READING: JM Coetzee’s Disgrace

It’s awful to think it, but its true, truer than most things. The world as we know it will change profoundly, even in our own lifetimes. Those with great power will only hold it briefly. Decision-makers and their decisons may not stand the test of time. The wheel will turn and future humans will look back and wonder what we were thinking. If we live long enough, we will wonder too. Dylan knew it:

Come mothers and fathers throughout the land
And don’t criticise what you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agein’
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changing

And J.M Coetzee knows it too. He draws it beautifully, tragically and without pity in his novel, Disgrace. David Lurie, the novel’s main character is being swept aside by social change. He’s out of touch. Post-apartheid South Africa is a very different place. The wheel has turned and its not only changing attitudes to race Lurie must contend with. He is fired from his job as a university professor when a student makes a complaint against him. He has seduced her, as he has other students in the past, but not as effortlessly. He is ageing and his affairs take on a greater significance. A panel, convened to decide his future, requires him to show contrition, but Lurie refuses. His pride won’t allow it.

“‘It reminds me too much of Mao’s China. Recantation, self-criticism, public apology. I’m old-fashioned, I would prefer simply to be put up against a wall and shot. Have done with it.'”

Coetzee’s language is stark. It is beatiful writing. It is beautiful in the way deserts can be beautiful. It does not mean to make the reader comfortable. It is what it is, Coetzee seems to say and so it has its own essence. I think this is how he gets to the heart of the matter. There will be no turning away to protect our modesty. He’ll knock us over and he’ll leave us to get up by ourselves. Lurie speaks with an authority he can no longer lay claim to and the reader is made off-kilter too. Below, David Lurie is speaking with his lawyer:

“‘True enough. I was having an affair with the girl.’
‘Does seriousness make it better or worse? After a certain age, all affairs are serious. Like heart attacks.'”

I love this stuff. I want it to go on and on. Lurie is complex, brutally honest and almost majestically deluded. It can be imagined though. We have probably seen it with our own eyes, this condition, this syndrome, not realising at the time. This is why it echoes inside us. When Lurie leaves his job at the university and stays with his daughter, Lucy, on a farm in the Eastern Cape, his understanding of the world in which he now lives is further challenged. Lucy is raped by three black men and he is locked in her toilet and set on fire. Coetzee forces Lurie to contend with his attitude to race and women when his own daughter is victimised. Lucy challenges him with, “You’re a man, you ought to know.”

“Lucy’s intuition is right after all: he does understand; he can, if he concentrates, if he loses himself, be there, be the men, inhabit them, fill them with the ghost of himself. The question is, does he have it him to be the woman?”

It is a startling question. Is Lurie strong enough to be the subjugated one after a lifetime of privilege? It takes most of the book for Coetzee to get Lurie and the reader to this point and rightly so. We wouldn’t be able swallow it early on.

While Lurie has been staying with his daughter, he has fallen to helping at a animal clinic. Mostly he and Bev Shaw, who runs the centre, euthanise unwanted dogs brought to them by people in the surrounding communities.

“Tears flow down his face that he cannot stop; his hands shake. He does not understand what is happening to him. Until now, he has been indifferent to animals. Although in an abstract way he disapproves of cruelty, he cannot tell whether by nature he is cruel or kind. He is simply nothing.”

Of course, this can’t be true. If one doesn’t know to ask the question, cruelty is on the cards. It’s how the privileged perpetuate themselves, I think. It is these touches which show Coetzee’s mastery over his theme. It is everywhere, in all the layers of this complex book. Did he say to himself one day, I think I’ll write on a book on this or did he breathe this air for so long that the story just fell out of him? I like to think the latter, but I know so much work was done to make this story work as well as it does.

And all the while, Lurie resists the change. He takes the unwanted dogs to the hospital incinerator himself because he can’t bear to leave them discarded on a heap for the men who run the incinerator. He gives them this. Lurie feels the disposal of the unwanted dogs keenly. He is ageing. He too is unwanted. He holds on to one crippled dog. He doesn’t bring it in to Bev Shaw, so she can administer the lethal injection. He is holding on to his old beliefs. Then finally……

“He opens the cage door. ‘Come, he says, bends, opens his arms. The dog wags its crippled rear, sniffs his face, licks his cheeks, his lips, his ears. He does nothing to stop it. ‘Come.’ Bearing him in his arms like a lamb, he re-enters the surgery.
‘I thought you would save him for another week,’ says Bev Shaw. ‘Are you giving him up?’
‘Yes, I am giving him up.'”

In giving up the dog, Lurie surrenders his old notions and this is how the privileged fall, I think. They……we are superseded.

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