Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Reading group: Disgrace by J Coetzee

A big crowd of us to discuss this Booker-winning novel about David Lurie, a Cape Town teacher of Romantic poetry whose affair with a student leads to his dismissal and who retreats to his daughter's smallholding where he and his daughter are subsequently raided and his daughter raped.

Hans, who had chosen the book, said he found the depiction of Lurie fascinating: it was hard to know whether to condemn him for his chauvinism or to admire him for his honesty and determination to stand up for his own insights against those who were intent, like the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, on making him apologize.

A long discussion followed - one of the longest we've ever had - in which we tackled this and tried to tease out the meanings of the novel. I said Lurie was a colonizer - as an academic (colonizing poetry, perpetuating the culture of an imperialist nation in South Africa), as a womanizer and as the seducer of his student (whom he feels he is raping when she passively submits to him). John agreed and said that everything in the novel was very highly patterned around this theme: as he 'rapes' his student, so his daughter is raped in turn (just as, as whites have 'raped' South Africa, they must be raped in turn). As at the very beginning there is an ambiguous contract between the apparent colonizer Lurie and the prostitute Soraya (each using the other), so by the end of the book there is an ambiguous contract between Lurie's daughter Lucy and the new landowner Petrus.

Jenny disagreed that this was the point about Lurie (but I've been so busy I can't remember now what she said the point was), and she said with a giggle that actually, having taught in universities in the seventies she didn't think Lurie was all that bad as a womanizer, which set us all off laughing pretty helplessly, and from that moment on the whole meeting kept swinging between hilarity and the seriousness to which the novel kept drawing us back.

John said he was interested in the passivity which kept being enacted in the novel - the sexual passivity of the student and Lucy's passivity as she gives in to the consequences of her rape and to the new landowning order. It's this passivity in Lucy which Lurie can't stand, but which makes her the realist, and, as someone suggested, his (colonizer's) inability to accept it makes him redundant and leaves him only the option of retreat from this society.

In fact, he returns to the smallholding, but the ending, turning on the dog theme running through the book, and thus the whole book, Doug and I found utterly bleak.

I said I thought the book was too patterned: I didn't find at all psychologically convincing the episode in which Lurie visits the parents of the girl he seduced (which Hans suggested was a development of the covert Truth and Reconciliation theme), and especially their response, and most people agreed.

Finally Clare said it was odd that Lucy's rape, which was the really vivid (and horrifying) part of the book, and the episode which finally pulled her into it, was the one thing we hadn't discussed. I said that I thought that was because it was the only incident in the book which was entirely unambiguous, everything thing else being morally complex and shaded.

Doug, Clare, Jenny and Trevor said they thought the book fantastic, but Ann said that while she had appreciated the themes and patterns she had never become fully engaged.

Goodness knows how, but from the book we then got onto the subject of boils, and the fact that people don't seem to have boils as they used to, which we thought was due to better diet, and then people compared boil experiences and remembered how painful boils could be and said how horrible it must have been to have a boil on the bum, and Jenny said she did.

So by the time Ann offered her choice of two books for next time we were far gone in hilarity and when she held up two whoppers, we shrieked, How on earth could we choose (since we tend to go for the shortest)?, and people compared the authors' photos and made rude comments and considered turning down the one who looked snooty and in the end we chose the book which went with Jenny's jumper, a kind of brick orange.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

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