Disgrace is a novel of a man's, even a family's decline. David Lurie is a university teacher, the kind of teacher who was at home with academic material that current course requirements no longer demand. He is also divorced, twice, and even on his best form he has to grapple with the trials and tribulations that his frayed life and career present.
He needs regular sex and visits a prostitute with regularity, always the same one, and harbours suspicions that he provides her with more than just business. He also suffers from self-delusion. So when he has an affair with one of his students, he really believes that she wants him for what he is, despite his thirty years of seniority. He convinces himself that she is a willing participant. It turns sour. She reports him. There is a committee. He cooperates, perhaps, but not in the way required by mores with which he cannot identify. Conveniently, messily, he resigns. And he loses his benefits.
David goes off to live with his daughter in a rural area in the Eastern Cape. He discovers complexities in the relationship between white and black which were at least less apparent in the urban setting of Cape Town. He is willing to make compromises, but it is not going to be easy.
David and his daughter are then viciously attacked. Motives are clear, and then unclear. Relations between the father and daughter, and between the two of them and their black neighbours become difficult and strained. Old scores are being settled, perhaps. Older scores are being tallied. A new world demands that new details of inter-relation and inter-dependence be drawn, except that for David the art seems like freehand. No-one seems to be able to say what they want or what they feel.
To me, Disgrace seems to be about change and how we do or do not cope with it. It's about how we want to continue asserting, for want of a better word, values - assumptions, perhaps - that might no longer apply. We would only know by reading the unspoken assumptions of others and interpreting them correctly. Disgrace is also about vengeance and punishment, about settling scores, about inclusion and exclusion. The story line is strong, but the overtones are stronger.
Disgrace is a book that presents individual experience and through that manages to comment on change within South Africa and its society, What has changed is not always for the better and what is retained is not always relevant. But these are reactions to assumptions, perhaps, rather than to any external reality, no matter whose it might be. On reflection, the overt simplicity of Disgrace is part of its complexity.