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Disgrace

by

Disgrace Cover

ISBN13: 9780140296402
ISBN10: 0140296409
Condition: Standard
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Excerpt

ONE

FOR. A MAN of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well. On Thursday afternoons he drives to Green Point. Punctually at two p.m. he presses the buzzer at the entrance to Windsor Mansions, speaks his name, and enters. Waiting for him at the door of No. II3 is Soraya. He goes straight through to the bedroom, which is pleasant-smelling and softly lit, and undresses. Soraya emerges from the bathroom, drops her robe, slides into bed beside him. 'Have you missed me?' she asks. 'I miss you all the time,' he replies. He strokes her honey-brown body, unmarked by the sun; he stretches her out, kisses her breasts; they make love.

Soraya is tall and slim, with long black hair and dark, liquid eyes. Technically he is old enough to be her father; but then, technically, one can be a father at twelve. He has been on her books for over a year; he finds her entirely satisfactory. In the desert of the week Thursday has become an oasis of luxe et velupté.

In bed Soraya is not effusive. Her temperament is in fact rather quiet, quiet and docile. In her general opinions she is surprisingly moralistic. She is offended by tourists who bare their breasts ('udders', she calls them) on public beaches; she thinks vagabonds should be rounded up and put to work sweeping the streets. How she reconciles her opinions with her line of business he does not ask.

Because he takes pleasure in her, because his pleasure is unfailing, an affection has grown up in him for her. To some degree, he believes, this affection is reciprocated. Affection may not be love, but it is at least its cousin. Given their unpromising beginnings, they have been lucky, the two of them: he to have found her, she to have found him.

His sentiments are, he is aware, complacent, even uxorious. Nevertheless he does not cease to hold to them.

For a ninety-minute session he pays her R4oo, of which half goes to Discreet Escorts. It seems a pity that Discreet Escorts should get so much. But they own No. II3 and other flats in Windsor Mansions; in a sense they own Soraya too, this part of her, this function.

He has toyed with the idea of asking her to see him in her own time. He would like to spend an evening with her, perhaps even a whole night. But not the morning after. He knows too much about himself to subject her to a morning after, when he will be cold, surly, impatient to be alone.

That is his temperament. His temperament is not going to change, he is too old for that. His temperament is fixed, set. The skull, followed by the temperament: the two hardest parts of the body.

Follow your temperament. It is not a philosophy, he would not dignity it with that name. It is a rule, like the Rule of St Benedict. He is in good health, his mind is clear. By profession he is, or has been, a scholar, and scholarship still engages, intermittently, the core of him. He lives within his income, within his temperament, within his emotional means. Is he happy? By most measurements, yes, he believes he is. However, he has not forgotten the last chorus of Oedipus: Call no man happy until he is dead.

In the field of sex his temperament, though intense, has never been passionate. Were he to choose a totem, it would be the snake. Intercourse between Soraya and himself must be, he imagines, rather like the copulation of snakes: lengthy, absorbed, but rather abstract, rather dry, even at its hottest.

Is Soraya's totem the snake too? No doubt with other men she becomes another woman: lu donna é mobile. Yet at the level of temperament her affinity with him can surely not be feigned. Though by occupation she is a loose woman he trusts her, within limits. During their sessions he speaks to her with a certain freedom, even on occasion unburdens himself She knows the facts of his life. She has heard the stories of his two marriages, knows about his daughter and his daughter's ups and downs. She knows many of his opinions.

Of her life outside Windsor Mansions Soraya reveals nothing. Soraya is not her real name, that he is sure of. There are signs she has borne a child, or children. It may be that she is not a professional at all. She may work for the agency only one or two afternoons a week, and for the rest live a respectable life in the suburbs, in Rylands or Athlone. That would be unusual for a Muslim, but all things are possible these days.

About his own job he says little, not wanting to-bore her. He earns his living at the Cape Technical University, formerly Cape Town University College. Once a professor of modern languages, he has been, since Classics and Modern Languages were closed down as part of the great rationalization, adjunct professor of communications. Like all rationalized personnel, he is allowed to offer one special-field course a year, irrespective of enrolment, because that is good for morale. This year he is offering a course in the Romantic poets. For the rest he teaches Communications I0I, 'Communication Skills' and Communications 20I, 'Advanced Communication Skills'.

Although he devotes hours of each day to his new discipline, he finds its first premise, as enunciated in the Communications I0I 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.

In the course of a career stretching back a quarter of a century he has published three books, none of which has caused a stir or even a ripple: the first on opera (Boito and the Faust Legend: The Genesis of Mefistofele), the second on vision as eros (The Vision of Richard of St. Victor), the third on Wordsworth and history (Wordsworth and the Burden of the Post}.

In the past few years he has been playing with the idea of a work on Byron. At first he had thought it would be another book, another critical opus. But all his sallies at writing it have bogged down in tedium. The truth is, he is tired of criticism, tired of' prose measured by the yard. What he wants to write is music: Byron in Italy, a meditation on love between the sexes in the form of a chamber opera.

Through his mind, while he faces his Communications classes, fit phrases, tunes, fragments of song from the unwritten work. He has never been much of a teacher; in this transformed and, to his mind, emasculated institution of learning he is more out of place than ever. But then, so are other of his colleagues from the old days, burdened with upbringings inappropriate to the tasks they are set to perform; clerks in a post-religious age.

Because he has no respect for the material he teaches, he makes no impression on his students. They look through him when he speaks, forget his name. Their indifference galls him more than he will admit. Nevertheless he fulfils to the letter his obligations toward them, their parents, and the state. Month after month he sets, collects, reads, and annotates their assignments, correcting lapses in punctuation, spelling and usage, interrogating weak arguments, appending to each paper a brief, considered critique.

He continues to teach because it provides him with a livelihood; also because it teaches him humility, brings it home to him who he is in the world. The irony does not escape him: that the one who comes to teach learns the keenest of lessons, while those who come to learn learn nothing. It is a feature of his profession on which he does not remark to Soraya. He doubts there is an irony to match it in hers.

In the kitchen of the flat in Green Point there are a kettle, plastic cups, a jar of instant coffee, a bowl with sachets of sugar. The refrigerator holds a supply of bottled water. In the bathroom there is soap and a pile of towels, in the cupboard clean bed linen. Soraya keeps her makeup in an overnight bag. A place of assignation, nothing more, functional, clean, well regulated.

The first time Soraya received him she wore vermilion lipstick and heavy eyeshadow. Not liking the stickiness of the makeup, he asked her to wipe it off. She obeyed, and has never worn it since. A ready learner, compliant, pliant.

He likes giving her presents. At New Year he gave her an enamelled bracelet, at Eid a little malachite heron that caught his eye in a curio shop. He enjoys her pleasure, which is quite unaffected.

It surprises him that ninety minutes a week of a woman's company are enough to make him happy, who used to think he needed a wife, a home, a marriage. His needs turn out to be quite light, after all, light and fleeting, like those of a butterfly. No emotion, or none but the deepest, the most unguessed-at: a ground bass of contentedness, like the hum of traffic that lulls the city—dweller to sleep, or like the silence of the night to countryfolk.

He thinks of Emma Bovary, coming home sated, glazen-eyed, from an afternoon of reckless fucking. So this is bliss!, says Emma, marvelling at herself in the mirror. So this is the bliss the poets speak of? Well, if poor ghostly Emma were ever to find her way to Cape Town, he would bring her along one Thursday afternoon to show her what bliss can be: a moderate bliss, a moderated bliss.

Then one Saturday morning everything changes. He is in the city on business; he is walking down St George's Street when his eyes fall on a slim figure ahead of him in the crowd. It is Soraya, unmistakably, flanked by two children, two boys. They are carrying parcels; they have been shopping.

He hesitates, then follows at a distance. They disappear into Captain Dorego's Fish Inn. The boys have Soraya's lustrous hair and dark eyes. They can only be her sons.

He walks on, turns back, passes Captain Dorego's a second time. The three are seated at a table in the window. For an instant, through the glass, Soraya's eyes meet his.

He has always been a man of the city, at home amid a flux of bodies where eros stalks and glances flash like arrows. But this glance between himself and Soraya he regrets at once.

At their rendezvous the next Thursday neither mentions the incident. Nonetheless, the memory hangs uneasily over them. He has no wish to upset what must be, for Soraya, a precarious double life. He is all for double lives, triple lives, lives lived in compartments. Indeed, he feels, if anything, greater tenderness for her. Your secret is safe with me, he would like to say.

But neither he nor she can put aside what has happened. The two little boys become presences between them, playing quiet as shadows in a corner of the room where their mother and the strange man couple. In Soraya's arms he becomes, fleetingly, their father: foster-father, step-father, shadow-father. Leaving her bed afterwards, he feels their eyes flicker over him covertly, curiously.

His thoughts turn, despite himself to the other father, the real one. Does he have any inkling of what his wife is up to, or has he elected the bliss of ignorance?

He himself has no son. His childhood was spent in a family of women. As mother, aunts, sisters fell away, they were replaced in due course by mistresses, wives, a daughter. The company of women made of him a lover of women and, to an extent, a womanizer. With his height, his good bones, his olive skin, his Flowing hair, he could always count on a degree of magnetism. If he looked at a woman in a certain way, with a certain intent, she would return his look, he could rely on that. That was how he lived; for years, for decades, that was the backbone of his life.

Then one day it all ended. Without warning his powers fled. Glances that would once have responded to his slid over, past, through him. Overnight he became a ghost. If he wanted a woman he had to learn to pursue her; often, in one way or another, to buy her.

He existed in an anxious hurry of promiscuity. He had affairs with the wives of colleagues; he picked up tourists in bars on the waterfront or at the Club Italia; he slept with whores.

His introduction to Soraya took place in a dim little sitting- room off the front office of Discreet Escorts, with Venetian blinds over the windows, pot plants in the corners, stale smoke hanging in the air. She was on their books under 'Exotic'. The photograph showed her with a red passion-flower in her hair and the faintest of lines at the corners of her eyes. The entry said 'Afternoons only'. That was what decided him: the promise of shuttered rooms, cool sheets, stolen hours.

From the beginning it was satisfactory, just what he wanted. A bull's eye. In a year he has not needed to go back to the agency. Then the accident in St George's Street, and the strangeness that has followed. Though Soraya still keeps her appointments, he feels a growing coolness as she transforms herself into just another woman and him into just another client.

He has a shrewd idea of how prostitutes speak among them- selves about the men who frequent them, the older men in particular. They tell stories, they laugh, but they shudder too, as one shudders at a cockroach in a washbasin in the middle of' the night. Soon, daintily, maliciously, he will be shuddered over. It is a fate he cannot escape.

On the fourth Thursday after the incident, as he is leaving the apartment, Soraya makes the announcement he has been steeling himself against. 'My mother is ill. I'm going to take a break to look after her. I won't be here next week.'

'Will I see you the week after?'

'I'm not sure. It depends on how she gets on. You had better phone first.'

'I don't have a number.' '

'Phone the agency. They'll know.'

He waits a few days, then telephones the agency. Soraya? Soraya has left us, says the man. No, we cannot put you in touch with her, that would be against house rules. Would you like an introduction to another of our hostesses? Lots of exotics to choose from — Malaysian, Thai, Chinese, you name it.

He spends an evening with another Soraya — Soraya has become, it seems, a popular nom de commerce — in a hotel room in Long Street. This one is no more than eighteen, unpractised, to his mind coarse. 'So what do you do?' she says as she slips off her clothes. 'Export-import,' he says. "You don't say,' she says.

There is a new secretary in his department. He takes her to lunch at a restaurant a discreet distance from the campus and listens while, over shrimp salad, she complains about her sons' school. Drug-pedlars hang around the playing-fields, she says, and the police do nothing. For the past three years she and her husband have had their name on a list at the New Zealand consulate, to emigrate. 'You people had it easier. I mean, whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, at least you knew where you were.'

'You people? he says. 'What people?'

'I mean your generation. Now people just pick and choose which laws they want to obey. It's anarchy. How can you bring up children when there's anarchy all around?'

Her name is Dawn. The second time he takes her out they stop at his house and have sex. It is a failure. Bucking and clawing, she works herself into a froth of excitement that in the end only repels him. He lends her a comb, drives her back to the campus.

After that he avoids her, taking care to skirt the office where she works. In return she gives him a hurt look, then snubs him.

He ought to give up, retire from the game. At what age, he wonders, did Origen castrate himself? Not the most graceful of solutions, but then ageing is not a graceful business. A clearing of the decks, at least, so that one can turn one's mind to the proper business of the old: preparing to die.

Might one approach a doctor and ask for it? A simple enough operation, surely: they do it to animals every clay, and animals survive well enough, if one ignores a certain residue of sadness. Severing, tying off: with local anesthetic and a steady hand and a modicum of phlegm one might even do it oneself, out of a textbook. A man on a chair snipping away at himself: an ugly sight, but no more ugly, from a certain point of view, than the same man exercising himself on the body of a woman.

There is still Soraya. He ought to close that chapter. Instead, he pays a detective agency to track her down. Within days he has her real name, her address, her telephone number. He telephones at nine in the morning, when the husband and children will be out. 'Soraya? he says. 'This is David. How are you? When can I see you again?

A long silence before she speaks. 'I don't know who you are she says. 'You are harassing me in my own house. I demand you will never phone me here again, never.'

Demand. She means command. Her shrillness surprises him: there has been no intimation of it before. But then, what should a predator expect when he intrudes into the vixen's nest, into the home of her cubs?

He puts down the telephone. A shadow of envy passes over him for the husband he has never seen.

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viraga, September 2, 2011 (view all comments by viraga)
On the face of it, this is the story of a rape. Or man's relationship with animals. But it is so multilayered and faceted that several readings are needed to delve into the nuances.
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elesperance, January 1, 2010 (view all comments by elesperance)
Best novel of the decade.
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OneMansView, July 2, 2009 (view all comments by OneMansView)
Disgrace is only the beginning

This short novel begins as a story of personal excess, even disgrace, but quickly becomes much more. David Lurie is a fifty-two-year-old, twice-divorced, academic teaching poetry at a small college in South Africa, who sees his life and career ebbing away. Still a reasonably good-looking man, he partly counters his boredom, even disgust, at teaching indifferent students by keeping sexuality as an important part of his life, usually via paid services. However, his, by accident, though insistent, seduction of a female student in his class, who is not really all that willing, is, not surprisingly, turned back on him as a case of sexual harassment. In the subsequent hearing, his quick admission of guilt is actually quite offensive to college officials, especially the women in attendance. To expectations that he admit that his behavior was inappropriate, even deviant, and then seek counseling, he contends that sexual desire is only natural and “enriching.” And that gets him dismissed, which he almost seems to welcome.

Little does Lurie realize that he is now on a path where gritty realities will come crashing into his life far exceeding the unpleasantness of violating petty sexual correctness rules. In what begins as only a short visit, he is quite surprised to find his daughter Lucy eking out a minimal living by growing and selling vegetables and flowers and boarding dogs on little more than a large patch of dirt, hardly a farm. He is startled by the isolation, the harshness of conditions, the dirt, and the danger of living in rural S. Africa. Simmering racial tensions suddenly intrude as he is stunned by the brutal assault by three black men on Lucy’s holdings and on them both. Not only is there physical devastation and personal injuries, but more significant is the physic damage and the shattering of personal and social illusions.

Forced to manage Lucy’s affairs while she recovers, Lurie is astounded by her lack of vindictiveness and willingness to remain. However, Lucy recognizes that harmony with the land and one’s neighbors comes at a cost. Her neighbor Bev Shaw, who attempts to help broken down animals, mirrors that same toughness and acceptance. In fact, its Lurie’s work at Bev’s makeshift clinic that has a transforming impact on him. Euthanasia is a reality at the clinic. It is gut-wrenching to inject the drug, while a dog, seemingly aware of what is happening, licks his hand. Lurie accepts that there comes a time for us all.

Perhaps one would want more character development in the book; there is little of their backgrounds provided. But they are well sketched for the author’s purpose. No doubt life is rather bleak in the author’s world, yet somehow accepting and dealing with gritty reality is strengthening, perhaps ennobling. This is a book that will stay with one for quite a while.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780140296402
Author:
Coetzee, J. M.
Publisher:
Penguin Books
Location:
New York
Subject:
General
Subject:
Fiction
Subject:
Farm life
Subject:
Fathers and daughters
Subject:
South Africa
Subject:
Veterinarians
Subject:
Domestic fiction
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade Paper
Series Volume:
106-510
Publication Date:
20001131
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
from 12
Language:
English
Pages:
224
Dimensions:
7.74x5.06x.58 in. .39 lbs.
Age Level:
from 18

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Disgrace Used Trade Paper
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Product details 224 pages Penguin Books - English 9780140296402 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

One afternoon while talking with a friend about books, I wondered how to best describe my experience of reading Disgrace, and this is what I came up with: it's like a finely-crafted, very sharp knife resting gently against your skin. The uneasiness and suspense are there from the beginning, made all the more powerful by Coetzee's control and use of spare language, and you never really take a deep breath until it's all over. Set in modern South Africa, the book explores what it's like to personally confront deep prejudices. Prejudices of gender, sexuality, class, and race. Far from being a politically correct diatribe, this novel is about how we cope, how we survive as humans, and it forces the reader to reflect upon what seems at first a very twisted reality. For each of the characters in this astonishing novel redemption is attained through what becomes the very reshaping of their souls.

"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "As a writer, Coetzee is a literary cascade, with a steady output of fiction and criticism (literary and social) over the last two decades. This latest book, his first novel in five years, is a searing evocation of post-apartheid South Africa; it earned him an unprecedented second Booker Prize. An uninspired teacher and twice divorced, David Lurie is a 52-year-old poetry scholar-cum-'adjunct professor of communications' at Cape Technical University. Spooked by the flicker of twilight in his life trajectory, he sees himself as an aged Lothario soon to be 'shuddered over' by the pretty girls he has so often wooed; he is disappointed in and unengaged by the academy he now serves by rote; and he cannot locate the notes for his opera, Byron in Italy, in which he has placed so much reluctant hope. He is, even at his best, a man of 'moderated bliss.' So when he seduces Melanie Isaacs, a lithe student from his poetry elective ("She does not resist. All she does is avert herself"), he believes her to represent the final object of his desire, his last act of lush, Romantic desperation. And then he is found out. This not uncommon outrage earns him a dismissal and censure from the university committee he refuses to cooperate with in hopes of saving his job. He immediately shoves off for Salem in the Eastern Cape where his daughter, Lucy, manages a dog kennel and works her smallholding, harvesting a modest crop. Here David hopes to cleanse himself with time-honored toil. But his new life in the country offers scarce refuge. Instead, he is flummoxed to discover an unfamiliar Lucy-principled, land-devoted, with a heroic resignation to the social and political developments of modern South Africa. He also memorably encounters Petrus, Lucy's ambitious colored neighbor and sometime assistant. Petrus embodies the shifting, tangled vicissitudes of a new national schematic, and forces David to relate to the broad segment of society previously shrouded by the mists of his self-absorption. But a violent attack on the estate irrevocably alters how the book's central figure perceives many things: his daughter and her bewildering (to him) courage, the rights of South Africa's grossly aggrieved majority, the souls of the damaged dogs he helps put down at the local Animal Welfare League and even the character of Lord Byron's mistress and the heroine of his operatic "chamber-play." But this is no tale of hard-earned, satisfying transformation. It is, rather, a paean to willfulness, an aria on the theme of secca, or the drying up of 'the source of everything.' In Coetzee's tale, not a single note is false; every sentence is perfectly calibrated and essential. Every passage questions the arbitrary division between the 'major and minor' and the long-accepted injustices propped up by nothing so much as time. The book somehow manages to speak of little but interiority and still insinuate peripheries of things it doesn't touch. Somber and crystalline, it 'has the right mix of timelessness and decay.' It is about the harsh cleansing of humiliation and the regretfulness of knowing things: 'I lack the lyrical. I manage love too well. Even when I burn I don't sing, if you understand me.' To perceive is to understand in this beautifully spare, necessary novel. Publishers Weekly Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
"Review" by , J.M. Coetzee's distinguished novels feed on exclusion; they are intelligently starved. One always feels with this writer a zeal of omission. What his novels keep out may well be as important as what they keep in. And Coetzee's vision is impressively consistent: his books eschew loosened abundance for impacted allegory. Waiting For The Barbarians, his finest allegory, set in a nameless Empire with resemblances to turn-ofthe-century South Africa, has an Orwellian power. Even when his novels are set in a recognizable and local South African world, as is the case with Coetzee's new novel, the dry seed of parable can always be felt underfoot, beneath the familiar surfaces of contemporary life.

But this is a harsh exchange. Coetzee's novels eschew society, and the examination of domestic filaments, for the study of political societies... The New Republic (read The New Republic's entire review)

"Review" by , "The kind of territory J.M Coetzee has made his own....By this late point in the century, the journey to a heart of narrative darkness has become a safe literary destination....Disgrace goes beyond this to explore the furthest reaches of what it means to be human: it is at the frontier of world literature."
"Review" by , "A subtly brilliant commentary on the nature and balance of power in his homeland...by a writer at the top of his form."
"Review" by , "Disgrace is not a hard or obscure book — it is, among other things, compulsively readable — but what it may well be is an authentically spiritual document, a lament for the soul of a disgraced century."
"Synopsis" by , Set in post-apartheid Cape Town, Professor David Laurie attempts to relate to his daughter, Lucy, and to a society with new racial complexities. But that is disrupted by an afternoon of violence that changes him and his daughter in ways he could never have foreseen. Coetzee is the only writer awarded the Booker Prize twice, and this work is a finalist for the National Book Critic Circle Awards.
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