“The theory has always been, especially among English actors, that if you’re serious about ‘Lear,’ you should play it twice,” explains [actor Patrick] Stewart. “Once when you’re young and strong enough to carry Cordelia, and once when you’re old enough to understand what the part is about.” – from an interview, June 2002.
None other than Sir Derek Jacobi opined: “Lear should be a classical actor’s last hurrah,” but the point of this post is not to discuss Shakespeare; rather, it is an acknowledgement that certain literary works deepen in significance with time, with a reader’s age and experience. I’ll set aside gender and race for the moment, while I comment on J.M. Coetzee‘s Disgrace. It is like Lear and other monumental works of literature: worth repeated re-readings at different points in our lives.
Enter the protagonist: David Lurie is 52 years old, a literature professor, divorced, and seemingly complacent. He is educated and urbane. He is not likable but you don’t hate the man. He seems to float through life. His sex life is without any attachment (he visits an escort), his income is comfortable (good to know since he visits Windsor Mansions weekly), and his career is established. I think he is tenured. He should be a happy man; but, like any Shakespearean tragic character, he will fall because of some fatal mistake. Bells should be going off because nothing is ever that good.
Lurie’s mistake shouldn’t be a mistake but he presses his luck and he is undone. A mistake that isn’t a mistake, although it isn’t morally right: he sleeps with a student, Melanie. She, in fact, agrees to it. The first time. When David persists and forces himself on her a second time, she files a complaint at the university. Mistake 1. David is expected to apologize and confess, but he doesn’t; he tries to explain himself. Mistake 2. When I read the scene with the Review Board, I couldn’t help but feel that Coetzee was commenting but not commenting on “PC Culture,” not that Coetzee or I condone a professor’s sleeping with a student; but it happens, and Melanie is long gone after the deed.
Fired, David leaves and visits his daughter, Lucy, who is living the simple life on farmland that she shares with her former employee, Petrus, who is now co-owner with her because of racial laws in South Africa. Add Bev Shaw, who is not altogether attractive, but a compassionate woman administering to sick and dying animals. When David meets Bev she is treating a goat with a rather grim prognosis. The wound is really gross and not worth mentioning. She offers to euthanize the animal. That the goat’s wound is in the same bodily area as the Fisher King‘s, festering like that of the young boy in Kafka’s ultra-short story Country Doctor, is not arbitrary: the author does have a point he wants to make. Coetzee wants the reader to equate David with the goat past his prime; it is all symbolic and foreshadows David’s disfigurement and emasculation. I leave it to you to discover the pivotal event in the novel that brings David to a new realization, and introduces you to the racial reality and prejudices of South Africa. Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003.
In the best movie slap of all time (and it did look like it hurt!), Cher struck Nicholas Cage in Moonstruck, while in another scene Danny Aiello, as Johnny, explains why a man will do the stupidest thing: “he fears death.” Disgrace delivers both the slap and the Freudian injunction to “make friends with the necessity of dying.” David’s ex-wife Rosalind almost delivers the slap over the phone when she says to him, “Do you think a young girl finds pleasure in going to bed with a man of that age?” (That had to hurt, too). David is 52 and Melanie is 20. Fifty-two weeks in a year and fifty two cards in a deck. David will, by novel’s end, come to realize his past complacency and, like King Lear, feel the full magnitude of his helplessness as a man and as a parent when his daughter’s traumatic event happens and must confront and deal with the agonizing aftermath. In a provocative scene, David will make love with Bev and, in a display of masterful writing, Coetzee conveys that their physical act is both David’s penance and compassion at work. The novel’s final scene is ambiguous.
Disgrace is also a meditation on Language. Where there is failure and a lack of understanding, a recurring theme in modern literature, Irony is seen everywhere. David is a professor of literature and he fails at communicating with his daughter. Ironic. He wishes to write an opera of Lord Byron (his academic specialty) and he falls short as hero and lover with women, writing his opera from the viewpoint of Byron’s mistress. Trifecta in Irony. He is impotent as a father. In a last ditch effort to have meaning he tries to communicate with Bev’s animals.
With old age comes, depending where you live in this world, cultural obsolescence and then natural decline. David Lurie is certainly not an old man, but like the lowly Willy Loman or regal King Lear, the learning is all-too human, all-too painful and bittersweet. Young readers may hear the lessons at a young age but I fear it is an abstract concept; but with time, age, and experience, it might be felt and understood better. There are no guarantees since there is always complacency. Kierkegaard might have put it best: “Life is lived forward but understood backward” (“Livet skal forstås baglæns, men leves forlæns”). For us in America, we have Fitzgerald’s ominous observation: “There are no second acts in American lives.” Willy Loman is an example. Scotty wrote that memorable line while writing his unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon. Not quite South Africa but it is Ironic.
I will not tell you what happens at the end of Disgrace or even how it is ambiguous. The key word the narrator uses in the text is Lösung, a word that, for those of you familiar with Holocaust literature or German echoes Endlösung. It is a deliberate and a calculated echo.
Cancellation. Final Solution.