I may not have posted much recently, but I have been reading, I promise you. After the relief of giving up on Moby Dick I raced through Disgrace in an afternoon.
The last novel I read by Coetzee was Elizabeth Costelloe. My lasting memory of the book was that it was clever but I had not enjoyed it. (This review in The Observer explains the book far better than I could, reaching a similar conclusion.)
The main character in Disgrace is another ageing academic, 52 year old David Lurie, and I suspected I would feel antagonistic towards him. Coetzee obligingly stated in the first sentence that David had “solved the problem of sex rather well” by visiting a prostitute every Thursday afternoon. Coetzee appears to be creating a misogynistic anti-hero for us to despise. All the women David meets in the first part of the story are reduced to supporting characters. David cannot, or does not want to, think of their lives apart from those parts that intersect with his own. I was so bemused by Coetzee giving David the word ‘uxorious’ to describe his feelings towards the prostitute Soraya that I had to look it up to check I had the right definition. David knew nothing about the prostitute apart from what he learned in these weekly meetings. He did not even know her real name, yet he deluded himself that she was virtually his wife. In this safe, limited, transactional relationship with her, he felt uxorious.
David accidentally spots the prostitute with her sons one day and after that point, sex with her is not the same. He can’t help imagining her sons being in the room with him. I guess that previously he was happy to disconnect the act of intercourse from the act of procreation. We are told that he has a daughter, so presumably intercourse has led to a child at least once in his past. We are told little about his daughter’s mother.
David’s uneasiness with his weekly encounters with the prostitute leads to his seduction of Melanie, one of his students. He knows that what he is doing will have repercussions. I was unsure whether he was unwilling to take responsibility for his resultant judgement and disgrace, or whether he had a thinly veiled desire to precipitate events that might shake up his comfortable yet unsatisfactory existence.
The whole of the novel is written from David’s point of view. We are given regular insight into his ruminations and motivations but we have to guess at the effect on the other characters. Just as with the prostitute, we do not know how Melanie feels about David, or what motivated her to respond to his advances. Without checking back through the novel I can remember her speaking only a couple of times. David describes one session of sex with her as “not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless.” This disturbing phrase draws us to wonder if Melanie would have described the session as rape. Even when David is disciplined by the university we do not know exactly what charges are made against him. Our picture of the story is one-sided.
In the second part of the novel, when David is now in disgrace (not that the title refers solely to him) he goes to stay with his daughter. I am reluctant to give away any more of the plot. The novel is best read when you do not know what is going to happen next. I won’t, either, list all the themes covered and allusions made. You can go to a revision site like Shmoop for that.
Look out for the mentions of dogs at various parts of the novel, firstly used as symbols for social status but also connecting with the idea of physical degradation, suffering and personal disgrace.
Also look out for the contrast between the city and the country, between academia and farming, and between characters rooted in the old oppressive South Africa versus those who are either pragmatical or entrepreneurial in the new post-apartheid regime.
This book is one of the Telegraph 100 books everyone should read.