Author: J.M. Coetzee
Publisher: Secker & Warburg
Publishing Date: 1999
Number of Pages: 220
Genre: Literary Fiction, Novel
David Lurie, middle-aged and twice divorced, is a scholar fallen into disgrace. After years teaching Romantic poetry at the Technical University of Cape Town, he has an impulsive affair with a student. The affair sours; he is denounced and summoned before a committee of inquiry. Willing to admit his guilt, but refusing to yield to pressure to repent publicly, he resigns and retreats to an isolated smallholding owned by his daughter Lucy.
For a time, his daughter’s influence and the natural rhythms of the farm promise to harmonise his discordant life. He helps with the dogs in the kennels, takes produce to market, and assists with treating injured animals at a nearby refuge.
But the balance of power in the country is shifting. He and Lucy become victims of a savage and disturbing attack which brings into relief all the faultlines in their relationship.
My first encounter with J.M. Coetzee and his works was when I was actively doing list challenges for must-read books. One of his works, Disgrace kept popping out amongst these lists, including the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list. I wasn’t really keen on availing the book but since it was put on sale by a social media friend, I decided to purchase the book and gain an understanding on the 1999 Man Booker Prize Winner. Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that four years after this book’s publication, J.M. Coetzee won the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature.
“His own opinion, which he does not air, is that the origin of speech lie in song, and the origins of song in the need to fill out with sound the overlarge and rather empty human soul.” ~ J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace
Disgrace relates the story of David Lurie. Twice divorced, he is a middle-aged university professor teaching romantic poetry at the Technical University of Cape Town. Everything in his life seem mundane until he got tangled with one of his students. Once exposed, this whimsical affair created a stir and a media sensation. David drew flak for his actions and was shunned by the university and the general public. His unwillingness to issue a public apology led to his resignation. He then retreated to the countryside, to an isolated homestead ran by his daughter, Lucy. But more trouble is brewing over the horizon.
At first glance,I noticed how Disgrace mirrored a lot of elements of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, the first book I read for my Man Booker Prize Award month. Psychological and philosophical thematic areas were explored, although to a lesser extent. Both stories involve two seemingly successful scholarly men who retreats to escape their old lives. Both, as well, are unapologetic for the lives they have led. I have to apologize for gauging Disgrace against The Sea, The Sea. I just feel like they share some elements. They share similar elements as well with other Man Booker Prize winning works I have previously read. And no, I am not trying to establish an antecedent, however, on these Man Booker winners.
Back to Coetzee’s Man Booker Prize winning masterpiece, Disgrace. What is spellbinding about this novel is how it explored the current state of social and political affairs in post-Apartheid South Africa. It gave a peek into a nation that is slowly recovering from the vestiges of the system that racially segregated the denizens of the country. The shift in the balance of power is slowly tipping to the middle and can be gleaned in different circumstances in the novel such as David’s loss of authority and sexuality.
“Because a woman’s beauty does not belong to her alone. It is a part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it.” ~ J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace
As a country that is still trying to pick itself up, violence is still prevalent. What the novel highlighted is that both white and black men are capable of silence and are equally susceptible to it. In his depiction, Coetzee eliminated the prejudice towards one side of the spectrum. It wasn’t a shift of blame or accolades, rather it was a universal and profound statement. And this is one of the novel’s most beautiful facets, carrying a universal message while at the same time delivering a local message.
Exploitation of another person to fulfill one’s emotional needs is another aspect that was used as a plot device. In a way, the novel explored a lot of personal themes such as aging and maturity. David is a perplexing character and came out as despicable. As the story progresses, he discovers more about himself and in the process, matures while rethinking his world, contrary to what one would expect – that age is a permission to stop rethinking about one’s ways. As the story draws to a conclusion, David realizes that his “strained relationship” has come a more equal footing.
Another one theme in the novel that I would like to highlight is the language barrier and difficulty of communication. This is a paradox considering that David is a poetry professor. Even he, himself, admits the gap that has to be bridged, between him and his students, between him and his daughter, and, on a bigger picture, between the citizens of South Africa. It didn’t help that most of the time, David stayed in his head. In a way, the novel brings this to light as the message resonated throughout the narrative.
Deep as Disgrace’s message and plot is, I can’t help but lament how bland the story-telling is. I grasp it, the narrative was meant to be pretty straightforward and was not meant to veer towards the imaginative. However, even the interactions amongst the characters, although natural, lacked flow and were too dull. Coetzee used simple words, hence, the story is easy to understand, and well, easy to forget as well. The only thing memorable about it is David’s loathsome character and behavior.
“His mind has become a refuge for old thoughts, idle, indigent, with nowhere else to go. He ought to chase them out, sweep the premises clean. But he does not care to do so, or does not care enough.” ~ J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace
Nevertheless, Disgrace is a good read. The themes it explored and its message apply on a global scale and not only on a local scale. David maturing is, on second thought, is one of the novel’s primary highlight. As I have said before, witnessing a person grow and mature, even though fictional, is always a thing of beauty. The journey might be fraught with challenges but it will always be worth it of praise. Although too bland for my taste, Disgrace does have its merits. Maybe I need to read more of Coetzee’s works to fully grasp his points.
Recommended for readers who like first person point-of-views, readers who like books that pertain to emotional journey and growth, readers who like books that won the Man Booker Prize Award, and readers who like straightforward narratives.
Not recommended for readers who are looking for more imaginative or mind-bending story-telling.
About the Author
(Photo by The Nobel Peace Prize) John Maxwell Coetzee (more popularly called J.M. Coetzee) was born on February 9, 1940 in Cape Town, South Africa.
He spend most of his childhood in Cape Town and Worcester in Western Cape province. For his secondary education, he attended St. Joseph’s College before studying mathematics and English at the University of Cape Town. He received his Bachelor of Arts with Honors in English in 1960 and Bachelor of Arts with Honors in Mathematics in 1961. From South Africa, he moved to the United Kingdom where he worked as a computer programmer for IBM and ICT.
Before taking on writing, Coetzee first taught English at the State University of New York in Buffalo which ended when his application for permanent residence in the United States was denied. It was only in 1969 that he started writing fiction. Dusklands (1974) was his first novel. His 1983 novel, Life & Times of Michael K was awarded the Man Booker Prize. He would later receive the same award in 1999 for his novel Disgrace (1999), making him the first writer to win the award twice.
His other works include In the Heart of the Country (1977), Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), Foe (1986) and The Master of Petersburg (1994). He also wrote two fictionalized memoirs and several essay collections. In 2003, he was the recipient of the Noble Prize in Literature for “in innumerable guises (he) portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider.”
He became an Australian resident in 2006 and currently resides in Adelaide.