron studies by writing an opera about Byron. And for his physical needs, he enjoys the “services” of a lovely young woman named Soraya. It’s a perfect arrangement, until he sees Soraya out with her two sons—and, more important, she sees him and decides she can no longer offer her services to him. Once his routine is out of kilter, David sets his eyes on an attractive young student named Melanie. When Melanie accuses David of harassment, he falls into disgrace and leaves his Capetown home to stay at a farm with his daughter Lucy. There, he finds a completely different world, and completely different kinds of disgrace. Violent attacks, animal cruelty, and racial tensions all come into play as David tries to figure out how to live in a world where all the rules have changed.
When I read my first novel by J.M. Coetzee (Summertime), I was impressed with how Coetzee took a difficult premise and created such a memorable, readable novel from it. The same is true with Disgrace. In Summertime, the difficulty had to do with form, but in Disgrace, the difficulty has to do with the grim subject matter. Coetzee’s main character is a detestable piece of work, and the situations depicted are horrifying. The limited third-person point of view puts us right into David’s head, and it’s not a pretty place to be.
Despite the difficulty in subject matter, the book is tremendously compelling and easy to listen to. The audiobook narrator, Michael Cumpstey, has just the right kind of passionate intensity for this book about a world in which all things are falling apart.
One thing that stood out to me was how Coetzee handled race. The novel takes place in post-Apartheid South Africa. David and his daughter are white, but many of Lucy’s neighbors are black, some enjoying prosperity and the hope of progress for the first time in their lives. However, a horribly violent attack leaves David angry at all black men and fearing for Lucy’s life. Lucy’s more tolerant reaction infuriates him.
On the face of it, this looks simply like a tale about an old racist and sexist jerk getting his comeuppance, but it’s much more complicated than that. For one thing, David is right to be angry that the black criminals aren’t being brought to justice. And Lucy’s reaction is, in some ways, just as problematic as David’s. Her desire to move on causes her to consider an appalling arrangement that would ensure her safety but connect her to criminals. And there’s a point where she seems to imply that she can offer herself as a sort of recompense for the crimes of her white forebears. It’s unsettling and horrifying. (This bit was especially arresting because I started listening to this as I was reading Season of Migration to the North, where the relationships between sexes and races are equally fraught.)
For a time, I actually pondered whether Coetzee was making a racist argument, but I don’t think David, with his racist and sexist tendencies, is a mouthpiece for Coetzee. Coetzee spoke out against Apartheid, and I think at heart Coetzee is showing how the infection of racism leaves society unable to dispense justice properly, even after racism is no longer official policy.
There’s a lot more that I could get into here. The book is rich in imagery and theme. There’s the whole idea of Byron as emblematic of David’s nostalgia for a past when men could take the women they wanted and be lauded as romantic heroes. And dogs show up again and again, often as victims of cruelty, but also as protectors or companions, never mind all the times people are compared to dogs. Lots to explore there, which makes Disgrace an extremely rewarding read.