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The Custom of the Country
Edith Wharton, Linda Wagner-Martin
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Leo Tolstoy, Louise Maude, Alymer Maude

Disgrace (Penguin Essential Editions)

Disgrace - J.M. Coetzee ...And, on second thought..."

I re-read this book last night and am still trying to sort out my feelings. At the level of writing, J.M. Coetzee is brilliant, his prose both spare and evocative.

But what to do with David Lurie? Coetzee humanizes this man and even invites us to empathize. Yet, does Lurie deserve our pity, on any level? He uses women, selected solely on the basis of their looks, and frequently expresses his contempt for women who are not beautiful. At the beginning of the book, he finds he's lost his powers to summon women as effortlessly as he did in the past. Nevertheless, he woos a young woman (only 20 years old to his 52) who is a student in his class.

This time his actions have consequences, and Professor Lurie is accused and must attend a hearing. Oddly - given his actions - most of his colleagues try to encourage him to say or do something, anything, so that they will not be forced to fire him. Lurie refuses. On principle, he says. He will not confess to a contrition he doesn't feel or succumb to counselling he doesn't need. His "principle" is born of arrogance; he thinks of a dog who, unable to control his desire, is punished for responding to what he cannot help. But Lurie is not a dog.

When questioned by students after the first official hearing, Lurie responds to a girl who's asked him, "Do you regret what you did?" with callousness: "No...I was enriched by the experience."

Lurie's response takes your breath away. And indeed, his answer defines him. As his daughter later accuses, Lurie sees himself as the all-important, central player and everyone else--particularly women--are merely the supporting cast. While we all are the protagonists of our story, most of us make an attempt to empathize and to view things from the perspective of others. Lurie's comment underscores his lack of humanity. More disgraceful than his molestation of his student is Lurie's view that these conquests serve to enrich him, like taking a multi-vitamin perhaps.

To his credit, Coetzee does not have this irredeemably repugnant character undergo any dramatic revelations. Lurie remains selfish and often blind to the ironic parallels between him and his own daughter's situation. Yet, with subtlety and small touches, Coetzee allows Lurie some glimpses of humanity.

I find Lurie unforgivable, but, as the novel progresses, I can relate to his growing sense of mortality and his small - very small - acts of grace.

I'm not sure why originally I only gave this books 3 stars. While painful to read--Lurie's character both attracts and repels--this is a haunting novel, beautifully written.