He stood a stranger in this breathing world,
An erring spirit from another hurled;
A thing of dark imaginings, that shaped
By choice the perils he by chance escaped.
-A line from Byron’s poem ‘Lara’-
J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace explores the ideas of race, gender and generational differences. In simple, yet powerful prose, Coetzee develops his main character – a professor of communications named David Lurie – amid the social and political complexities of South Africa.
David Lurie is a middle aged man of questionable morality, whose passions lie with young women…girls, really. When he begins an affair with one of his students – the beautiful Melanie – David finds himself on the other side of a sexual harassment investigation. He retreats to his daughter Lucy’s farm in the country where terror and unexpected violence unfold.
Throughout the novel, Coetzee intersperses the poetry of Byron, and the tangled life of this poet as he pursues a girl much younger than himself. David Lurie’s desire to write an opera about Byron and his lover is largely symbolic of David’s own struggle within himself.
Although he devotes hours of each day to his new discipline, he finds its first premise, as enunciated in the Communications 101 handbook, preposterous: ‘Human society has created language in order that we may communicate our thoughts, feelings and intentions to each other.’ His own opinion, which he does not air, is that the origins of speech lie in song, and the origins of song in the need to fill out with sound the overlarge and rather empty human soul. – From Disgrace, page 4 –
In fact, the novel’s largest theme seems to be about the confusing nature of language – filled with misunderstanding, second meaning, and the breakdown of communication – specifically that between the sexes, the generations, and the races. It is clear throughout the book that David’s perceptions, as a man, are different from Lucy’s (or Melanie’s) female perceptions; and that David’s understanding of African culture as a white man, are different from the black Petrus (who lives on Lucy’s land). David’s struggles to communicate and connect with his daughter are fraught with misunderstanding.
Coetzee won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003 – and it is easy to see why after reading Disgrace. His style is spare and shocking, and the novel is not one that a reader can put down and forget.