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[231] Disgrace – J.M. Coetzee

Disgrace“Exactly. Good or bad, he just does it. He doesn’t act on principle but on impulse, and the source of his impulses is dark to him . . . His madness was not of the head, but heart.” [33]

Although I am not extremely keen on the sparse style of Disgrace, Coetzee’s incredible ability to infuse a number of important topics and interlock them through such sparseness is not to be disputed. Set in post-apartheid South Africa, Disgrace tells the story of a communication professor who seduces one of his students purely out of his lust and impulse. The twice-divorced man at the age of 52 is incapable of affection and moral forbearance—his life after divorce exists in an anxious flurry of promiscuity. Forced to resign after an inquest in which he doesn’t feel remorseful for his wrong-doing, David Lurie takes refuge on his daughter’s farm in the Eastern Cape.

A dog will accept the justice of that: a beating for a chewing. But desire is another story. No animal will accept the justice of being punished for following its instincts. [90]

As terror and violence unleash so close to home, Lurie and his daughter are forced to come to terms with the aftermath of an attack on the farm in which Lucy Lurie is raped and impregnated and David is brutally assaulted. While the plot is simple and linear, the meanings of Disgrace are layered. Lurie’s disgrace is not so much his act of promiscuity across generations in an academic setting as his ignorant exploitation of another human being to fill his emotional needs. Lurie does not come to realize his outrageous mistakes, which he previously defends as his rights, a vanity, until his own daughter is raped by robbers at the farm.

I lack the lyrical. I manage love too well. Even when I burn I don’t sing, if you understand me. For which I am sorry. I am sorry for what I took your daughter through. You have a wonderful family. I apologize for the grief I have caused you and Mrs. Issacs. I ask for your pardon. [171]

Disgrace is a book meant to be read over and over again in order to fully grab its meanings. The steely intelligence that evokes from the simplicity of the writing is wrapped up in layers of truths is calling readers to cultivate. The sparse prose encompasses some of the larger issues that surpass Lurie’s own embarrassing drama: religion, sexuality, power, free will, and politics. The shifting of power in post-apartheid South Africa is being micro-translated, played out in Lurie’s crisis. That a man like Davud Lurie, the white South African alpha-male type is no longer in possession of power he once did, Lurie, in dealing with his scandal, is forced to rethink his whole world at an age that he believes he is too old to make changes. Once a snob who was contemptuous of others, Lurie suddenly has to face the truth that all his available energy has long ago been exhausted on things that don’t really matter. Physically and intellectually, he has been knocked down so disgracefully. The novel, with its expansiveness of thoughts on both individual and societal level, is literature at its best.

220 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

22 Responses

  1. Hi, Matt! I enjoyed this book as well. One does have to hand it to Coetzee for writing relatively short but substantial novels. Somehow, this makes re-reading his works a lot easier.

  2. I suppose one would certainly have to be in a special mood to read this one once, or even re-read it. Talk about a recipe for a mood-swing. Even in your review, I instantly snarled at the idea of this guy, then you are faced with dealing with atrocities brought down upon him. Not really a bit of light reading.

  3. Not my usual style of book either. From the moment I finished, I knew it was a book that would need rereading….thanks for reminding me.

  4. The instructor for my Art of Reading course talked a lot of about this book in one of the lectures. Both Peter and I are looking forward to reading it. Coetzee’s books in general seem to require multiple reads despite how simple they initially appear to be.

    Lezlie

  5. I thought this book was fantastic. It was one of those which leaves me thinking about the characters for days after the last page is turned. Have you read other books by Coetzee? I’ve only read one other but really should read more.

  6. Matt, I’m so glad that you appreciated this book. I remember that you commented on my review that you hadn’t had much success with Coetzee in the past, so I’m glad this book moved you so much. I completely agree with you that it is so rich and deep – even if it is hard to handle, it is one that should be read over and over again!

  7. I’m sure I’ll need to be in a very serious-minded mood to read this. But books like these are necessary readings to understand the convoluted stuff of human nature!

  8. I recently purchased this book and am now very excited to read it. Wonderful, thoughtful review!

  9. Peter:
    The simple writing is what makes the novel so powerful. I was simply floored!

  10. Sandy:
    Coetzee somehow has passed on judgment on his character. He is met with atrocious drama that has befallen what he loves in his life. The reading is very intense.

  11. JoAnn:
    I also plan to re-read because I feel I haven’t grasped the full spectrum of meanings that Coetzee tries to convey here. It’s like a concentrate soup full of ingredients and flavors. The lumps need time to dissociate. The book simply penetrates deeper than just the professor’s crisis, it deals with the political instability of South Africa.

  12. Lezlie:
    It’s easy to just breeze through Coetzee’s simple writing and miss out all the layers of meanings. He even touches on animal rights and homosexuality, despite the focus of the book is a middle-aged professor’s scandalous affair with his student.

  13. iliana:
    My first attempt to read Coetzee was The Master from St. Petersburg, which was not very successful. This book has simply put him back on the spot for me. What do you recommend I should read?

  14. Steph:
    This book challenges my mind because I keep asking questions about who David Lurie really is. He is one confusing character who doesn’t feel any passion in his life and yet he tries to ease up the tension between him and his daughter. What ultimately happened to his daughter serves as a wake up call. But I realize his struggle against his own conscience doesn’t end just there. Coetzee seems to call for a larger cause than just one’s journey to be in touch with who he is.

  15. Rhodora Online:
    Convoluted would be the word. Under the surface of simple writing is human mind that is very convoluted. This book reminds me of The Human Stain by Philip Roth.

  16. cjz111:
    I highly recommend this book. Take your time and enjoy! 🙂

  17. […] easy to zip through a book that is written in clean and simple writing as J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. meaning escapes and the essence thus evaporates. A review should be able to x-ray through the […]

  18. disgrace-How effective is David Lurie’s attempts to atone for the wrongs he has committed. please help

  19. […] Night F. Scott Fitzgerald The Heart is a Lonely Hunter Carson McCullers Howards End E.M. Forster Disgrace J.M. […]

  20. This is one of my favorite books, and the best Coetzee novel I have read thus far, compared to Life and Times of Michael K, Youth, Elizabeth Costello, Slow Man.

  21. […] Disgrace J.M. Coetzee. The steely intelligence that evokes from the simplicity of the writing is wrapped up in layers of truths is calling readers to cultivate. The sparse prose encompasses some of the larger issues that surpass Lurie’s own embarrassing drama: religion, sexuality, power, free will, and politics. […]

  22. […] of Small Things (India) 1998 Ian McEwan Amsterdam (UK) 1999 J. M. Coetzee Disgrace (South Africa)* Review 2000 Margaret Atwood The Blind Assassin (Canada)* Review 2001 Peter Carey True History of the Kelly […]

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