Nobel Prize winner JM Coetzee’s novel Disgrace is, as its title hints, about an ageing humanities academic forced to resign in disgrace after his callous seduction of a female student is uncovered. As the Amazon.com review encapsulates:
David Lurie is hardly the hero of his own life, or anyone else’s. At 52, the protagonist of Disgrace is at the end of his professional and romantic game, and seems to be deliberately courting disaster.
Yet truth, as the cliche puts it, is stranger than fiction. It’s also frequently a lot crueller.
George is a humanities academic I’ve known for a long time. He’s been a university academic for more than 20 years. Before that he did a stint in the British Navy, which may not be entirely irrelevant to this story: rum, sodomy and the lash and all that. George is a single gay man, but could never bring himself to come out of the closet and avow his sexuality, even though his couple of really close friends often tried to explain to him that everyone assumed he was gay anyway. George’s effeminate persona was such that you’d never have mistaken him for Arnold Schwarzenegger, or even Rock Hudson. But presumably something in that stiff upper lip British military training prevented him from “coming out”.
The result was that George lived a mostly very lonely, solitary life, and gradually acquired a more and more serious alcohol problem. His disciplined, productive teaching and research career was increasingly disrupted by wild, uninhibited alcoholic binges sometimes lasting a couple of weeks, followed by prolonged drying out and convalescence. George’s longer-standing academic colleagues simply covered for him and shouldered extra teaching and administrative duties during these increasingly frequent absences, but even old friendships eventually began to show the strain.
George was a great teacher; all his students loved his wicked but gentle sense of humour that made even the driest subject bearable if not enjoyable. Despite that, the disruption caused by his unpredictable alcohol-induced AWOL stints ultimately forced his colleagues to relieve him of many of his teaching duties. Instead, he was made academic co-ordinator of undergraduate studies, advising students on their study programs, approving admissions and enrolments and so on. His long years of experience and empathy with students’ problems made him a huge success in the role, until he hit the wall again in spectacular fashion a few months ago, just as his faculty was embarking on a major expansion project to which he was crucial.
The resulting chaos was the last straw for even his staunchest defenders on faculty (a previous dean had unsuccessfully tried to have him sacked). They firmly but quietly told George that the time had come to retire semi-gracefully. After a few desultory threats of duelling lawyers at twenty paces he reluctantly accepted their advice, and began cleaning out his desk. Last night George died. At home in bed asleep. Natural causes not suicide, my informant hastily told me this morning. He was a couple of years older than Coetzee’s David Lurie.