Book Review: Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee

A new acquaintance of mine asked if I had ever read the book Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee.  I hadn’t, though I had read several others by the South African writer.  We talked about many things that morning, and, to be truthful, I had forgotten all about the book until about a week later, when a package arrived in the mail with a gift-wrapped book. Inside was a copy of Disgrace with the note: “I hope you enjoy this half as much as I did.”

And so I began.

Disgrace is the story of David Lurie, a 52 year-old, twice-divorced, white South African professor of Communications and Romantic poetry.  Quite early in the novel he is forced to resign from his university under the disgrace of having sex with one of his students.  As Lurie  rationalizes to himself, the sex itself was not rape, but it certainly wasn’t completely consensual.  He admits guilt but not contrition–which infuriates even those trying to help him.

In disgrace, hounded by reporters, and bereft of his job, Lurie leaves town and drives out into the eastern countryside of the Cape. There his daughter has some land where she raises flowers and kennels dogs.  He is there presumably to write an opera on Byron, Byron’s mistress Teresa, and her husband.  But it is not the most conducive area for such refined creation: it is a hard land and an area still simmering in the afterbirth of the post-apartheid era.

As Lurie settles into the rhythms of country-life, of physical labor and simple pleasures, even volunteering in an animal shelter, his life is once again shattered when he and his daughter are attacked by three men.  All the dogs are slaughtered, Lurie is doused in alcohol and set on fire, and his daughter is gang-raped (and impregnated) by the three men.  The very crime for which Lurie was censured has been visited trebly on his daughter.  The very world he has known–the power he has always arrogantly assumed for himself–has been violently wrenched away.

As both father and daughter try to come to terms with the horrors that have visited them, as they learn more and more about the identity of their attackers and their relations to people they know, and as they struggle with the essential character of each other’s personalities, Lurie comes to better realize the nature of the world around him.  His views on racism, on feminism, even on animal rights, must be examined and re-calibrated.  The world he has known is, simply, no longer.

I knew nothing of the book when I opened it. I thought it was contemporary, not published in 1999–a mere five years after the historic elections in which the African National Congress overwhelmingly won and from which apartheid’s demise can best be dated. The difficulties that Lurie has in understanding the new order, the distrust, fear and violence among the various peoples, even the “modernization” of the University all make better sense. (Lurie’s teaching of Communication is in itself ironic–Communication skills are what this country and its people are badly in need of.  An expert in the British romantic poets–those type of courses are considered fluff in the new university structure–Lurie teaches both Communications 101 and Communications 201. The one Romantic Poets course he teaches is a salve that the administration gives its older professors.) In many ways the novel is a reflection of the birth pangs of the new country: it is violent, bloody, and at times deadly.

Does everything get resolved?  Of course, not.  Is Lurie a better person at the end?  I’m not sure.  I think he is. Early in the novel when a tribunal is questioning Lurie on his womanizing, he states that he believes that every woman he has bedded has “enriched” him in some way.  The question at the end of the novel then must be  “has the violence and catastrophe that he has suffered also enriched him?”  Again, I don’t know. But he is a different man than he was at the beginning of the novel.

J.M. Coetzee

And while the summary of the plot seems rather dark, the novel itself is quick moving and understated.  It is a very subtle but easy read, and it sucks you into its disparate worlds–the urbane world of the university and the stark world of the South African countryside–quite easily.

And so much dovetails together within the novel: the womanizing man of letters writing about that grand literary womanizer Byron; the mirrored rapes; his evolving attitudes towards women underpinning his new understanding of animals; his role as both teacher and father. It all comes together seamlessly and wonderfully, not like a patchwork quilt, but a beautifully woven cloth–like the Ashanti patterned bedspread that Lurie’s daughter presents to the woman living on her land.

J.M. Coetzee won the Booker Prize for Disgrace in 1999, four years before winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. His writing is succinct and accessible. In many ways he is a quiet writer, not at all flashy. (Not surprising, considering that his dissertation was on Beckett.)  Intelligent, subtle, and layered, the writing is satisfying and rewarding from the very first, and ages richly with subsequent reading.