David Lurie has a pretty good life. He’s moderately successful at his job as a literature professor, and he has hopes of expanding on his Byron studies by writing an opera about Byron. And for his physical needs, he enjoys the “services” of a lovely young woman named Soraya. It’s a perfect arrangement, until he sees Soraya out with her two sons—and, more important, she sees him and decides she can no longer offer her services to him. Once his routine is out of kilter, David sets his eyes on an attractive young student named Melanie. When Melanie accuses David of harassment, he falls into disgrace and leaves his Capetown home to stay at a farm with his daughter Lucy. There, he finds a completely different world, and completely different kinds of disgrace. Violent attacks, animal cruelty, and racial tensions all come into play as David tries to figure out how to live in a world where all the rules have changed.
When I read my first novel by J.M. Coetzee (Summertime), I was impressed with how Coetzee took a difficult premise and created such a memorable, readable novel from it. The same is true with Disgrace. In Summertime, the difficulty had to do with form, but in Disgrace, the difficulty has to do with the grim subject matter. Coetzee’s main character is a detestable piece of work, and the situations depicted are horrifying. The limited third-person point of view puts us right into David’s head, and it’s not a pretty place to be.
Despite the difficulty in subject matter, the book is tremendously compelling and easy to listen to. The audiobook narrator, Michael Cumpstey, has just the right kind of passionate intensity for this book about a world in which all things are falling apart.
One thing that stood out to me was how Coetzee handled race. The novel takes place in post-Apartheid South Africa. David and his daughter are white, but many of Lucy’s neighbors are black, some enjoying prosperity and the hope of progress for the first time in their lives. However, a horribly violent attack leaves David angry at all black men and fearing for Lucy’s life. Lucy’s more tolerant reaction infuriates him.
On the face of it, this looks simply like a tale about an old racist and sexist jerk getting his comeuppance, but it’s much more complicated than that. For one thing, David is right to be angry that the black criminals aren’t being brought to justice. And Lucy’s reaction is, in some ways, just as problematic as David’s. Her desire to move on causes her to consider an appalling arrangement that would ensure her safety but connect her to criminals. And there’s a point where she seems to imply that she can offer herself as a sort of recompense for the crimes of her white forebears. It’s unsettling and horrifying. (This bit was especially arresting because I started listening to this as I was reading Season of Migration to the North, where the relationships between sexes and races are equally fraught.)
For a time, I actually pondered whether Coetzee was making a racist argument, but I don’t think David, with his racist and sexist tendencies, is a mouthpiece for Coetzee. Coetzee spoke out against Apartheid, and I think at heart Coetzee is showing how the infection of racism leaves society unable to dispense justice properly, even after racism is no longer official policy.
There’s a lot more that I could get into here. The book is rich in imagery and theme. There’s the whole idea of Byron as emblematic of David’s nostalgia for a past when men could take the women they wanted and be lauded as romantic heroes. And dogs show up again and again, often as victims of cruelty, but also as protectors or companions, never mind all the times people are compared to dogs. Lots to explore there, which makes Disgrace an extremely rewarding read.
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As you know, I read this last year and found it incredibly powerful and moving. Without a doubt, it’s one of the most difficult books I’ve read, in terms of the subject matter and difficult issues it touches on. Like you, I don’t think the characters are meant to speak for Coetzee, so much as they are meant to highlight so many of the problems that are so deeply entrenched in South African culture now. I thought one of the things that made the book so compelling was the very fact that all of the characters have these huge flaws, yet at the same time, there are portions of what they think and do that make complete sense to us as a reader.
So glad you finally had the chance to experience this one. It’s a book that doesn’t easily fade away!
The one point where I started to wonder about Coetzee’s own take had less to do with David’s attitude than with Lucy’s. It was like the worst case scenario that racists will pounce right on. But, yes, I think entrenchment was exactly what it was about, including how these entrenched views affected more liberal-minded whites. Really, really smart book.
Intriguing, and I have been meaning to read Coetzee, especially now that I know how to pronounce his name properly. :p But I might start with Summertime, and work up to Disgrace. I’m not good with books where the narrator is totally unsympathetic, which I know makes me a slightly crappy reader.
I’ve heard his name pronounced, but my initial wrong pronunciation remains stuck in my head!
And I wouldn’t say the characters in Summertime are sympathetic either, although John Coetzee isn’t unsympathetic. Actually, I enjoyed Summertime in a completely different way from how I enjoyed (appreciated?) this, which shows Coetzee’s versatility.
This was my frist Coetzee and made me a huge fan. It is still by far my favorite of his novels.
Between this and Summertime, I’m not sure which I’d choose because as I told Jenny, I appreciated them in entirely different ways.
Any suggestions for my next Coetzee?
Wow, this always sounds very intense, but you’ve communicated well what makes it compelling and fascinating, rather than just crushingly unpleasant. One of these days I’ll give Coetzee a try…
As I think you know, I don’t mind unpleasantness in my fiction, but this book has a lot of fascinating ideas embedded in the unpleasantness. And Coetzee is quick reading, I’ve found.
This book has been recommended to me numerous times and I’m starting to see why. It sounds like a fascinating look at a country post-‘conflict’ (if apartheid can be called conflict) and the lingering effects of the racial tensions. Sounds wonderful – great review.
It does seem like a piece of the story of South Africa that you don’t hear. We hear about the suffering under apartheid and the triumph of the new government, but not the lingering problems. But that terrible legacy won’t go away easily.
It is great to see that you enjoyed this book. I have to disagree about the readability of Summertime, but found Disgrace very easy to follow. I was impressed by the way it contained so any layers, but was easy to ead. I think Coetzee is going to be one of those authors I have a love/hate relationship with!!
When I was describing Summertime as readable, I was actually thinking more of the word level–as in each sentence and paragraph was easy to understand. What was difficult was figuring out how it all fit together!
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