Notes: J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace

December 22, 2008

I read Disgrace in one go last night.  A beautiful, sad, humorous meditation on aging (as a white man) in a changing world.  Set in post-apartheid South Africa, the protaganist is 52 year-old twice-divorced, one-time lady’s man, David Lurie a Professor of Communications – formally a Professor of Modern Languages and Classics before the discipline was phased out and a specialist on Romantic Poetry and Byron – at Cape Technical University, formally Cape Town University College. 

He has a brief, desperate affair with one of his young students and – when he’s caught – he refuses to defend himself against the charges or make a public apology.  Resigning under pressure from the university, he leave Cape Town to live with his twenty-something daughter who owns a farm on the Eastern Cape.  He begins to settle in there – working on Lucy’s farm with Petrus – a neighboring African farmer and paid hand on Lucy’s farm – helping at the animal shelter and the farmer’s market – when he and his daughter are brutally assaulted one afternoon by three men.

The rest of the book focuses on the emotional consequences of this assault on the protagonist and – to some extent – his daughter – especially how it illustrates his powerlessness in this new world – how he is forced adapt no matter how much he wants to resist this.  Here are some of my favorite passages:

A discussion with his ex-wife Rosalind after the scandal becomes public:

‘People talk, David.  Everyone knows about this latest affair of yours, in the juiciest detail.  It’s in no one interest to hush it up, no one’s but your own.  Am I allowed to tell you how stupid it looks?’

‘No, you are not.’

‘I will anyway.  Stupid, and ugly too.  I don’t know what you do about sex and I don’t want to know, but this is not the way to go about it.  You’re what – fifty-two? Do you think a young girl finds any pleasure in going to bed with a man of that age?  Do you think she finds it good to watch you in the middle of your…?  Do you ever think about that?

He is silent.

‘Don’t expect sympathy from me, David, and don’t expect sympathy from anyone else either.  No sympathy, no mercy, not in this day and age.  Everyone’s hand will be against you, and why not?  Really, how could you?

The old tone has entered, the tone of the last years of their married life: passionate recrimination.  Even Rosalind must be aware of that.  Yet perhaps she has a point.  Perhaps it is the right of the young to be protected from the sight of their elders in throes of passion.  That is what whores are for, after all: to put up with the ecstasies of the unlovely.

After the assault, Bev Shaw, a short unattractive older woman, and her husband, Bill, take care of the father and daughter.  Lurie has nothing but mild contempt for the couple who also run the local animal shelter.

‘Nonsense!’ says Bill Shaw.  ‘What else are friends for?  You would have done the same.’

Spoken without irony, the words stay with him and will not go away.  Bill Shaw believes that if he, Bill Shaw, had been hit over the head and set on fire, then he, David Lurie, would have driven to the hospital and sat waiting, without so much as a newspaper to read, to fetch him home.  Bill Shaw believes that, because he and David Lurie once had a cup of tea together, David Lurie is his friend, and the two of them have obligations towards each other.  Is Bill Shaw wrong or right?  Has Bill Shaw, who was born in Hankey, not two hundred kilometers away, and works in a hardware shop, seen so little of the world that he does not know there are men who do not readily make friends, whose attitude towards friendships between men is corroded with skepticism?  Modern English friend from Old English freond, from freon, to love.  Does the drinking of tea seal a love-bond, in the eyes of Bill Shaw?  Yet but for Bill and Bev Shaw, but for old Ettinger, but for bonds of some kind, where would he be now?  On the ruined farm with the broken telephone amid the dead dogs.

In an attempt to keep busy Lurie works long hours at the animal shelter, and help Bev Shaw ‘put down’ unwanted dogs on Fridays. Eventually, he also volunteers to drive the dogs’ corpses to the local incinerator afterwards and makes sure they are cremated in a ‘respectful’ way.  In this passage, he reflects on why he does this.

For himself, then.  For his idea of the world, a world in which men do not use shovels to beat corpses into a more convenient shape for processing.

The dogs are brought to the clinic because they are unwanted: because we are too menny.  That is where he enters their lives.  He may not be their savior, the one for whom they are not too many, but he is prepared to take care of them once they are unable, utterly unable, to take care of themselves, once even Bev Shaw has washed her hands of them.  A dog-man, Petrus once called himself.  Well, now he has become a dog-man: a dog undertaker; a dog psychopomp; a harijan.

Curious that a man as selfish as he should be offering himself to the service of dead dogs.  There must be other, more productive ways of giving oneself to the world, or to an idea of the world.  One could for instance work longer hours at the clinic.  One could try to persuade children at the dump not to fill their bodies with poisons.  Even sitting down more purposefully with the Byron libretto might, at a pinch, be construed as a service to mankind.

But there are other people to do these things – the animal welfare thing, the social rehabilitation thing, even the Byron thing.  He saves the honor of corpses because there is no one else stupid enough to do it.

Towards the end of the story, Lurie returns home to Cape Town to give his daughter some space and to work on his idea for a chamber opera based on Byron’s life.

Seated at his own desk looking out on the overgrown garden, he marvels at what the little banjo is teaching him.  Six months ago he had thought his own ghostly place in Byron in Italy would be somewhere between Teresa’s and Byron’s: between a yearning to prolong the summer of the passionate body and a reluctant recall from the long sleep of oblivion.  But he was wrong.  It is not the erotic that is calling to him after all, nor the elegiac, but the comic.  He is in the opera neither as Teresa nor as Byron nor even as some blending of the two: he is held in the music itself, in the flat, tinny slap of the banjo strings, the voice that strains to soar away from the ludicrous instrument but is continually reined back, like a fish on a line.

So this is art, he thinks, and this is how it does its work!  How strange!  How fascinating!

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