January, 2010: Stella left J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace on the kitchen table, and it was so much easier to read than Origin of Species that I finally returned Darwin to the bookcase. Disgrace was a good holiday read, in its way. The story-telling is excellent; I wanted to know what happened next. It’s just that the misogyny bothered me more and more, until, by the time I’d read the last page, I thought the whole book stank. The hero’s and others’ treatment of women is in fact the book’s theme (though it’s never called “misogyny”), and because Coetzee is such a cool, clear-eyed observer, there are some insights into the mind of a man with whom I don’t really want to spend a book.
The fifty-ish professor turns up at his twenty-ish student’s flat:
He has given her no warning: she is too surprised to resist the intruder who thrusts himself upon her. When he takes her in his arms, her limbs crumple like a marionette’s. Words heavy as clubs thud into the delicate whorl of her ear. “No, not now!” she says, struggling. “My cousin will be back!”
But nothing will stop him. He carries her to the bedroom, brushes off the absurd slippers, kisses her feet, astonished by the feeling she evokes. Something to do with the apparition on the stage: the wig, the wiggling bottom, the crude talk. Strange love! Yet from the quiver of Aphrodite, goddess of the foaming waves, no doubt about that.
She does not resist. All she does is avert herself: avert her lips, avert her eyes. She lets him lay her out on the bed and undress her: shivers of cold run through her; as soon as she is bare, she slips under the quilted counterpane like a mole burrowing, and turns her back on him.
Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core. As though she had decided to go slack, die within herself for the duration, like a rabbit when the jaws of a fox close on its neck. So that everything done to her might be done, as it were, far away.
“Pauline will be back any minute,” she says when it is over. “Please. You must go.”
Be obeys, but then, when he reaches his car, is overtaken with such dejection, such dullness, that he sits slumped at the wheel unable to move.
A mistake, a huge mistake.
“A mistake”, or a wrong-doing? “Not rape, not quite that” – well, Germaine Greer can supply the term he’s groping for: ‘petty rape’. In her essay ‘Seduction is a Four-Letter Word’, published in Playboy 1973, she says, “In all cases of petty rape, the victim does not figure as a personality,” and that’s certainly true for Melanie. We hear from her boyfriend what he thinks of her ‘affair’ with Professor Lurie, and we hear from her father what he thinks of it, but we never hear from Melanie. All we know about Melanie is that she’s young and pretty.
According to Lurie, women are either young and pretty, or “young…pleasant-faced rather than pretty, shy, clearly pregnant”, or else they have “chunky legs and a no-nonsense business suit” or they’re “more self-conscious in their dressing and undressing. But the women he is used to are not as young, as perfectly formed’. David Lurie describes his lesbian daughter, Lucy: “A year has passed and she has put on weight. Her hips and breasts are now (he searches for the best word) ample.” At one point (I can’t be bothered finding it), he finds himself gazing at the back of Lucy’s knee, the least beautiful part of a woman’s body. There’s the opera he’s writing about Byron and his lover, Theresa, “with her heavy bust, her stocky trunk, her abbreviated legs…Can he find it in his heart to love this plain, ordinary woman?” Or there’s Bev Shaw, “a dumpy, bustling little woman with black freckles, close-cropped, wiry hair, and no neck. He does not like women who make no effort to be attractive.”
And I don’t like books that make no effort to make their main character attractive.
Post-script: Professor Lurie’s idea for an opera is terrible. He should read Thomas Mann’s wonderful Lotte In Weimar if he wants to know what happens to these women eclipsed (in the public eye, anyway) by a brief affair with a famous man. They forget about him, and go on to have a real life.
P.P.S.: A few days later, and I continue to think about how little I liked this book. In Germaine’s essay, she also describes a scenario where a famous or charismatic man uses these advantages of his to exploit a less powerful (e.g. young) woman, treating her in a way he’d never get away with if paired with his equal. Mutual contempt is the aftermath of such encounters, and also, I’d add, self-contempt. There was something very evasive about Disgrace; not only that David Lurie never got around to considering what he’d done as wrong, and not only that we never heard Melanie’s side of the story, and very little from Lucy, too, who was also raped (conveniently for this evasive author, Lucy clammed up and refused to talk about it). It wasn’t social punishment or ‘disgrace’ that our hero was evading: it was self-contempt. The whole book was an elaborate construction to protect him from self-contempt. That’s how little I liked it. I doubt I’ll ever read another J.M. Coetzee book again. Especially not the one where the hero is called ‘J.M. Coetzee’.