Set in the early days of post-apartheid South Africa, this short yet intense novel explores shifting power and race relationships and white middle class insecurities that were an important facet of that period. Coetzee exemplifies the new conditions by concentrating on a few memorable individuals. He places his characters into complex situations with sparse sentences, exposing the main character's thought processes and interactions with great precision. The beauty and peacefulness of the landscape provides a contrasting frame to the human turmoil. It is not a book the reader will put down easily or forget quickly afterwards. The story was awarded the Booker Prize in 1999.
Communications professor David Lurie, the main protagonist, has been expelled from his university following a sexual harassment charge. Not willing to apologize and explain himself adequately, he prefers to leave in disgrace. He also hopes to find time to pursue his great ambition: to write an opera on the romantic life of Byron. His affection for the Romantics and his Byron project in particular exposes David's wish to escape the realities of the day. Twice divorced and alone, he finds refuge at his daughter's small remote homestead. What does his visit mean - will he stay? How will he adjust to Lucy's rather unusual, though simple, lifestyle, running a kennel for dogs and selling flowers in the market?
Until now, David's contacts with his daughter have been sporadic and communication remains uneasy. He is suspicious of her friends and neighbours as well as of Petrus, former farm assistant, turned co-proprietor since the political change. While father and daughter adjust to their temporarily shared life, a vicious criminal attack leaves them both deeply wounded, physically and emotionally. What initially appears random, may in fact not be so. David is devastated and demands investigation by police and prosecution against the perpetrators. Lucy disagrees. It is better, she argues, to keep the events, however shattering, private. The political environment is not conducive to responding to his attempts at justice. His pain and despair only increase as does the distance from Lucy. She adjusts more willingly to the new conditions that see, among other things, Petrus demanding an ever bigger share of the farm and hold over Lucy's life. In the face of growing insecurity and dependency, her perspective is that they need restart with nothing: "No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity ... Like a dog."
Coetzee's picture of post-apartheid South Africa is grim and its reality conflictual. He sees the situation for the white middle class challenged at every turn. His exclusive use of present tense in this novel, creates immediacy and continuity. The reader lives through the moments with the protagonists. At the end, after falling from grace and as deep as humanly possible, there may a glimmer of hope to rebuild for people like David and Lucy. A novel not to be missed. [Friederike Knabe]
on February 6, 2005
DISGRACE is an incredibly insightful story. With its and deep exploration of the relationship between father and daughter, Coetzee successfully brought out a story that is difficult to forget. The characters are rich and portray deep, though extreme emotions, rationale and impulse. Though quite understated and subtle, the writing is nevertheless rich in so meaning. There is everything to learn from this book. Coetzee's writing style is superb, the setting is ingenious and the pace of the novel is fast and absorbing.
In this novel, J.M Coetzee's brilliantly tells the story of the 52 David Lurie, a professor of communications at a Cape Town University, who is twice divorced and went around with the notion that having a woman is no problem. But when he realest that he is no longer alluring, he sought the convenient service of a prostitute, an arrangement that eventually came to an end, leaving him with no outlet for his virility. David Lurie finally convinced himself that an affair with a young female student was not bad after all and went for it. But then the complaint of sexual harassment turned his academic life upside down as he is fired. The unwritten rules of the society ensured that he longer found a place amongst them.
With that realization, David Lurie travels to the country side to a dangerous and isolated farm to write and spend some time with her daughter who ran an animal refuge and sold produce and flowers. Lucy as she is called is violated by thugs and with that David's disgrace became complete. David suddenly finds himself re-evaluating his life, his ties to people, his relationship with his only daughter, as well as his relationships with women. In all of those, he learnt that love is two-sided, a matter of give and take. In this novel one makes sense of the universally acknowledged fact that a man can understand who he is only when he comes to terms with his past. USURPER AND OTHERS, HOUSEBOY are similar titles that are hard to put aside after you start reading. Also found Triple Agent Double Cross to be a beautiful African piece.
on August 21, 2016
Disgrace is a disturbing novel about life in South Africa shortly after the banning of apartheid. David is a university professor whose interest in the romantic poets is no longer relevant, now that the government’s priority is giving long-overlooked blacks a chance at very basic university education. He is not an especially noble or likeable person. He has always been a womanizer, and claims to find the pursuit of women rewarding and justifiable. Now he takes the unprecedented step of having an affair with one of his students. Affair is not really the right word, as he is in a position of power and doesn't give her a lot of choice about the relationship. She submits, but no more. Eventually she tells others and suddenly David is brought before a university committee. He’s defiant rather than repentant and loses his job.
Now at loose ends, David goes to visit his 20-something daughter Lucy, with whom he has nothing in common. Lucy has what David describes as a peasant’s lifestyle; she grows specialty vegetables and boards dogs in the countryside, with the help of a hired black man. David tries to participate in Lucy's life to degree, but his mystification with her choices increases when she is attacked by a trio of black men and refuses to press charges. But he perseveres in his new life and eventually finds a bizarre kind of meaning in helping the local vet euthanize dogs that no one wants.
Our book club’s discussion focused mainly on our opinions of David and his behaviour over the course of the book. Some members felt that he had been humbled by his experiences and had redeemed himself to a degree; others felt he had learned nothing and was as selfish at the end of the book as at the beginning. According to the many reviews online -- the book won the Booker and the Nobel Prize for Literature -- there is far more depth to the book than our group managed to explore, but everyone liked the book nonetheless. The writing is really stellar, and for me the book was full of insights into what makes people tick. The author’s underlying attitude to the dismantling of apartheid seems to be negative: not that apartheid shouldn’t be abandoned, but that it's impossible to fix social injustice that has gone on so long. Radical change will only produce new firms of injustice, Coetzee seems to be saying, but it's necessary for whites to accept their injuries as historical justice, even if it's injustice at an individual level.
on April 2, 2002
'Disgrace' is the type of novel that only comes along occasionally but leaves a hell of an impact when it has finally finished tearing your emotions to shreds. Filled to the brim with disillusionment, apathy and anti-establishment politics, this tale will most certainly bring about the urge to drag that soap-box out of the cupboard but ultimately leaves the reader questioning themselves. Set against a South Africa that is still emerging from the near self-destructive political divisions that overshadow it this seems to be a comment on the ideas of responsibility and moral judgement, as well as generational conflict.
David Lurie is a 52yr old Professor whose academic and social career is slowly declining, reflected in his demotion from Professor of Modern Languages at Cape Town University College to the ultra-modern Professor of communications at Cape Technical University. A subtle difference it may be but it also reflects the growing boredom displayed by students in his seminar as he tries desperately to seek out the creative pulse within a decaying body. Twice divorced but with no shortage of desire, Lurie initiates a brief but invigorating affair with one of his students until he is outed by her father and boyfriend.
What follows this is vintage Coetzee as Lurie refuses to repent for the affair therefore whilst he submits to the 'legalities', his sense of morality remains untainted. Given the acrimony surrounding his conduct, Lurie leaves to live with his daughter in the sparse, rural area of South Africa. It is here that he discovers a totally different world in which urban prejudices are rejected in favour of strained harmony between the white and black workers. Whilst his daughter lives with her female partner, she employs Petrus, a black worker who is effectively trying to gain financial control of the farm. It is at this point that the dialogue and characters' interplay reflects growing tension and discontent which is the usual mark of a 'good' Coetzee novel.
As if he was lulling the reader into a false sense of security, out of the desert countryside come a group of thieves and rapists who attack Luthrie and his daughter. It is at this point that the different attitudes to 'disgrace' become apparent, when it seems that Luthrie's daughter cannot bring about any legal proceedings since the reprisals will be far worse. As father and daughter conflict the reader becomes aware that this could easily be a novel that is looking back at them, rather than us looking at the novel.
It's impossible to consider all the implications of what is, undoubtedly, a tremendous work of fiction. At times this is harrowing, other times pedestrian but the quality is always maintained and it is this consistency that has led Coetzee to two wins in the Booker Prize. I can't praise or recommend this enough and it's worth reading in tandem with In the Heart of the Country which deals with similar issues in an equally powerful form.
on February 8, 2002
In my short lifetime of reading, I have found that a good book generally distinguishes itself by one of three key elements: substance, style, or message. Some books are a pleasure to read simply because of their gripping plot; others because of the author’s gifted prose; and yet others because they make an important statement about society or human nature. It is rare to come across a book that masterfully blends all three elements together, and such a book is rightfully called not simply good, but great.
J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, recipient of the 1999 Booker Prize, is a gem of a book that begs to be read and re-read. It is tightly written, filled with meaning, and suspenseful throughout. In its short span of 220 pages, we develop an at times painful compassion for Professor David Lurie, a fifty-something divorcé in Cape Town, South Africa, whose more or less ordinary existence suddenly falls apart through a series of unfortunate events. First his successful career is threatened by accusations from a young student with whom he has had a brief affair. Seeing his professional life going up in flames, he retreats to his daughter’s farm for a short visit that soon takes on a feel of indefiniteness. But while he is there, the two of them fall victim to a violent attack, the consequences of which threaten to tear the two of them apart.
The novel is an unflinching examination of human desire and emotion. We follow David through his lustful affairs, his loneliness, his anger and resentment, and his stubborn defiance in the face of threat and opposition. And somehow along the way we find ourselves caring for this seemingly unsympathetic character. For despite his moral flaws, he is a character who holds to his principles and perseveres. And whether he is wrong or right in the reader’s mind, it is clear that his heart is in the right place as he struggles for what he believes is right.
On a broader scale, the novel is also a frank portrait of modern South Africa, a country riddled by racial issues in a new, emerging era in which old paradigms no longer exist and new models have yet to be defined. Coetzee depicts this phenomenon at a very personal level in his account of the seemingly cooperative relationship between Lurie’s daughter and her African neighbor who assists in the management of her farm. Despite the cordial ties between the two and the sense that they operate as equals, there is a thick, underlying tension throughout the narrative. While her neighbor outwardly displays friendship and caring, there is a persistent uncertainty about his true intentions and where his loyalties lie. And beneath the surface of their relationship, there are deep social issues that point to a society in transformation that is far from discovery racial harmony.
Ambitious, compassionate, at times harsh, and courageous throughout, this is the kind of book that reminds readers of what great literature can achieve.
on February 3, 2002
J.M. Coetzee has an impeccable record for producing works of literary merit, but the knock against him comes from an overly practiced tendency to preach to his audience. In his streamlined novel, Disgrace, Coetzee avoids sermonizing altogether but delivers a work of startling severity. At its heart, Disgrace is a painful story about the changing world of post-apartheid South Africa that delivers truth but not without considerable hurt to the reader.
David Lurie is a fifty-two-year-old professor who is eminently dislikable. Rejected after becoming overly familiar with his prostitute, Lurie soon finds himself involved with Melanie, a student in his Romanticism course. When the University discovers his affair, charges are brought down on Lurie. Though his associates offer him an easy out that would allow him to stay on staff, he rejects the proposal with a burst of effusive pride. Retreating to the backcountry home of his mid-twenties daughter Lucy, Lurie hopes to escape the scandal of the city and start his life over. Yet notions of a serene rural setting prove false when a trio of black men attacks the pair. Lurie is beaten and humiliated, but Lucy is violated far more deeply.
A self-viewed intellectual, with all the snobbery of a city elite, Lurie finds himself grasping with straws trying to understand his daughter's world and her reaction to it. Like his offspring, he sees the changes that apartheid is brining, namely the black farmer's move to regain control of his traditional lands, but Lurie is utterly opposed to Lucy's acquiescence to the transformations. It takes an act of stunning violence to shake the mental foundations of Lurie's rational, but even this shift in thought brings no real results. He wears his humiliations like a suit of armor, and it seems nothing can pierce its potency.
While Disgrace creates a world of piercing truthfulness, it also creates a character in Lurie who is repeatedly stung by the exactness of his world but learns little and changes even less. For all its harsh reality, Coetzee's novel fails to convince even its protagonist of the story's lessons. If the point of the books is only to make the reader think, then it certainly succeeds in its goal; but for this reader at least, something more is necessary for a book to be grand. While an utterly readable book, with a plot delivery that is remarkable in its clarity, Disgrace falls a bit short.
on January 23, 2002
J.M. Coetzee is one of those modern authors, who like Graham Greene (in my reckoning), is incapable of producing bad fiction. Though alike in perhaps no other way, I am consistently amazed reading their novels at the high standard of literary quality they maintain. That said, Coetzee's 1999 novel "Disgrace" is another outstanding performance. It is an intensely human story, with a main character whose trials and tribulations seem to force readers to qualify their praise of the novel by making moral judgments on him. Written in the sparsest imaginable prose, "Disgrace" manages to convey a tremendous amount of information and emotion in the fewest possible words, making the novel apparently easy to read, but difficult to understand. Dealing with issues of aging, gender, sex, power, race, scholasticism, family, and contemporary political and economic scenearios, Coetzee's novel transcends its South African setting, capable of speaking to practically any audience.
"Disgrace" tells the story of David Lurie, a 52 year old English professor with literally nothing going for him - His teaching is uninspired, his scholarly output is uninteresting, his department has been gradually phased out, and he gratifies his baser urges once a week with the same prostitute. Spotting this prostitute, Soraya, out one day with her children, David himself is spotted, and his comfortable, prosaic routine is shattered. He begins an affair with Melanie, a student in his Romanticism course. Brought up on charges of sexual impropriety, David resigns from his university position, and moves to the hinterlands to live with his daughter Lucy, a homesteading farmer and animal caregiver. The remainder of the novel follows David's attempts to put some semblance of a life together.
David's interactions with others frame his post-teaching life. David's problems stem from his high, even standoffish self-regard as an intelligent man, closed off from mainstream society and its traditional difficulties. The fraught socio-economic relationship between Lucy and her ambitious neighbour, Petrus, is especially trying in the aftermath of South African Apartheid. Animals play a large part in David's reacculturation - Lucy and her friend, Bev Shaw, are involved in amateur doctoring and anaesthetizing sick animals - David is forced to consider in a profound way the relationship and likenesses between humans and beasts in the modern age. On the animal tip, David's anxieties also involve human sexuality - in the aftermath of his school scandal and his uncertainties surrounding his daughter and his genetic legacy, David must rethink sex, love, and life.
Scholastically, "Disgrace" is informed heavily by David's professional interest in Romantic Era poetry. His personal interest in writing a chamber opera on Byron and various telling references to and citations of Wordsworth throughout the novel provide a literary framework for the novel. It suggests that David's quest for renewal both begins in and must escape his 18th and 19th century studies in order to reconcile himself to the changing modern world.
"Disgrace" is a novel I could keep talking and talking about. When I first finished reading it, I had an extremely unusual reaction. It may be pretentious to say, but I feel that this is the kind of novel that carries within it so many important issues and universal themes, that it may well eventually take a place in literary history occupied by the likes of "The Great Gatsby," one of those novels that our children and their children will be reading and studying well into the future. In short, Coetzee's "Disgrace" is an essential novel.
on December 21, 2001
I have to confess that the novel's main character is depressing and that anyone who wants a quick fix of "uplift" will not find it here. However, I do believe that several redemptions take place; they are subtle and underneath the words and patterns of words, sounds, rhythms of which Coetzee is a master. What I found to be intriguing and what others interested in literary tradition may be fascinated by is Coetzee's attempt to represent in the character of David Lurie an entire literary/historical epoch: the Romantic movement and all the passion that it unleashed at its time that is no longer available to any of us, other than in remnants ... because that "time" is, definitively, past. It's difficult to rate how successful the attempt is to transform a piece of history into a character in which readers believe. Lurie's daughter, Lucy, is clearly the type represented in Wordsworth's Lucy poems (Lurie is after all a competent Wordsworth scholar). Lurie himself is a more well-rounded character than his daughter who, in her own way, is more emotionally remote than and more difficult to enter, imaginatively, than her ironically erudite father. However, although Lurie is quite believable -- he is not likeable, unless the reader believes that there exist the faintest of signs that can be interpreted as hints of an enormous inner transmogrification that Lurie experiences but would refuse to describe directly. The book is so much a challenge that I will revisit it several times as well as introducing myself to its predecessors. What more can a reader ask of a writer I wonder?
on December 2, 2001
I read this novel in two days whilst on holiday, and I found it very readable and absolutely gripping. Coetzee has some great insight into people and a very observant eye.
But this book loses two whole stars for me as a result of its utterly depressing mood alone. The world David Lurie inhabits seems so bereft of hope, so mean-spirited and miserable, where not only people but simple events and accidents conspire against him, that by the novel's end you feel thoroughly down as a result of just having entered it.
I think part of the problem is that Lurie himself is so jaded and hopeless in his acceptance of all the events that blight his life. Never once is there a philosophical question, never does he seems to ask himself why life is so hard or why people can be so mean, he just seems like some damaged but unquestioning piece of flotsam carried along on a river of misery. And thus the world view of the book seems to be that people are really that disappointing, and life is so harsh.
So - great writing, and utterly intriguing, but in my personal view, a novel such not immerse its reader in such nihilistic cynicism. In that respect, Disgrace is a not a book of very good character.
on November 7, 2001
Perhaps misogynist is too strong a word to describe David Lurie the main character of "Disgrace", for he doesn't seem to despise women. He lacks understanding and respect for them, treats them like objects of desire or derision.
David Lurie's character is fascinating in that he's hard to describe. He appears to lack motivation, yet is driven by something within himself. He seems self-absorbed, yet uninspired to improve himself.
The story begins as David practically forces a reluctant student into a brief affair with him. Even as his prey expresses blatant disinterest in him, he proceeds recklessly, almost as if he is using the immoral circumstances as a catalyst for a momentous change in his life. Well aware of the consequences he will face, he just doesn't care.
He staggers through the next few months, reconnecting with his daughter at her home in the country. It is important to note that this story takes place in South Africa because tragic events unfold in a manner that might not occur in America.
For the most part I enjoyed the book because David Lurie is an enigma and I felt the need to know and understand him better. In the end, I was still perplexed by his character.
I wavered between three and four stars for this story. I wanted give it higher marks because of the fascinating main character. I wanted to rate it lower because the author uses choppy sentences abundant with commas, even in each character's dialogue.
I'd recommend the story purely for the character study. But don't expect David Lurie to undergo any sort of rebirth. He is who he is.