David Lurie is a twice divorced, 52-year-old professor of communications and Romantic Poetry at Cape Technical University. Lurie believes he has created a comfortable, if somewhat passionless, life for himself. He lives within his financial and emotional means. Though his position at the university has been reduced, he teaches his classes dutifully; and while age has diminished his attractiveness, weekly visits to a prostitute satisfy his sexual needs. He considers himself happy. But when Lurie seduces one of his students, he sets in motion a chain of events that will shatter his complacency and leave him utterly disgraced.
When I think of a book I ask myself "What is this book about?", and I did the same thing with Disgrace. The answer to my own question puzzled me: I'm not exactly sure. It's definitely about a man who undergoes a series of traumatic events and changes as a result, but not too much. It's also about the people of South African rural areas, about family, about attitudes toward the four-legged creatures with whom we share the planet, morality, deceit and about how all these things are thrown into sharp relief when the circumstances are just right. Yet it's not about any of them. Finally I decided that this book is about how all the different parts of life affect a person, mold him, shape him, break him and, well, change him. Make him better? Maybe. Make him different from who he was the day before? Definitely.
The best novels always have strong characters who make you care about them, even if they're not all that likeable. David Lurie is not likeable at all, in fact he is kind of despicable, and yet Coetzee made it easy to sympathize with him. Not approve, mind you, but definitely sympathize. He takes us into Professor Lurie's head and we live through his experiences with him, feeling his indignation and disdain, his self-doubt and finally his affection for his daughter who he cannot help and who continues to reject his advice and his assistance. It's difficult to remain indifferent when one is allowed into a character's life like that.
I hear there is a lot of controversy and strong opinions about this book. I haven't looked into this, but I think that they stem from the situation David Lurie's daughter finds herself in, the part of the story that deals with animals, and the interactions between the white and black South Africans. I don't really understand why there is controversy. Coetzee's position regarding all events of the novel is neutral, it's as if he is simply reporting the facts as he witnesses them. He's not expressing opinions or taking sides, he is just telling a story. It is a fact though that this story makes one think about everything it touches upon. Isn't that what a good novel is supposed to do?
I would highly recommend this novel to any reader who is willing to give the book that isn't at all happy a chance simply because it's a good story very well told.