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By J.M. Coetzee
New York: The Viking Press, 1999
ISBN: 0-670-88731-5 220 pages

Bob Corbett
July 2016

Comments by Bob Corbett

J.M. COETZEE was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003

DISGRACE is a fascinating and powerful novel of a university professor and his daughter. They are counter-cultural in their values and had the power of will to follow their own “way” in life, though neither of them approves of the other’s manner of living. The novel is well-written, gripping, always surprising and challenging. I especially liked the sort of minimalist writing of J. M. Coetzee who gives the reader enough information to follow the story, but doesn’t dwell on details, just sort of blurts them out and lets the reader deal with it all.

David Lurie is a “Professor of Communications,” at a university in Capetown, South Africa. He scorns this title, which he sees as a sop to a less serious university environment. He is actually a teacher of literature and especially loves the erotic nature of the poetry of Wordsworth.

He is twice divorced, likes women and has an affair, somewhat forced on his part, with a student, whose boyfriend puts pressure on David and it finally all comes out. When this scandal breaks on the scene David was 52 and the year is 1997.

The whole affair becomes public and the girl, Melanie Isaac, and her family press charges. He accepts that he had the affair, but will not agree to accept the wording of the committee which is charged with doing an investigation. He is also charged with falsifying her grade records in one of his classes. He accepts that he did these things, but won’t accept the committee’s wording of what he did. He even admits he was wrong and apologizes for what he did.

Even though he readily acknowledges what he did and that it was inappropriate and of his own doing, he will not agree to one of the conditions, that he receive some counseling for his behavior. This is a matter of principle for him, surprising perhaps to the readers, since he doesn’t seem to have too many moral principles. However, his rejection is rooted in his scorn for the university’s position since there are many such cases of student / faculty sexual relationships and he believes the university’s demand is a way of somehow disburdening the university itself for any responsibility for what goes on within a typical university. At least that is how David sees it. His rejection of this condition of his “rehabilitation” costs him his job and career.

In his analysis he is rejecting a practice of scapegoating. He argues that the tradition was such that:

“Scapegoating worked in practice while it still had religious power behind it. You loaded the sins of the city on to the goat’s back and drove it out, and the city was cleansed. It worked because everyone knew how to read the ritual, including the gods. Then the gods died, and all of a sudden you had to cleanse the city without divine help.”

He then sets off to visit his daughter, Lucy. When even his daughter challenges him to defend himself, he begins to do so, at least in his head, but says “not yet” to her.

I was a servant of Eros: a god who acted through me.”

He tends to think in this manner.

Lucy has a small place of 5 hectares of land and a small house in a relatively remote area. His daughter is greatly into helping needy animals. He isn’t, but agrees to stay a while and try to help a local woman and friend of his daughter, Bev Shaw, with her work with dogs needing help. He doesn’t really like Bev Shaw, but nonetheless does have an affair with her while working in the animal clinic. He also strongly suspects that Lucy appears to have a lover of some sort in Helen, but he’s not really sure.

3 local black men attack the two of them at his daughter’s farm, even setting him on fire and raping his daughter, stealing his car and killing several of her favorite dogs.

He sort of takes over since his daughter is simply devastated by it all. Petrus, a local black peasant who helps Lucy a lot, returns a few days later but says nothing of where he’s been or why, and won’t talk to David about the whole story of what happened to them in the attack.

At Petrus’ party one of the three attacks in present, the younger boy. David confronts him, but he denies it and his daughter won’t back him. They have a row. It turns out that the boy is related to Petrus, yet his daughter will not bring charges and demands that David do nothing about it. He is extremely frustrated by her seeming acceptance of what has happened to her. However, it became clear to this reader that there was a great similarity between father and daughter. Each is a person who lives with his or her own principles and values and each is willing to sacrifice a great deal in order to live those values.

David tries to convince his daughter, Lucy, to leave. She simply can’t. She has to deal with her understanding – WHY? David tries to explain that the hatred, the brutality, the carefulness of choosing her is HISTORICAL hatred manifesting itself.

David’s refusal to accept the conditions the faculty committee asked of him cost him his job and career and financial self-sufficiency. However, while he COMPLETELY admitted he behaved poorly and did all the things he was accused of, he was not willing to cave into the system which asked of him that he go into counselling. He says that such counselling was a useless sop that the “system” asked of people because of how that played in the public light.

In the case of his daughter, Lucy, she is raped and possibly going to have a baby because of it. However, she will not try to stop the child from being born because of her principles about taking an innocent life.

Father and daughter are, in this sense, both people of significant principle who will not easily cave into societal values and do what “most people” regard as good sense or proper action.

After some time David returns to his home in Capetown – he’d been away 3 months. His home has been complete ransacked and his finances are in shambles. He decides he has to create a new life for himself and begins to turn his attention to an opera that he has always want to write which centers on the poet Byron’s time in Italy, a man he deeply admired and was fascinated by. He even decides to write both the music and libretto. He shifts his music from piano to a banjo instead, which delighted me to no end!

It turns out that Lucy is pregnant! The boy who impregnated her in the rape-attack is Pollux, who is Petrus’ nephew. Lucy with “marry” Petrus and give him the farm, but NOT the house, and eventually not her child. In the end David simply has to let his daughter be who she is and somehow he has to get on with his own life. There is a certain wonderful turn at the end since his daughter turns out to have many of his counter-cultural values and the same boldness to follow her beliefs and heart just as he does.

Bob Corbett


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