Disgrace by J.M.Coetzee has sat, untouched by my bed for at least the last two months. Shameful….disgraceful you might say (or I would). Such an interesting and insightful book that when I finally picked it up I devoured it in just two sittings.
It tells the story of David Lurie, a Communications professor at the university of Cape Town. Shortly after the novel opens, David has an affair with one of his female students (something that we understand is not an uncommon occurrence for him). However, this time, the student files a complaint and David must face charges of harassment. At the hearing before his colleagues he is willing to admit he is guilty, but is unwilling to off any contrition. In turn he is forced to resign.
David ends up on his daughter’s farm in rural South Africa and it is here he comes to reflect on his past, with particular regard to his relationship and his treatment of women. Discussions with his daughter, Lucy lead David to re-evaluate his views on women. But it is only after he is attacked on the farm and his daughter is raped that David really begins to empathise with women. And in Lucy we are presented with a character at the opposite end of the scale from David. Lucy is willing to humble herself in an extreme manner as she believes that in this post-apartheid South Africa a life of humiliation is what she should settle for.
I read a few reviews on this novel that put forward that it was poorly executed, in that it was too moralistic, that the attack on Lucy is too much of a coincidence and is shoe-horned in to bring David to the revelation that his behaviour is the similar to the rapists. Or that it is too much that David goes back and has dinner with the father of the student he had an affair with, having a heart to heart with the man who should despise him. In one someone said that David wasn’t even a believable character, more of a plot device.
Yes, this is a moralistic novel, but there’s nothing wrong with that. And was carried straight through the narrative. David’s voice is self-absorbed and cynical. He isn’t likeable, but he isn’t supposed to be.
The very opening line is strong in voice:
“For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.”
He says of his students. “He has long ceased to be surprised at the ignorance of his students. Post-Christian, posthistorical, postliterate, they might as well have been hatched from eggs yesterday.”
There is so much in this book to love – the character coming to terms with his identity as individual and father, as well as his sexuality within these parameters. Questions about power and subjugation, about pride and humility, and how all these things affect a person’s humanity.