J M Coetzee’s Booker Prize winning novel Disgrace while perhaps not quite as grim as its predecessor The Life and Times of Michael K, also a Booker Prize winner, has nothing of the light and fluffy about it. Set against the backdrop of post-apartheid South Africa, it depicts the fall into disgrace of a middle-aged, white university professor.
Professor David Lure is a man who uses the heroic myths of the past to maintain the apartheid in his own soul. His exposition of Lucifer in his lecture on Byron’s Lara depicts the fallen angel as acting from impulse and incapable of loving or ultimately of being loved and is used by him as a way of steeling himself to fend off a young student he has seduced and raped and who is starting to be a nuisance to him.
In order to maintain his Byronic stance Lure must remain inured to the implications of passivity in others; seeing only how it fits with his own desires. He forces himself on the student he has previously seduced, and “She does not resist. All she does is avert herself. Not rape, not quite that, but undesired, nevertheless, undesired to the core.” Overcome with dejection and dullness, he can hardly move but the best he can come up with is that it was “a mistake, a huge mistake.”
The student brings charges of sexual harassment against him and it is not his pleading guilty to the charges but his refusal to display any remorse (echoes of Camus’ The Outsider), that gets him dismissed and leads to a series of experiences which allow him to experience, close up, enforced passivity and otherness.
The style of the novel is lean, sparse and so in tune with the subject matter that one scarcely notices it. (Salman Rushdie called the language ‘bone hard’).