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.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:February 9, 1940
Place of Birth:Cape Town, South Africa
Education:B.A., University of Cape Town, 1960; M.A., 1963; Ph.D. in Literature, University of Texas, Austin, 1969
Read an Excerpt
FOR. A MAN of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind,solved the problem of sex rather well. On Thursday afternoons hedrives to Green Point. Punctually at two p.m. he presses the buzzerat the entrance to Windsor Mansions, speaks his name, and enters.Waiting for him at the door of No. II3 is Soraya. He goes straightthrough 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 missyou all the time,' he replies. He strokes her honey-brown body,unmarked by the sun; he stretches her out, kisses her breasts; theymake 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 herbooks for over a year; he finds her entirely satisfactory. In thedesert of the week Thursday has become an oasis of luxe et velupté.
In bed Soraya is not effusive. Her temperament is in fact ratherquiet, quiet and docile. In her general opinions she is surprisinglymoralistic. She is offended by tourists who bare their breasts('udders', she calls them) on public beaches; she thinks vagabondsshould 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 isunfailing, an affection has grown up in him for her. To somedegree, he believes, this affection is reciprocated. Affection maynot be love, but it is at least its cousin. Given their unpromisingbeginnings, they have been lucky, the two of them: he to havefound 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 R4oo, of which halfgoes to Discreet Escorts. It seems a pity that Discreet Escortsshould get so much. But they own No. II3 and other flats inWindsor Mansions; in a sense they own Soraya too, this part ofher, this function.
He has toyed with the idea of asking her to see him in her owntime. He would like to spend an evening with her, perhaps even awhole night. But not the morning after. He knows too muchabout himself to subject her to a morning after, when he will becold, 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 notdignity 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, orhas been, a scholar, and scholarship still engages, intermittently, thecore 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 lastchorus of Oedipus: Call no man happy until he is dead.
In the field of sex his temperament, though intense, has neverbeen 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 ratherabstract, rather dry, even at its hottest.
Is Soraya's totem the snake too? No doubt with other men shebecomes another woman: lu donna é mobile. Yet at the level oftemperament 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 certainfreedom, even on occasion unburdens himself She knows the factsof his life. She has heard the stories of his two marriages, knowsabout his daughter and his daughter's ups and downs. She knowsmany 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 shehas borne a child, or children. It may be that she is not aprofessional at all. She may work for the agency only one or twoafternoons a week, and for the rest live a respectable life in thesuburbs, in Rylands or Athlone. That would be unusual for aMuslim, but all things are possible these days.
About his own job he says little, not wanting to-bore her. Heearns his living at the Cape Technical University, formerly CapeTown University College. Once a professor of modern languages,he has been, since Classics and Modern Languages were closeddown as part of the great rationalization, adjunct professor ofcommunications. Like all rationalized personnel, he is allowed tooffer one special-field course a year, irrespective of enrolment,because that is good for morale. This year he is offering a course inthe Romantic poets. For the rest he teaches Communications I0I,'Communication Skills' and Communications 20I, 'AdvancedCommunication Skills'.
Although he devotes hours of each day to his new discipline, hefinds its first premise, as enunciated in the Communications I0Ihandbook, preposterous: 'Human society has created language in order that we may communicate our thoughts, feelings andintentions 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 inthe need to fill out with sound the overlarge and rather emptyhuman soul.
In the course of a career stretching back a quarter of a centuryhe has published three books, none of which has caused a stir oreven a ripple: the first on opera (Boito and the Faust Legend: TheGenesis of Mefistofele), the second on vision as eros (The Vision ofRichard of St. Victor), the third on Wordsworth and history(Wordsworth and the Burden of the Post}.
In the past few years he has been playing with the idea of a workon Byron. At first he had thought it would be another book,another critical opus. But all his sallies at writing it have boggeddown in tedium. The truth is, he is tired of criticism, tired of' prosemeasured by the yard. What he wants to write is music: Byron inItaly, a meditation on love between the sexes in the form of achamber opera.
Through his mind, while he faces his Communications classes, fit phrases, tunes, fragments of song from the unwritten work. Hehas never been much of a teacher; in this transformed and, to hismind, emasculated institution of learning he is more out of place than ever. But then, so are other of his colleagues from the olddays, burdened with upbringings inappropriate to the tasks they areset to perform; clerks in a post-religious age.
Because he has no respect for the material he teaches, he makesno impression on his students. They look through him when hespeaks, forget his name. Their indifference galls him more than hewill admit. Nevertheless he fulfils to the letter his obligationstoward them, their parents, and the state. Month after month hesets, collects, reads, and annotates their assignments, correctinglapses 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 whohe is in the world. The irony does not escape him: that the onewho comes to teach learns the keenest of lessons, while those whocome to learn learn nothing. It is a feature of his profession onwhich he does not remark to Soraya. He doubts there is an ironyto match it in hers.
In the kitchen of the flat in Green Point there are a kettle, plasticcups, a jar of instant coffee, a bowl with sachets of sugar. Therefrigerator holds a supply of bottled water. In the bathroom thereis soap and a pile of towels, in the cupboard clean bed linen. Sorayakeeps 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 lipstickand heavy eyeshadow. Not liking the stickiness of the makeup, heasked 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 anenamelled bracelet, at Eid a little malachite heron that caught hiseye in a curio shop. He enjoys her pleasure, which is quiteunaffected.
It surprises him that ninety minutes a week of a woman'scompany are enough to make him happy, who used to think heneeded a wife, a home, a marriage. His needs turn out to be quitelight, after all, light and fleeting, like those of a butterfly. Noemotion, or none but the deepest, the most unguessed-at: aground bass of contentedness, like the hum of traffic that lulls thecity—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 speakof? Well, if poor ghostly Emma were ever to find her way to CapeTown, he would bring her along one Thursday afternoon to showher what bliss can be: a moderate bliss, a moderated bliss.
Then one Saturday morning everything changes. He is in the cityon business; he is walking down St George's Street when his eyesfall on a slim figure ahead of him in the crowd. It is Soraya,unmistakably, flanked by two children, two boys. They arecarrying parcels; they have been shopping.
He hesitates, then follows at a distance. They disappear intoCaptain Dorego's Fish Inn. The boys have Soraya's lustrous hairand 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 ofbodies where eros stalks and glances flash like arrows. But thisglance between himself and Soraya he regrets at once.
At their rendezvous the next Thursday neither mentions theincident. Nonetheless, the memory hangs uneasily over them. Hehas no wish to upset what must be, for Soraya, a precarious doublelife. He is all for double lives, triple lives, lives lived incompartments. Indeed, he feels, if anything, greater tenderness forher. Your secret is safe with me, he would like to say.
But neither he nor she can put aside what has happened. Thetwo little boys become presences between them, playing quiet asshadows in a corner of the room where their mother and thestrange man couple. In Soraya's arms he becomes, fleetingly, theirfather: foster-father, step-father, shadow-father. Leaving her bedafterwards, 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 heelected the bliss of ignorance?
He himself has no son. His childhood was spent in a family ofwomen. As mother, aunts, sisters fell away, they were replaced indue course by mistresses, wives, a daughter. The company ofwomen made of him a lover of women and, to an extent, awomanizer. With his height, his good bones, his olive skin, hisFlowing hair, he could always count on a degree of magnetism. Ifhe looked at a woman in a certain way, with a certain intent, shewould return his look, he could rely on that. That was how helived; 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, throughhim. Overnight he became a ghost. If he wanted a woman he had tolearn to pursue her; often, in one way or another, to buy her.
He existed in an anxious hurry of promiscuity. He had affairswith 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 blindsover the windows, pot plants in the corners, stale smoke hangingin the air. She was on their books under 'Exotic'. The photographshowed her with a red passion-flower in her hair and the faintestof lines at the corners of her eyes. The entry said 'Afternoons only'.That was what decided him: the promise of shuttered rooms, coolsheets, stolen hours.
From the beginning it was satisfactory, just what he wanted. Abull'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 thathas followed. Though Soraya still keeps her appointments, he feelsa growing coolness as she transforms herself into just anotherwoman and him into just another client.
He has a shrewd idea of how prostitutes speak among them-selves about the men who frequent them, the older men inparticular. They tell stories, they laugh, but they shudder too, asone shudders at a cockroach in a washbasin in the middle of' thenight. Soon, daintily, maliciously, he will be shuddered over. It isa fate he cannot escape.
On the fourth Thursday after the incident, as he is leaving theapartment, Soraya makes the announcement he has been steelinghimself against. 'My mother is ill. I'm going to take a break to lookafter 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 betterphone first.'
'I don't have a number.''
'Phone the agency. They'll know.'
He waits a few days, then telephones the agency. Soraya? Sorayahas left us, says the man. No, we cannot put you in touch with her,that would be against house rules. Would you like an introductionto another of our hostesses? Lots of exotics to choose from — Malaysian, Thai, Chinese, you name it.
He spends an evening with another Soraya — Soraya hasbecome, it seems, a popular nom de commerce — in a hotel room inLong Street. This one is no more than eighteen, unpractised, to hismind coarse. 'So what do you do?' she says as she slips off herclothes. 'Export-import,' he says. "You don't say,' she says.
There is a new secretary in his department. He takes her tolunch at a restaurant a discreet distance from the campus andlistens while, over shrimp salad, she complains about her sons'school. Drug-pedlars hang around the playing-fields, she says, andthe police do nothing. For the past three years she and herhusband have had their name on a list at the New Zealandconsulate, to emigrate. 'You people had it easier. I mean, whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, at least you knewwhere you were.'
'You people? he says. 'What people?'
'I mean your generation. Now people just pick and choosewhich laws they want to obey. It's anarchy. How can you bring upchildren 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, sheworks herself into a froth of excitement that in the end only repelshim. He lends her a comb, drives her back to the campus.
After that he avoids her, taking care to skirt the office where sheworks. In return she gives him a hurt look, then snubs him.
He ought to give up, retire from the game. At what age, hewonders, did Origen castrate himself? Not the most graceful ofsolutions, but then ageing is not a graceful business. A clearing ofthe decks, at least, so that one can turn one's mind to the properbusiness of the old: preparing to die.
Might one approach a doctor and ask for it? A simple enoughoperation, surely: they do it to animals every clay, and animalssurvive well enough, if one ignores a certain residue of sadness.Severing, tying off: with local anesthetic and a steady hand and amodicum of phlegm one might even do it oneself, out of atextbook. 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 manexercising himself on the body of a woman.
There is still Soraya. He ought to close that chapter. Instead, hepays a detective agency to track her down. Within days he has herreal name, her address, her telephone number. He telephones atnine in the morning, when the husband and children will be out.'Soraya? he says. 'This is David. How are you? When can I seeyou 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: therehas been no intimation of it before. But then, what should apredator expect when he intrudes into the vixen's nest, into thehome of her cubs?
He puts down the telephone. A shadow of envy passes over himfor the husband he has never seen.
What People are Saying About This
" Disgrace is not a hard or obscure book-it is, among other things, compulsively readable-but what it may well be is an authentically spiritual document, a lament for the soul of a disgraced century."
-The New Yorker