Re-educating the Romantic: Sex and the Nature-Poet in J.M. Coetzee’s 'Disgrace'

Melinda Harvey

Abstract


It is perhaps the campus novel's greatest eccentricity that it spends so little time in the classroom. As a matter of fact, many of the reputed classics of the genre - from Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim (1954) to David Lodge's more recent loose tetralogy, Changing Places (1975), Small World (1984), Nice Work (1988) and Thinks (2001) - seem to be suggesting that life's real lessons have nothing whatsoever to do with books, ballpoints and blackboards. The hero of these fictions is usually the truant, not the student - be he a pupil or a teacher. Faculty staff are as likely to be spotted skulking in strip-joints or propping up the end of a bar as pontificating from the podium. Following their lead, learners, likewise, tend to be more interested in the partouse than in Proust. Clashes and meetings of the mind frequently serve as short-cuts to the bedroom. Literary references are more often bandied from writer to reader than from teacher to student. Lived experience, these novels maintain, is the best teacher. The campus novel essentially argues the oppugnant's case for the university's obsolescence.

When a campus novelist grants us entry to the classroom, though, we do well to pay attention. Disgrace's status as a campus novel is mootable; however its preoccupation with education - or better, with '[r]e-education. Reformation of the character,' as the book's protagonist, David Lurie puts it - is not. J. M. Coetzee toys with many of the genre's trademark topoi - the philandering professor, the penny ante faculty squabbles, the devitalized university. He also appears to have named his protagonist after two of the campus novel's greatest recent exponents, Alison Lurie and the aforementioned Lodge. But even if one sees the first six chapters of the novel as a prolegomenous red herring, Disgrace is very clearly a novel of two campuses - the Cape Technical University and 'old Kaffraria' .

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