I’ve come a bit late to this book. I’d heard of it, after all, it’s both a Booker and Nobel prize winner. But I hadn’t realised quite HOW well-known it is, that it’s got a film and everything. However, the fact that I didn’t know much about it meant I came to open its pages with no preconceived ideas, no reviews (good or bad) ringing in my ears and – luckily – no image of John Malkovich (the lead actor in the film of the book) in my mind. So it meant I was able to read it and decide for myself what Disgrace was about.
I loved this book. It was an interesting story and it was also one of those tales you could interpret in so many different ways. I spent a bit of time reflecting on what it all meant before I did finally read some reviews – and then realised that in fact there were almost as many different interpretations as reviews, and that in the end it is up to us – the reader – to decide what it all means.
In the book, university professor (David Lurie) resigns from his job in “disgrace” after having an affair with one of his students. It appears that the “disgrace” isn’t so much the affair as the fact that he gives her a pass mark in an exam that she doesn’t actually sit. Of course, this in itself is open to interpretation – although this is what he is pulled up for, could it be that this is the best way to get rid of the dinosaur that he appears to have become?
Lurie moves to live with his daughter Lucy in the country – and settles into an uneasy life with her. But the life is torn apart after a group of men attack Lurie, rape Lucy and shoot the dogs Lucy looks after.
This is the crux of the story, and the part which is perhaps the most open to interpretation. Why does Lucy not condemn her attackers? Does she see it as the price she needs to pay for the crimes of her people? Is this the big divide between her and her father, who represents the older generation? Does she need her father to see that he isn’t so different from the men that attacked her – although he wasn’t violent with his young student lover, he undoubtedly used his power to get what he wanted from her, and at no point does it appear she was willingly complicit in the affair. Is the “disgrace” of the title the attack, or the reaction to the attack? Or is it Lurie’s blindness about what he has done and his refusal to link events?
Lurie moves away from his daughter when their relationship deteriorates following the attack, although eventually makes his way back to the countryside where she lives. He works with one of Lucy’s friends putting down unwanted pets – mostly dogs – and the final scene sees him choose a lame dog that he had previously saved from execution. My own interpretation of this is that this is the author showing Lurie finally accepting that it’s time he changes, that the “lame dog” that he is needs to be put down. An end to the old ways?
There is so much more that could be read into Disgrace, but I am sure the reason it has been so widely praised and won the Booker and Nobel prizes is that it so neatly encompasses so many themes and conflicts (Apartheid, gender, the old versus the new) in such a relatively short and simple story. As someone who is moving to South Africa later this year, it also helped frame some of the big issues I will undoubtedly encounter. I thoroughly recommend this book.
This book is reviewed as part of the Africa Reading Challenge.
You can read my earlier review of Lauren St John’s Dolphin Song here.