I’m not going to think about how close the end of summer is; instead, let’s talk about Disgrace.
J.M. Coetzee wastes no time in launching us into the life of fifty-two year old David Lurie in Disgrace. Lurie is divorced, currently on his way to visit an escort named Soraya, and has “to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.” I am hung up on this sentence because although Lurie is confident and sure of the actions of sex, he is almost clueless when it comes to the consequences and implications of those actions. If you haven’t already guessed, sex is a big driver of this novel, although place, society, and prose play large parts as well.
David Lurie is an adjunct professor of communications at Cape Technical University in Cape Town, South Africa. A previous professor of modern languages, he chooses to offer a “special-field course” in the Romantic poets, which is where he meets Melanie, a theatre student. After Lurie’s relationship with Soraya ends with a public encounter, he begins an affair with Melanie. It starts with an invitation for a drink in Lurie’s apartment, which Melanie seems reluctant to accept, and continues as an awkwardly intimate conference. Lurie’s background as a Romantic scholar is recognizable in almost every move he makes and word he speaks, but it is the following line that shifts Melanie back into the reality of their relationship: professor and student. “‘From fairest creatures we desire increase,’ he says, ‘that thereby beauty’s rose might never die.'” (16)
A sexual relationship follows of which Lurie does not seem to feel any regret about, while Melanie is blatantly unsure about his affection towards her. Coetzee keeps us in Lurie’s head throughout the novel, and while the professor thinks largely of desire and sensuality, we are left to grapple with the question of whether or not this arrangement is consensual.
After threats from a jealous boyfriend and accusations from Melanie’s parents, Lurie decides not to apologize in front of a committee assigned to suggest disciplinary actions (he admits his apology would not be sincere), and decides to leave the school – although later, we realize he has not left his desires for Melanie behind.
What came next for Lurie was a trip to his daughter’s home, a farm plot outside of town where she lives alone. They get along quite well until a group of three men assault and rob the father and daughter; the latter also becomes a victim of rape.
Through my American and western world eyes, Lurie’s extended visit with his daughter pulled me back into the setting of the novel. Although populous, Cape Town is still surrounded by pastoral communities and more primitive ways of life. His daughter, Lucy, farms her land on her own and keeps kennels, with the help of neighbors she trusts. One of those neighbors has surrounded his own land with a large fence, reminding us and Lurie that the place they live is not immune from the dangerous territory around them.
Lucy’s rape is not something her father can move on from, no matter how many times she pleads with him to. The violence with which the three men invade her home and her person shocks him – no, Lucy’s reaction to the violence surprises him. She is not an open book, she does not press for the police to amp up their search, she seems to forget. But we know she does not. To someone outside of Lurie’s mind, he cannot understand what she has experienced, although he unbelievably tries to. He has experienced sex, so why shouldn’t he be able to imagine what happened to Lucy happening to him? In a way, trying to get her to talk about it and react according to his desires, makes his bombastic attitude almost as assaulting as the physical assault she fell victim to.
Predictably, his pushing behavior leads to his departure from Lucy’s farm (he credits their disagreement on him being a protective father), from which he returns to Cape Town and takes part in a meeting with Melanie’s family and a viewing of a play she’s in. He’s only driven away from that when her boyfriend (the same one from before) spots him and drives him out.
This drives me absolutely insane, but Lurie’s insanity driving does not stop there (of course). He returns to Lucy and we find out she is pregnant. He is livid, especially when he finds out one of the attackers (a boy named Pollux) is a relative of a neighbor and is living just next door. His argument for Lucy to leave further supports his inappropriate reaction to the assault, luckily, it also further supports Lucy’s strength and point for staying.
‘Lucy, your situation is becoming ridiculous, worse than ridiculous, sinister. I don’t know how you can fail to see it. I plead with you, leave the farm before it is too late. It’s the only sane thing left to do.’ (200)
When he was put on trial for his actions, David Lurie did not back down. Yet, in the face of far worse tribulation, he expects Lucy to give up her livelihood because of the actions of others. Disgrace, defeat, deficiency. Words used along the timeline of this novel; an alliteration that cannot be ignored. Lurie was disgraced, and after Lucy’s rape he felt she was defeated by the action of sex, although he was not after his own. Deficient is what he feels Pollux is, but that word speaks to his belligerent handling of his daughter wanting to find peace (208). It is difficult seeing Lucy just move on, but from this reader’s perspective, the difficulty is not the same as Lurie’s. She moves on because of the society in which she lives; the likelihood of punishment is slim, and making a huge fuss to other members of that society could mean more trouble for her as well as for them. She wants the pieces of her life back together, and she understands what that will take, while her father does not, and cannot, understand why she turns against what is personally right and settles for situational practicality.
This novel is a fairly quick read, though do not mistake its size and ease as being superficially written. Moments pass by quickly, although it does not feel like J.M. Coetzee rushes through them for the sake of moving on. Disgrace is calm and alarming at the same time, and makes us contemplate not only our place in the world as individuals, but as members of communities and society and what that means for our behaviors, reactions, and tranquility.
J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace (New York, Viking Penguin, 1999)