Why do you pick up some books instantly and imprison others in plain sight on their shelves for a decade? In the case of Disgrace, the answer is simple: the title and the cover. No-one could pretend that the simple, austere ‘disgrace’ is a word crying out to please. Similarly, the picture of a mangy dog next to a rusty cylinder on orange dust does not shout: ‘Read me!’. Or if it does, I have decided to be deaf to it. Why buy the bloody thing, then? That’s simple too: it won the Booker Prize, I’d not read anything by this august writer before, it was a book that simply had to be read. How craven we are. Well, I am.* David Lurie is a fiftysomething literature lecturer in post-Apartheid South Africa. A womaniser, he comes unstuck when a student with whom he has had an affair makes a complaint against him and his Cape Town university chucks him out because he won’t publicly apologise. He goes to stay with his semi-estranged daughter Lucy on her scrubby, remote farm and violence is soon visited on them both in a terrifying attack, which goes unpunished. Lurie helps out in an animal sanctuary, easing the passing of sick creatures – and even here he manages to entrance someone else’s wife with his apparent charm. This charm is odd: it seems to consist largely of being pompous and certain and having the ability to make intelligent, wide-ranging comments at all times. If only it were as easy as this in real life. He also writes a terrible opera about Byron which will never be performed. Curious. The political realities in the new South Africa are changing and Lurie and Lucy are not in control of their destinies – at least they don’t have the control that once white people did. They are starting again ‘with nothing – no cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity, like a dog’. That dog again. The landscape is as dry and chilly as the tone.
*Author’s note: I find I didn’t buy Disgrace anyway. My partner tells me categorically that she did. My memory stumbles and falls. All that self-justification for nothing. It’s pathetic.