Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

As they say in the industry: when in doubt, just have a white cover with the title and author on it.

The lecherous English professor has become a stock character in contemporary literature. I seriously thought during the first 80 pages that Disgrace was merely shaping up to be a less engaging version of The Human Stain (and like Philip Roth, J. M. Coetzee is by most accounts a… well, thoroughly unpleasant person).

Professor David Lurie, who refuses to publicly apologize for his affair with a twenty-year-old student, vanishes from his post at South Cape Technical University and goes to live with his daughter. Lucy, a white among black Africans, has a house out on the Eastern Cape where she keeps a dog kennel and tends modest crops, and David makes himself useful. At first, this African pastoral lifestyle appeals to him as a Romantic poet enthusiast, and he aspires to finish composing an opera based on Byron (although there’s no reason to believe he has the musical know-how to even write a Lord Byron TV jingle on a Korg keyboard, let alone an opera.)

But when strangers invade the home, attack David, massacre the dogs, and violate Lucy, we see the grisly reality of where they live. Even more disturbing is the fact that these strangers may be associated with Petrus, the skilled farmer who’s slowly taking over Lucy’s property.

Disgrace’s uncomfortable implications can make it hard to like. The tension between the Africans and  the whites, with the former being singularly predatory in this book, and the latter being the unequivocal victims, had me squirming. I can see how Disgrace was harangued by some for what they perceived to be harmful stereotypes. But after much thought, I ultimately took away from this book what I think is an allegory to really chew on.

What the Hell Are They Doing There?

The truth is, David has no business being in rural Africa. Even after the attack, he wants to preserve his legacy, his daughter, but this is no place for some bookish, wrinkled Don Juan to write a Byron opera. It’s no place for hippie Lucy, either, to play at agrarian living with her dogs. It’s ludicrous. The Eastern Cape is a brutal environment that requires a callous survival instinct that neither one of them has. It will either subjugate them like it does Lucy or violently repel them like it does David.

Lucy copes with her rape by viewing it as a custom of survival, a fact of life in this hinterland. In David’s insulated world of traffic lights and committee hearings (like Marlow’s “sepulchral city”), no one has to accept being violated.

It’s difficult to separate myself from David’s perspective at this point– which is odd considering that in the novel’s beginning I’d barely consent to shake the guy’s hand, and even then I’d want some Purel sanitizer (But after all, once David’s head is set on fire, I begin to think maybe he’s a man more sinned against than sinning). He sees Lucy as allowing herself to be absorbed into a savage world that will eventually kill her. Even when I make the effort to, I can’t fully reconcile my own (in the context of this novel) colonial views with this unprovoked violence as a way of life. I’m incensed by Lucy’s acquiescence.

When it comes to conflict, David resigns, retires, retreats, and Lucy accepts– but is more thoroughly destroyed. Neither approach seems a successful model for responding to one’s own fall. Is there something in between? Or is Coetzee suggesting there’s no happy solution to the post-colonial involvement of Europeans in Africa?

Genuinely disturbing and fascinating. And I haven’t even mentioned the way animals, particularly dogs, figure into the themes here. What waters down my praise for Disgrace is that so much of it is a novel I’d already read before repeatedly: the man in his autumn years who is preparing to die.

So much of this theme, so oddly underdeveloped. There’s little context, no hint of David’s younger, supposedly more vigorous past with which we may compare his current state, except that in his day he shagged enough women and girls to father half of Johannesburg. (We don’t know much about anybody’s background, come to think of it)

Disgrace loses something by this. The emotional impact of a dying tree is minimal unless we can picture that tree when it was once bursting with foliage. We have no frame of reference for David’s decay. Coetzee’s just showing us an already-withered oak that’s about to lose more leaves.

Maybe the existential struggle of an old, displaced impotent would be more interesting to me if I hadn’t already encountered it many times previously in better form (Roth, Beckett). The novel’s value to me is in its parable on civilization and violence. That’s really what most people recall about Disgrace— even if it constitutes less of the actual book.

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One thought on “Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

  1. Wow. You totally nailed it. But if you say Roth and Beckett has done better with the theme then I’ll take your word for it and go hunt some out. And yes, we never do hear of David’s past. He has no ‘shadow’, which makes him a little unrelatable (sp?) Still, I liked it.

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