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J M Coetzee: Disgrace

David Lurie is a professor of English literature (specialising in English Romantic poetry) at Cape Technical University. He is twice divorced, with one daughter. Every Thursday, he visits Soraya, a prostitute, for his weekly fuck but Soraya moves away without warning. His eyes fall on Melanie Isaacs, one of his students and he seduces her (yes, I know it sounds very Victorian but that is what happens). Melanie takes it badly and drops out of class. Her boyfriend attacks Lurie and Melanie makes a formal complaint of sexual harassment. Lurie is hauled before a review committee and refuses to defend himself, gently mocking the committee and indifferent to his fate. He is forced to leave the university but does not seem to care.

He sets out to stay with his daughter, Lucy, who has a plot of land in the Eastern Cape. She had been living with Helen, but Helen has departed and Lucy is now alone, scraping an existence from growing and selling plants and boarding dogs. Lurie is ambiguous about his daughter. He still considers her as”his little girl” though, by his own admission, he had not been very much involved in her upbringing, while fumbling to recognise that she is a grown woman with her own ways – ways different from his – of doing things. Lucy tends to see her father, whom she calls by his first name, as a somewhat annoying friend. He helps out, helping with the dogs and selling the plants in the local market. He also helps a neighbour, Bev, at a local animal clinic where he finds that he has an attachment to the unfortunate animals that he does not readily have for his fellow human beings.

Everything changes when they are attacked by three Africans. Lurie is locked in the outside toilet and, when he tries to resist, is set on fire (though he is not badly burned). His car and her property are stolen. More importantly, Lucy is apparently raped though she will not acknowledge it either to her father or to the police, saying that she wants to deal with it herself. When one of the assailants seems to be associated with Petrus, the African who has the neighbouring farm and who helps Lucy and has even bought some of her land, Lurie wants to take action but neither Petrus nor Lucy are prepared to do so, leaving Lurie perplexed. Eventually he leaves the farm and returns to Cape Town, where he finds his house has been broken into and a lot of damage done. He moves back to the town near where Lucy is. Lucy is now pregnant from the rape but is prepared to go through with the birth. Lurie continues at the clinic but also starts work on an opera about Byron and his Italian lover, Teresa Guiccioli but he cannot make it work.

Coetzee has given us a wonderful portrait of a man who cannot quite fit in. He is out of touch with contemporary politically correct mores. He fails to understand how women feel – his ex-wife, his daughter and, of course, his victim, Melanie. He cannot understand his daughter’s attitude to the Africans. For him, the attack was a criminal attack, pure and simple, but Lucy feels that she has to, in some way, expiate the guilt of her white forebears. He cannot see why people – particularly his students – do not share his appreciation of the Romantic poets and completely fail to understand the beauties of Wordsworth and Byron. The only solution, as he poignantly says at the end about a dying dog, is to give up.

Publishing history

First published 1999 by Secker and Warburg