The comic irony of Melanie listing writers David could stand to learn a lot more from than the long-dead Lake poets he venerates is followed quickly by a far more disturbing scene, in which he forces himself onto her again, this time to have sex:
She does not resist. All she does is avert herself: avert her lips, avert her eyes[...] Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core.
Back in 1999, the Irish Times summarised this part of Disgrace’s plot by saying: 'Lurie's fall occurs when he forces his attention on a young woman student, who though initially complicit, soon retreats into a disengaged curiosity.' The Independent, meanwhile, declared the book 'concerned with the itch of male flesh', which makes it sound almost like David was the true victim. It reminded me of the way, just a year earlier, 22-year-old Monica Lewinsky was been portrayed as a femme fatale who brought down a helpless president. How far we’ve come. It seems unlikely critics today – or undergraduate students, for that matter – would interpret Melanie’s behaviour, still less an oxymoron as galling as ‘not rape, but nevertheless undesired to the core’, with anything approaching ambiguity.
That Disgrace now seems prescient about the re-examination society is undertaking of our attitudes towards sexual assault, and the experiences of younger women with older, powerful men in particular, is no accident. David Lurie is, to my mind, one of the most unlikeable protagonists in literary history, as self-pitying as Victor Frankenstein, as lacking in empathy as Humbert Humbert and as pompous both. But crucially, Coetzee allows him almost nothing in the way of salvation. He ends the novel professionally and personally chastised, utterly ruinous and barely any more self-aware. Instead, his disgrace feels inextricable from the way he minimises Melanie’s voice and experiences and stomps over Lucy’s in the throes of a misplaced saviour complex. Looking back at the parallels Coetzee draws between Melanie and Lucy, it’s clear he wanted us to consider what happens to them in the same terms, even if, like David, we weren’t all ready to back in 1999. Like most literary masterpieces, Disgrace's power seems to be shifting with our times. It is still lurking, like the dog on its cover, at once menacing and pitiful, and with plenty to show us should we have the courage to face it head on.