Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee

An Old Man and His Tricks

Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee’s Booker-winning 1999 novel Disgrace depicts an unequal male-female relationship that echoes South Africa’s changing political climate at the time. English professor David Lurie finds his new post-apartheid life greatly reduced. His teaching at the Cape Technological University, formerly Cape Town University College, is limited mostly to basic communication classes. He’s tossed a bone every semester and allowed one topic of his choosing, typically a course in his passion, romantic poetry, which draws few students. One of them, his junior by thirty-plus years, lures his eye. He pursues her. Trouble ensues.

When we first meet Lurie, he tells the reader he’s “solved the problem of sex.” The solution? A weekly assignation with a high-class prostitute named Soraya, one he selects from an agency for her dark, exotic appeal. Soon he gives the lie to his seeming contentment. Consciously or not, he wants something more. He semi-stalks her, seeking the real person behind the one he pays for sex in a rented room. He learns that she has a couple of sons and is most likely married. When she sees him see her, their arrangement is doomed. He phones her at home; she rebuffs him coldly. He has encroached on her personal life and put it at risk. 

On his first attempt at seducing his nineteen-year-old student, Melanie Isaacs, he opens a bottle of the appropriately named Meerlust (an actual brand of wine). Eventually she gives in to his desires. Melanie’s thoughts and feelings in the short-lived affair are less than clear, given that our impressions of her are filtered through Lurie. She comes off as ambivalent, confused, inexperienced, and somewhat troubled. In short, young. By their last sexual encounter, Melanie is passively giving in to what she really doesn’t want. Following his passion or lust, Lurie has crossed into rape territory.

In quick succession, he draws the ire of Melanie’s boyfriend Ryan; Melanie stops going to class and he covers for her; a complaint is filed, and Lurie loses his job rather than give the review board the confession and remorse he thinks they want. He leaves Cape Town and retreats to the country, visiting his only offspring, Lucy. If he was anticipating some healing R&R, he is mistaken.

David Lurie and Melanie Isaacs are aptly named. “David” recalls the biblical king who gave in to temptation, seducing the married Bathsheba and drawing God’s curse. “Lurie” sounds sinister: lure, lurid, luring. “Melanie” hints at “melanin,” the dark pigment that is part of her appeal to Lurie. “Isaacs” recalls the child of Abraham, whom God calls to sacrifice as a test of his faith. Also “Ryan” resembles “Uriah,” Bathsheba’s husband. God’s curse on Lurie’s biblical counterpart extends to his offspring “even unto the third and fourth generation.” Similarly, the sins of the father and his generation will fall on Lucy’s head.

Lucy sells home-grown produce and runs a small shelter for dogs, taking in strays usually less problematic than her father, who soon identifies with a depressed female named Katy. “He enters her cage, closes the door behind him. ‘Abandoned, are we?’” He falls asleep beside her, awakening only when his daughter enters the space. “Pour old Katy, she’s in mourning. No one wants her, and she knows it.” A good expression of what Lurie is feeling in the aftermath of his albeit self-imposed exile from the city and his previous life.

He volunteers to help at a kennel run by Lucy’s friend, Bev Shaw, where the two help the creatures left by the villagers. Most have to be euthanized. Lurie goes out of his way to see that they’re treated well in their last days. After witnessing workers breaking one corpse’s legs to make it fit into the oven’s feeder troller, Lurie takes on the task himself, making sure the dogs’ bodies are treated respectfully.

Local resentment toward the Afrikaans lingers in the region; unknown assailants rape Lucy and haul off anything of value. They’ve locked Lurie in the bathroom and later attempt to set him on fire. The silence of her neighbor Petrus, whose power has waxed as Lurie’s waned, suggests collusion. 

Lurie seems unable to give up his paternal role in his demands for how Lucy should respond to the crimes. She stands up to him, telling him, “You behave as if everything I do is part of the story of your life.” This speaks to his sense of male entitlement but also to a stunted person in general, and perhaps to the narcissism that comes with growing up and living in a privileged position. It’s telling how the name he gives his daughter closely resembles his family name, the way male children are often named after their father. Lucy becomes pregnant with her assailant’s child; to her father’s consternation, she wants to go through with the birth. Lucy is more attuned to an older code in the region, and to the changing dynamics her father struggles to accept. Being in Petrus’s family will ensure her future protection.

The attack has left Lurie with burnt hair, a scarred scalp, and a mangled ear, which work on his self-image. “He is trying to get used to looking odd, worse than odd, repulsive [ital mine] . . . All at once he has become a recluse, a country recluse. The end of roving. Though the heart be still as loving and the moon be still as bright.”

That last line comes from Byron’s poem, “So We’ll Go No More a Roving,” in which Lurie hears his own lament at having to give up his youthful desires:

“So, we’ll go no more a roving 

   So late into the night, 

Though the heart be still as loving, 

   And the moon be still as bright. 

For the sword outwears its sheath, 

   And the soul wears out the breast . . .”

That word “repulsive” is one he used to describe Bev Shaw when he first saw her. Yet after working in close contact with each other for weeks, they end up in bed. Bev’s attraction to him develops over time, in contrast to his immediate attraction to the young Melanie. For Lurie the affair with Bev is little more than a physical act, though it seems to have symbolic meaning.

“He remembers Bev Shaw nuzzling the old billy-goat with the ravaged testicles, stroking him, comforting him, entering into his life. How does she get it right, this communion with animals? Some trick he does not have. One has to be a certain kind of person, perhaps, with fewer complications . . . Do I have to change, he thinks? Do I have to become like Bev Shaw?”

Several times in the book, Lurie repeats the famous line “You must change your life” that ends Rilke’s poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (see below).[1]The poem’s headless statue forces the eye away from a human’s most distinguishing features, from where it normally is drawn to: the eyes. In the head’s absence, too much attention and value are given to the naked body itself. Images associated with light (brilliance, lamp, gleam) that are usually applied to the eyes and mind are projected onto the chest and farther below “through the placid hips and thighs / to that dark center where procreation flared.” 

Has Lurie’s experience of disgrace changed him in any way? Apparently not. After heading back to Cape Town, Lurie seeks an audience with Melanie’s father, showing up impulsively at their house. When her younger sister Desiree answers the door, Lurie finds himself envisioning a threesome. “[F]ruit of the same tree, probably down to the most intimate details . . . The two of them in the same bed, an experience fit for a king.” [italics mine]

Mr. Isaacs understandably is expecting an apology. Instead, Lurie is looking to clarify the situation or perhaps to unburden his soul. He appeals to another man who might understand another man, less to Mrs. Isaacs as a father. He tries to impress upon Isaacs that what he had was something special. As Isaacs listens, he twice strokes the shaft of his pen, perhaps unconsciously expressing the more phallic element – mere lust – beneath Lurie’s words. The action could also mimic a sarcastic “wanking” gesture expressing his belief that Lurie is rationalizing. A Yeahwhatever that the gracious Isaacs would never say aloud.

Though Isaacs is a teacher like Lurie, in every other way he is his opposite: teetotaler, morally disciplined, family man and devout Christian. Their differences stand in relief when Isaacs says grace before his family breaks bread with the disgraced professor. Lurie eventually, reluctantly, bends to Isaacs’ expectations. Yet even as he apologizes to Mrs. Isaacs and her youngest daughter, he feels “the current of desire” for Desiree.

Back home, Lurie finds that his abode, like his daughter’s, has been burglarized. Lurie’s response is telling: there isn’t one. He doesn’t report the crime though he insisted that his daighter report hers. (Do as I say….) He holes up in his damaged home and makes headway on the Byron-inspired opus he’s writing. On the page, Lurie reaches for some kind of change that eludes him in life. His early idea for the work has evolved from one about a breakup of young lovers to focusing solely on the abandoned Teresa (who like Bathsheba was “bride to another man”) several years later. She cries out for her idealized lover to come back to her, to rescue her. Eventually her voice gives way to that of their love child, Allegra, who cries out for her lost father, Byron. Yet late in Disgrace Lurie admits that the work is going nowhere. Caught up in projecting his own feelings of abandonment, he can’t move the plot forward. The work remains unfinished. 

Also remaining unfinished, he thinks, is his business with Melanie. “Deep inside him the smell of her is stored, the smell of a mate. Does she remember his smell too? . . . What if their paths cross again, his and Melanie’s? Will there be a flash of feeling, a sign that the affair has not run its course?” Lurie goes to see her perform in a play whose title, “Sunset at the Globe Theatre,” could express the sun going down on his own world. In the play’s most dramatic scene, Melanie’s vacuuming inadvertently causes a power outage in the salon where she works, casting the stage into darkness with a loud boom. An apt image for her effect on Lurie’s life.

Ryan spots him in the audience and confronts him again: 

“Didn’t you learn your lesson?”

“What was my lesson?”

“Stay with your own kind.”

The irony, hearing what Afrikaans would have said to their presumed inferiors. 

Early in the book, Coetzee has Lurie tells us “[h]is 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.” Our hard-headed hero is the proverbial dog who can’t be taught new tricks. The book ends as it began. Lurie is back to resorting to prostitutes to meet his needs. His sword hasn’t outworn its sheath just yet.

[1] We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.