Book Magazine March/April 2000
Disgrace (Essential Edition): (Penguin Essential Edition)by J. M. Coetzee
Set in post-apartheid South Africa, J. M. Coetzee’s searing novel tells the story of David Lurie, a twice divorced, 52-year-old professor of communications and Romantic Poetry at Cape Technical University. Lurie believes he has created a comfortable, if somewhat passionless, life for himself. He lives within his financial and emotional means. Though his… See more details below
Set in post-apartheid South Africa, J. M. Coetzee’s searing novel tells the story of David Lurie, a twice divorced, 52-year-old professor of communications and Romantic Poetry at Cape Technical University. Lurie believes he has created a comfortable, if somewhat passionless, life for himself. He lives within his financial and emotional means. Though his position at the university has been reduced, he teaches his classes dutifully; and while age has diminished his attractiveness, weekly visits to a prostitute satisfy his sexual needs. He considers himself happy. But when Lurie seduces one of his students, he sets in motion a chain of events that will shatter his complacency and leave him utterly disgraced.
Lurie pursues his relationship with the young Melanie—whom he describes as having hips “as slim as a twelve-year-old’s”—obsessively and narcissistically, ignoring, on one occasion, her wish not to have sex. When Melanie and her father lodge a complaint against him, Lurie is brought before an academic committee where he admits he is guilty of all the charges but refuses to express any repentance for his acts. In the furor of the scandal, jeered at by students, threatened by Melanie’s boyfriend, ridiculed by his ex-wife, Lurie is forced to resign and flees Cape Town for his daughter Lucy’s smallholding in the country. There he struggles to rekindle his relationship with Lucy and to understand the changing relations of blacks and whites in the new South Africa. But when three black strangers appear at their house asking to make a phone call, a harrowing afternoon of violence follows which leaves both of them badly shaken and further estranged from one another. After a brief return to Cape Town, where Lurie discovers his home has also been vandalized, he decides to stay on with his daughter, who is pregnant with the child of one of her attackers. Now thoroughly humiliated, Lurie devotes himself to volunteering at the animal clinic, where he helps put down diseased and unwanted dogs. It is here, Coetzee seems to suggest, that Lurie gains a redeeming sense of compassion absent from his life up to this point.
Written with the austere clarity that has made J. M. Coetzee the winner of two Booker Prizes, Disgrace explores the downfall of one man and dramatizes, with unforgettable, at times almost unbearable, vividness the plight of a country caught in the chaotic aftermath of centuries of racial oppression.
Book Magazine March/April 2000
This novel stands as one of the few I know in which the writer's use of the present tense is in itself enough to shape the structure and form of the book as a whole. Even though it presents an almost unrelieved series of grim moments, "Disgrace" isn't claustrophobic or depressing, as some of Coetzee's earlier work has been. Its grammar allows for the sublime exhilaration of accident and surprise, and so the fate of its characters - and perhaps indeed of their country - seems not determined but improvised. Improvised in the way that our own lives are; improvised in a way that recalls the subject of Coetzee's 1994 novel, The Master of Petersburg, the novelist whom we know as Dostoyevsky.
Coetzee won an earlier Booker prize for Life & Times of Michael K. Last month's award made him the only writer ever to win it twice. "Disgrace" surely deserves such recognition. But that may, in time, come to seem among the least of this extraordinary novel's distinctions. -- (New York Times Book Review
His latest, and last, conquest is a demure young woman from his Romantic course who yields to his strenuous efforts to seduce her, but not fully. In a line that will prove to haunt Lurie later on, Coetzee describes their consummation as "not rape, not quite that, but undesired nonetheless, undesired to the core." When she reports his actions to the school board, he's cold and unrepentant, refusing to even feign contrition in order to keep his job. But the tables turn once he retreats from Cape Town to his daughter Lucy's isolated smallholding in a dangerous rural area. Though humbled enough by his peasant lifestyle, his spirits are broken one evening when three black intruders beat him near death, leaving him helpless to prevent them from raping his daughter. It's a horrifying turn of events, but what's most shocking to Lurie (and the reader) is her refusal to either report the men to the police or leave with him to a safer place.
Coetzee is obviously playing with some incendiary racial politics here, but he's skillful about situating the entire story within the context of parable. In his eyes, Lucy's violation and suffering is also South Africa's, before and after apartheid. Its effects cannot be shaken or escaped, so the only sensible recourse is to grow accustomed to it and try to be a good person. That's about as much hope as Coetzee can bring himself to offer, but Disgrace unfolds with such hardened wisdom and assurance that its arid beauty sinks into your bones.
Onion A.V. Club
In his sober, searing and even cynical little book Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee tells us something we all suspect and fear -- that political change can do almost nothing to eliminate human misery. What it can do, he suggests, is reorder it a little and half-accidentally introduce a few new varieties. This view should not surprise any of the great South African novelist's readers. In his early-1980s masterpieces Waiting for the Barbarians and Life & Times of Michael K -- indeed, in all of his work -- political and historical forces blow through the lives of individuals like nasty weather systems, bringing with them a destruction that is all the more cruel for being impersonal. Disgrace is Coetzee's first book to deal explicitly with post-apartheid South Africa, and the picture it paints is a cheerless one that will comfort no one, no matter what race, nationality or viewpoint.
Disgrace was awarded the Booker Prize, and it has undeniable echoes of Michael K, Coetzee's 1983 Booker winner. In both books a man is broken down almost to nothing before he finds some tiny measure of redemption in his forced acceptance of the realities of life and death. But Professor David Lurie, the protagonist of Disgrace, has farther to fall than Michael K, an unsophisticated Cape Town gardener. And the clarity David comes to at the end grows largely from his accepting an ever-increasing portion of pain. "One gets used to things getting harder; one ceases to be surprised that what used to be as hard as hard can be grows harder yet," he reflects. That sentence also describes Coetzee's notion of life in the new South Africa, where, as he portrays it, brutal tyranny has been replaced by brutal anarchy.
A middle-aged, divorced scholar of Romantic poetry, David would have undoubtedly been a pathetic figure under the old regime -- one imagines an ineffectual white liberal teaching Wordsworth to bored Afrikaners while largely ignoring the atrocities perpetrated in his name. But in the Mandela era, David has become a victim of "the great rationalization": His university has been remade into a technical college, and he teaches courses in "communication skills" that he finds nonsensical. He is such a nonentity that the prostitute he patronizes weekly -- and for whom he has begun buying gifts -- stops receiving him. He imagines her and her colleagues shuddering over him "as one shudders at a cockroach in a washbasin in the middle of the night" and wonders if he can ask his doctor to castrate him as one neuters a domestic animal.
This is the first of the many comparisons of human and animal existence in Disgrace. Coetzee has always situated his characters in extreme situations that compel them to explore what it means to be human, and before this novel is over, David must endure both psychological abasement and physical torment. But Coetzee has never before asked so clearly what it is not to be human. Later in the novel, after David has fallen into disgrace and fled Cape Town for his daughter Lucy's remote farm, she tells him, "This is the only life there is. Which we share with animals."
If David is reduced at times almost to an animal existence and finally to becoming a caretaker for dying animals, it is the mendacity of language that leads him there. Toward the end of the story, he reflects that the language he and others use has become "tired, friable, eaten from the inside as if by termites" and that he, an expert practitioner, is also hollow, "like a fly-casing in a spiderweb." When he is hauled before an academic tribunal after a misbegotten affair with a student, he refuses to defend himself against charges of sexual harassment. At first he resists the spectacle of public "prurience and sentiment" the committee expects. When he finally blurts out an apology, members of the tribunal refuse to be satisfied, demanding to know whether it reflects his sincere feelings and comes from his heart.
Coetzee seems to be attacking the New Age tyranny of therapeutic discourse here, but David's own language doesn't seem much more trustworthy. He rashly tells his judges that his liaison with the pretty and almost totally passive Melanie transformed him, if only briefly: "I was no longer a fifty-year-old divorcé at a loose end. I became a servant of Eros." Readers may well be repelled by David's arrogance, and his conduct with Melanie has fallen only a little short of rape. But judging him is not a simple matter. He is a student of Romanticism whose unrealized ambition is to write a chamber opera about Byron's life in Italy. No matter how little of our sympathy David may command, he has a point: If he genuinely believed his passion for Melanie was the real thing, the flame he had been waiting his whole life to feel, then how could he not pursue her avidly?
There is something fundamentally cryptic and unsummarizable about Disgrace, but I read it as an almost metaphysical journey from this Romantic variety of love to the harsher, leaner strain David eventually learns from life on and around Lucy's farm. In Coetzee's fiction the stark and beautiful South African countryside has always played a half-allegorical role as both a destructive and a regenerative environment. He certainly can't be accused of sentimentalizing rural life; shortly after David goes to live with Lucy, a stolid lesbian who, like him, seems to have been abandoned by the world, they become victims of a vicious criminal assault that may not be as random as it first appears. Their relations with Petrus, the African farmer who is their nearest neighbor, become increasingly troubled and ambiguous. David volunteers to work for Bev, a friend of Lucy's who runs the local veterinary clinic, and comes to realize that Bev's primary role, in this impoverished land, is not to heal animals but to kill them with as much love and mercy as she can summon.
In the wake of the outrages committed against him and his daughter, David still struggles with language. His angry demands for justice get no response from the overstretched police, and his attempts to confront one of the assailants -- whom Petrus is apparently protecting -- produce only stony silences and baldfaced lies. Lucy seems to understand what David cannot: that to live where she lives she must tolerate brutalization and humiliation and simply keep going. "Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept," she tells her father. "To start at ground level. With nothing... No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity...Like a dog." If David actually reclaims some dignity by the end of Disgrace, it is only because he gives up everything, gives up more than a dog ever could -- his daughter, his ideas about justice and language, his dream of the opera on Byron and even the dying animals he has learned to love without reservation, without thought for himself.
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FOR A MAN of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well. On Thursday afternoons he drives to Green Point. Punctually at two p.m. he presses the buzzer at the entrance to Windsor Mansions, speaks his name, and enters. Waiting for him at the door of No. 113 is Soraya. He goes straight through to the bedroom, which is pleasant-smelling and softly lit, and undresses. Soraya emerges from the bathroom, drops her robe, slides into bed beside him. 'Have you missed me?' she asks. 'I miss you all the time,' he replies. He strokes her honey-brown body, unmarked by the sun; he stretches her out, kisses her breasts; they make love.
Soraya is tall and slim, with long black hair and dark, liquid eyes. Technically he is old enough to be her father; but then, technically, one can be a father at twelve. He has been on her books for over a year; he finds her entirely satisfactory. In the desert of the week Thursday has become an oasis of luxe et volupt�.
In bed Soraya is not effusive. Her temperament is in fact rather quiet, quiet and docile. In her general opinions she is surprisingly moralistic. She is offended by tourists who bare their breasts ('udders', she calls them) on public beaches; she thinks vagabonds should be rounded up and put to work sweeping the streets. How she reconciles her opinions with her line of business he does not ask.
Because he takes pleasure in her, because his pleasure is unfailing, an affection has grown up in him for her. To some degree, he believes, this affection is reciprocated. Affection may not be love, but it is at least its cousin. Given their unpromising beginnings, they have been lucky, the two of them: he to have found her, she to have found him.
His sentiments are, he is aware, complacent, even uxorious. Nevertheless he does not cease to hold to them.
For a ninety-minute session he pays her R400, of which half goes to Discreet Escorts. It seems a pity that Discreet Escorts should get so much. But they own No. 113 and other flats in Windsor Mansions; in a sense they own Soraya too, this part of her, this function.
He has toyed with the idea of asking her to see him in her own time. He would like to spend an evening with her, perhaps even a whole night. But not the morning after. He knows too much about himself to subject her to a morning after, when he will be cold, surly, impatient to be alone.
That is his temperament. His temperament is not going to change, he is too old for that. His temperament is fixed, set. The skull, followed by the temperament: the two hardest parts of the body.
Follow your temperament. It is not a philosophy, he would not dignify it with that name. It is a rule, like the Rule of St Benedict.
He is in good health, his mind is clear. By profession he is, or has been, a scholar, and scholarship still engages, intermittently, the core of him. He lives within his income, within his temperament, within his emotional means. Is he happy? By most measurements, yes, he believes he is. However, he has not forgotten the last chorus of Oedipus: Call no man happy until he is dead.
In the field of sex his temperament, though intense, has never been passionate. Were he to choose a totem, it would be the snake. Intercourse between Soraya and himself must be, he imagines, rather like the copulation of snakes: lengthy, absorbed, but rather abstract, rather dry, even at its hottest.
Is Soraya's totem the snake too? No doubt with other men she becomes another woman: la donna � mobile. Yet at the level of temperament her affinity with him can surely not be feigned.
Though by occupation she is a loose woman he trusts her, within limits. During their sessions he speaks to her with a certain freedom, even on occasion unburdens himself. She knows the facts of his life. She has heard the stories of his two marriages, knows about his daughter and his daughter's ups and downs. She knows many of his opinions.
Of her life outside Windsor Mansions Soraya reveals nothing. Soraya is not her real name, that he is sure of. There are signs she has borne a child, or children. It may be that she is not a professional at all. She may work for the agency only one or two afternoons a week, and for the rest live a respectable life in the suburbs, in Rylands or Athlone. That would be unusual for a Muslim, but all things are possible these days.
About his own job he says little, not wanting to bore her. He earns his living at the Cape Technical University, formerly Cape Town University College. Once a professor of modern languages, he has been, since Classics and Modern Languages were closed down as part of the great rationalization, adjunct professor of communications. Like all rationalized personnel, he is allowed to offer one special-field course a year, irrespective of enrolment, because that is good for morale. This year he is offering a course in the Romantic poets. For the rest he teaches Communications 101, 'Communication Skills', and Communications 201, 'Advanced Communication Skills'.
Although he devotes hours of each day to his new discipline, he finds its first premise, as enunciated in the Communications 101 handbook, preposterous: 'Human society has created language in order that we may communicate our thoughts, feelings and intentions to each other.' His own opinion, which he does not air, is that the origins of speech lie in song, and the origins of song in the need to fill out with sound the overlarge and rather empty human soul.
In the course of a career stretching back a quarter of a century he has published three books, none of which has caused a stir or even a ripple: the first on opera (Boito and the Faust Legend: The Genesis of Mefistofele), the second on vision as eros (The Vision of Richard of St Victor), the third on Wordsworth and history (Wordsworth and the Burden of the Past).
In the past few years he has been playing with the idea of a work on Byron. At first he had thought it would be another book, another critical opus. But all his sallies at writing it have bogged down in tedium. The truth is, he is tired of criticism, tired of prose measured by the yard. What he wants to write is music: Byron in Italy, a meditation on love between the sexes in the form of a chamber opera.
Through his mind, while he faces his Communications classes, flit phrases, tunes, fragments of song from the unwritten work. He has never been much of a teacher; in this transformed and, to his mind, emasculated institution of learning he is more out of place than ever. But then, so are other of his colleagues from the old days, burdened with upbringings inappropriate to the tasks they are set to perform; clerks in a post-religious age.
Because he has no respect for the material he teaches, he makes no impression on his students. They look through him when he speaks, forget his name. Their indifference galls him more than he will admit. Nevertheless he fulfils to the letter his obligations toward them, their parents, and the state. Month after month he sets, collects, reads, and annotates their assignments, correcting lapses in punctuation, spelling and usage, interrogating weak arguments, appending to each paper a brief, considered critique.
He continues to teach because it provides him with a livelihood; also because it teaches him humility, brings it home to him who he is in the world. The irony does not escape him: that the one who comes to teach learns the keenest of lessons, while those who come to learn learn nothing. It is a feature of his profession on which he does not remark to Soraya. He doubts there is an irony to match it in hers.
In the kitchen of the flat in Green Point there are a kettle, plastic cups, a jar of instant coffee, a bowl with sachets of sugar. The refrigerator holds a supply of bottled water. In the bathroom there is soap and a pile of towels, in the cupboard clean bedlinen. Soraya keeps her makeup in an overnight bag. A place of assignation, nothing more, functional, clean, well regulated.
The first time Soraya received him she wore vermilion lipstick and heavy eyeshadow. Not liking the stickiness of the makeup, he asked her to wipe it off. She obeyed, and has never worn it since. A ready learner, compliant, pliant.
He likes giving her presents. At New Year he gave her an enamelled bracelet, at Eid a little malachite heron that caught his eye in a curio shop. He enjoys her pleasure, which is quite unaffected.
It surprises him that ninety minutes a week of a woman's company are enough to make him happy, who used to think he needed a wife, a home, a marriage. His needs turn out to be quite light, after all, light and fleeting, like those of a butterfly. No emotion, or none but the deepest, the most unguessed-at: a ground bass of contentedness, like the hum of traffic that lulls the city-dweller to sleep, or like the silence of the night to countryfolk.
He thinks of Emma Bovary, coming home sated, glazen-eyed, from an afternoon of reckless fucking. So this is bliss!, says Emma, marvelling at herself in the mirror. So this is the bliss the poets speak of! Well, if poor ghostly Emma were ever to find her way to Cape Town, he would bring her along one Thursday afternoon to show her what bliss can be: a moderate bliss, a moderated bliss.
Then one Saturday morning everything changes. He is in the city on business; he is walking down St George's Street when his eyes fall on a slim figure ahead of him in the crowd. It is Soraya, unmistakably, flanked by two children, two boys. They are carrying parcels; they have been shopping.
He hesitates, then follows at a distance. They disappear into Captain Dorego's Fish Inn. The boys have Soraya's lustrous hair and dark eyes. They can only be her sons.
He walks on, turns back, passes Captain Dorego's a second time. The three are seated at a table in the window. For an instant, through the glass, Soraya's eyes meet his.
He has always been a man of the city, at home amid a flux of bodies where eros stalks and glances flash like arrows. But this glance between himself and Soraya he regrets at once.
At their rendezvous the next Thursday neither mentions the incident. Nonetheless, the memory hangs uneasily over them. He has no wish to upset what must be, for Soraya, a precarious double life. He is all for double lives, triple lives, lives lived in compartments. Indeed, he feels, if anything, greater tenderness for her. Your secret is safe with me, he would like to say.
But neither he nor she can put aside what has happened. The two little boys become presences between them, playing quiet as shadows in a corner of the room where their mother and the strange man couple. In Soraya's arms he becomes, fleetingly, their father: foster-father, step-father, shadow-father. Leaving her bed afterwards, he feels their eyes flicker over him covertly, curiously.
His thoughts turn, despite himself, to the other father, the real one. Does he have any inkling of what his wife is up to, or has he elected the bliss of ignorance?
He himself has no son. His childhood was spent in a family of women. As mother, aunts, sisters fell away, they were replaced in due course by mistresses, wives, a daughter. The company of women made of him a lover of women and, to an extent, a womanizer. With his height, his good bones, his olive skin, his flowing hair, he could always count on a degree of magnetism. If he looked at a woman in a certain way, with a certain intent, she would return his look, he could rely on that. That was how he lived; for years, for decades, that was the backbone of his life.
Then one day it all ended. Without warning his powers fled. Glances that would once have responded to his slid over, past, through him. Overnight he became a ghost. If he wanted a woman he had to learn to pursue her; often, in one way or another, to buy her.
He existed in an anxious flurry of promiscuity. He had affairs with the wives of colleagues; he picked up tourists in bars on the waterfront or at the Club Italia; he slept with whores.
His introduction to Soraya took place in a dim little sitting-room off the front office of Discreet Escorts, with Venetian blinds over the windows, pot plants in the corners, stale smoke hanging in the air. She was on their books under 'Exotic'. The photograph showed her with a red passion-flower in her hair and the faintest of lines at the corners of her eyes. The entry said 'Afternoons only'. That was what decided him: the promise of shuttered rooms, cool sheets, stolen hours.
From the beginning it was satisfactory, just what he wanted. A bull's eye. In a year he has not needed to go back to the agency.
Then the accident in St George's Street, and the strangeness that has followed. Though Soraya still keeps her appointments, he feels a growing coolness as she transforms herself into just another woman and him into just another client.
He has a shrewd idea of how prostitutes speak among themselves about the men who frequent them, the older men in particular. They tell stories, they laugh, but they shudder too, as one shudders at a cockroach in a washbasin in the middle of the night. Soon, daintily, maliciously, he will be shuddered over. It is a fate he cannot escape.
On the fourth Thursday after the incident, as he is leaving the apartment, Soraya makes the announcement he has been steeling himself against. 'My mother is ill. I'm going to take a break to look after her. I won't be here next week.'
'Will I see you the week after?'
'I'm not sure. It depends on how she gets on. You had better phone first.'
'I don't have a number.'
'Phone the agency. They'll know.'
He waits a few days, then telephones the agency. Soraya? Soraya has left us, says the man. No, we cannot put you in touch with her, that would be against house rules. Would you like an introduction to another of our hostesses? Lots of exotics to choose from - Malaysian, Thai, Chinese, you name it.
He spends an evening with another Soraya - Soraya has become, it seems, a popular nom de commerce - in a hotel room in Long Street. This one is no more than eighteen, unpractised, to his mind coarse. 'So what do you do?' she says as she slips off her clothes. 'Export-import,' he says. 'You don't say,' she says.
There is a new secretary in his department. He takes her to lunch at a restaurant a discreet distance from the campus and listens while, over shrimp salad, she complains about her sons' school. Drug-pedlars hang around the playing-fields, she says, and the police do nothing. For the past three years she and her husband have had their name on a list at the New Zealand consulate, to emigrate. 'You people had it easier. I mean, whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, at least you knew where you were.'
'You people?' he says. 'What people?'
'I mean your generation. Now people just pick and choose which laws they want to obey. It's anarchy. How can you bring up children when there's anarchy all around?'
Her name is Dawn. The second time he takes her out they stop at his house and have sex. It is a failure. Bucking and clawing, she works herself into a froth of excitement that in the end only repels him. He lends her a comb, drives her back to the campus.
After that he avoids her, taking care to skirt the office where she works. In return she gives him a hurt look, then snubs him.
He ought to give up, retire from the game. At what age, he wonders, did Origen castrate himself? Not the most graceful of solutions, but then ageing is not a graceful business. A clearing of the decks, at least, so that one can turn one's mind to the proper business of the old: preparing to die.
Might one approach a doctor and ask for it? A simple enough operation, surely: they do it to animals every day, and animals survive well enough, if one ignores a certain residue of sadness. Severing, tying off: with local anaesthetic and a steady hand and a modicum of phlegm one might even do it oneself, out of a textbook. A man on a chair snipping away at himself: an ugly sight, but no more ugly, from a certain point of view, than the same man exercising himself on the body of a woman.
There is still Soraya. He ought to close that chapter. Instead, he pays a detective agency to track her down. Within days he has her real name, her address, her telephone number. He telephones at nine in the morning, when the husband and children will be out. 'Soraya?' he says. 'This is David. How are you? When can I see you again?'
A long silence before she speaks. 'I don't know who you are,' she says. 'You are harassing me in my own house. I demand you will never phone me here again, never.'
Demand. She means command. Her shrillness surprises him: there has been no intimation of it before. But then, what should a predator expect when he intrudes into the vixen's nest, into the home of her cubs?
He puts down the telephone. A shadow of envy passes over him for the husband he has never seen.
From "Disgrace" by J.M. Coetzee. (c) November, 1999, Lilian Jackson Braun used by permission.
What People are saying about this
“A subtly brilliant commentary on the nature and balance of power in his homeland…. Disgrace is a mini-opera without music by a writer at the top of his form.”—Time
“Mr. Coetzee, in prose lean yet simmering with feeling, has indeed achieved a lasting work: a novel as haunting and powerful as Albert Camus’s The Stranger.”— The Wall Street Journal
“A tough, sad, stunning novel.”—Baltimore Sun
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