Disgrace: Chapters 20-21

Summary – Chapters Twenty and Twenty One
David returns to Cape Town and is not pleased to be home ‘in the shadow of the university’ and thinks he will have to sell up. His finances are also in chaos and he has not paid a bill since he left.
His house has been burgled and he sees that the bars over one of the back windows have been torn out of the wall. The house has been ransacked and stripped. He thinks of this as ‘war reparations’.
At dusk, he goes to the university and sees his name tag has been removed from his door and replaced with ‘Dr S. Otto’. He knocks, but there is no answer and so lets himself in. There is a young man inside and he asks David who he is. After explaining, David is shown where the box is that holds his mail and is told his books are downstairs in the storage room. His card is not accepted at the library access barrier and he sorts through his box on a bench in the lobby.
The narrative cuts to dawn and David sets off on a long walk and heads for the mountainside. He thinks how he is now a free man and can spend his time as he wishes. This thought unsettles him, though, but he thinks he will get used to it. There is a further shift to a superficially polite encounter he has with Elaine Winter at the supermarket and then shifts again to his Byron project.
He first conceived his opera as having Byron and Contessa Guiccioli (Teresa) in the summer heat of Ravenna being spied on by her jealous husband. She feels like a prisoner and Byron is full of doubts but is too prudent to voice them. He now wants a ‘quiet retirement’ or death.
Now, though, David sees something ‘misconceived’ about it. He instead tries to think of Teresa as middle-aged. Byron is long dead and her claim to immortality lies in the chest full of letters. He works on this idea gradually and thinks this is how it must be. She gives voice to her lover and he gives voice to her. The more he works, the more he comes to recognize that ‘purloined’ songs will not be good enough and ‘the two will demand a music of their own’, and ‘astonishingly’ this happens. Rather than use a piano he finds Lucy’s old banjo and composes with this. He thinks how this is ‘art’ and how ‘strange’ and ‘fascinating’ the process is.
He is led by Teresa and he follows and one day he hears another voice, which he has not heard before. It is Allegra, Byron’s daughter, and she is asking why he left her and wants Byron to come and fetch her. She is five and is complaining of the heat; she is dying in bed with malaria. Byron does not answer because he has had enough of life and would rather ‘be back where he belongs, on death’s other shore, sunk in his old sleep’.
In Chapter Twenty One, David meets Rosalind for coffee. She asks about his injured ear and he says it is nothing. She says she has heard about his ‘trial’ and that he did not perform well. He replies that he was standing up for the principle of free speech.
She mentions seeing Melanie in the play and he later thinks of Melanie and how the smell of her is stored deep inside him. He thinks the ‘trial’ was set up to punish his way of life and the deemed unnaturalness of the two together. He also thinks, ‘no country, this, for old men’ (and is partially quoting Yeats’s ‘Sailing to Byzantium’).
The narrative cuts to David going to the theatre to see Melanie perform and finds the play ‘as hard to endure as before’. Unbidden, he remembers a woman hitchhiker he gave a lift to and then recalls other women he has known. He wonders what has happened to ‘all those lives’. He then thinks how the newspapers jeered at his use of the word ‘enriched’. He knows he was stupid to use it at the time, but would now stand by it.
As he continues to watch the play, pellets are thrown by Ryan (Melanie’s boyfriend) and he then whispers his name. David makes his way out and turns when he hears somebody behind him in the parking lot. It is Ryan and David asks him if he is going to explain his ‘“childish behaviour”’. Ryan says he was teaching him a lesson to stay with his own kind, and adds that he should leave Melanie alone and she will spit in his eye if she sees him.
While driving home, David thinks how he had not expected this comment, ‘spit in your eye’, and his hand trembles on the steering wheel. He notices the ‘streetwalkers’ are out in number and one catches his eye. She gets in the car and they park in a cul-de-sac. After she ‘does her work on him’, he sees she is younger than Melanie and notices that his hand has stopped trembling. He thinks of himself as such: ‘Not a bad man but not good either. Not cold but not hot, even at its hottest.’
Analysis – Chapters Twenty and Twenty One
David’s work on his Byron project begins to take shape in Chapter Twenty and the readers are led to interpret his decision to focus on Teresa as a middle-aged woman as some kind of recognition on his part of the viability of ageing. This is possibly undermined in Chapter Twenty One when he uses a ‘streetwalker’ who is younger than Melanie, but as he believes (and as we are led to think), he is not a bad man and not a good one either: he is human with failings.