Reading Disgrace is like watching coffee being spilt on a white tablecloth in slow motion; imagine your dismay spreading frame-by-frame, the culminating awareness of damage done, the irrevocable stain.
The story follows David Lurie – steady university job, entirely satisfactory sex-life – as he is rolled off the edge of a high cliff. We are told at the very beginning that his temperament is ‘fixed, set’ and watch as it is comprehensively dismantled. His disgrace is as precisely coordinated as it is complete. He is a sort of unsympathetic Job-figure: pestilence happens to him as a matter of authorial principle.
Lurie forces himself upon a female student, ‘not rape, not quite that, but undesired nonetheless’, and is hauled before a university committee. He is guilty, he feels a remote sort of misgiving as might someone who left the door unlocked and went on holiday, but he remains philosophical. He will not repent. He accepts the charges but not the moral baggage:
“Manas, we went through the repentance business yesterday. I told you what I thought. I won’t do it. I appeared before an officially constituted tribunal, before a branch of the law. Before that secular tribunal I pleaded guilty, a secular plea. That plea should suffice. Repentance is neither here nor there. Repentance belongs to another world, to another universe of discourse.”
This passage is at the core of the novel. Lurie is worldly, curt, highly literate and stupendously stubborn. He is an egotist and a misanthrope, as certain of the world’s inexorable decline as he is of his own magnificent flaws. Coetzee, one imagines, rather than caring overly about repentance in and of itself, is principally concerned with multiple ‘universes of discourse’ and what happens when they converge – or in other words, what happens when the real world impinges upon the worlds we invent for ourselves. There are as many ways to approach the novel, then, as there are discourses to find in it, and Coetzee is extremely thorough; be it postcolonial tensions, gender politics, sexual identity, religious identity – they all find themselves manifest in the seething bright dust of South Africa.
But though Disgrace is a wordly novel, it is not, I would say, a realistic novel. It is too organised and contains too many symmetries: too much a novelist’s world. It is a hyper-reality, the outcome of an experiment that was expected to produce measurable effects, an allegory of disgrace – though this is not necessarily a criticism. One of the many plausible interpretations of Disgrace is that it concerns the power of narrative to shape both the internal and external world and as such it is apt that it should be so conscious of itself.
After leaving his university Lurie retreats to his daughter’s rural smallholding. The second disgrace in the novel is inflicted upon his daughter, Lucy, when she is raped by a gang of black youths (note the symmetry). Lurie is confronted once more with the reality of his own disgrace. He feels himself to be disgraced in the fullest sense; de-graced, in the same way the Job felt himself to be betrayed by God, subject to His unconcern. He feels displaced, powerless, as if the carefully constructed tower he has lived in and observed the world from is being dismantled from beneath him (as it is). He fears being unable to effect change in his own life and its eventual, inevitable annulment.
Lucy, speaking to her father in the aftermath, says:
“You behave as if everything I do is part of the story of your life. You are the main character, I am a minor character who doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through. Well, contrary to what you think, people are not divided into major and minor. I am not minor. I have a life of my own, just as important to me as yours is to you, and in my life I am the one who makes the decisions.”
And so two separate universes of discourse converge: David and Lucy, father and daughter, man and woman, rapist and raped. In fact, we might as well add writer and reader to the list, because as we all recognise implicitly, everyone tries to write their own life story and ends up feeling as if they’re reading what someone else has prescribed them. Lurie has tried harder than most – his grand narrative depends upon the principle of self-reliance – and accordingly he advises Lucy not to “humble [herself] before history”. But Shakespeare was wrong: the world is many stages, rings upon rings of them, infinitely stacked in every possible dimension, and all contingent on each other. Lurie cannot see past the stage he has set for himself and this, in the end, is his disgrace.