Disgrace: A Novel

by J. M. Coetzee

Paperback, 2000

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Genres

Publication

Penguin Books (2000), 220 pages

Description

A white woman is gang-raped by blacks in this novel on post-apartheid South Africa. But she understands such settling of scores is inevitable, given what whites did to blacks, and she keeps the baby. By the author of Waiting for the Barbarians.

Media reviews

Even though it presents an almost unrelieved series of grim moments, ''Disgrace'' isn't claustrophobic or depressing, as some of Coetzee's earlier work has been. Its grammar allows for the sublime exhilaration of accident and surprise, and so the fate of its characters -- and perhaps indeed of their country -- seems not determined but improvised.
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Any novel set in post-apartheid South Africa is fated to be read as a political portrait, but the fascination of Disgrace – a somewhat perverse fascination, as some will feel – is the way it both encourages and contests such a reading by holding extreme alternatives in tension.

User reviews

LibraryThing member madknitta
I’m dissatisfied, perplexed, annoyed, conflicted. I feel like I need someone way smarter than me to tell me how I’m supposed to read this book.

***Warning: Spoilers Ahead***

In a nutshell, the novel concerns a middle-age scholar-cum-reluctant professor, David Lurie, living in post-Apartheid South Africa. After losing his weekly appointment with a prostitute because he semi-stalks her, he then begins a short-lived “affair” with one of his students after semi-stalking her as well and possibly raping her. He’s dismissed from the university and sends himself into exile at his daughter’s homestead in the Eastern Cape. While staying with his daughter, she’s gang-raped and he’s beaten by three black men at her home. David and his daughter clash over her decision of how to cope after the rape (he wants her to report the rape to the police and move away from her homestead; she refuses to do either).

I appreciate that Coetzee takes on a difficult and politically unpopular topic: how do white South Africans cope in the post-apartheid era. I’m sensitive and somewhat sympathetic the precariousness and fear that many white South Africans felt (and continue to feel); while in Malawi, I met a number of white Zimbabweans who had been forced out of---and sometimes fled under attack from---their homes during Mugabe’s regime. They had been born in Zimbabwe; their parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents had lived their whole lives in Zimbabwe. Many were still fearful that they could again be dislocated from Malawi. Moreover, I have the experience of being a white woman in Africa and understand (some of ) the ways that you are marked by your race and your gender.

That all said, I thought the main character was entirely unsympathetic and rather troubling. The author seemed to be asking me not only to sympathize with but to admire someone I thought was racist, elitist, and misogynist. I’m supposed to see David as heroic when he refuses to offer a full confession and apology as part of the university’s inquest into his affair with his student. I’m supposed to think that he was bravely taking on the culture of political correctness by refusing to apologize for giving in to “Eros.” Instead I read his actions as those of an entitled man who refuses to accept responsibility for his crime: using his power to coerce a girl into a sexual exchange. Even after his daughter’s rape, David again refuses--or simply can’t---make the connection between the abuse and exploitation she suffered and the ways that he exploited and abused other women (the prostitute, his student, another prostitute at the end of the novel). I would even argue that he contributes to the violation of his daughter by attempting to force her to adopt the position he thinks she should take regarding the rape (as the helpless victim). And again at the end of the novel, when we discover that the daughter’s tenant/worker is using the rape---and was possibly active in arranging it---to force her to marry him and turn over her land in exchange for protection, David still doesn’t make the connection between his own use of sex as an exploitative form of exchange (sex for money, sex for grades) and that being suffered by his daughter. Adding insult to injury is the great “revelation” of the novel: that David has been “enriched” by each of his sexual relationships---and he claims hundreds of them---and therefore should not have to apologize for his behavior: to the women, to the university, to God. (Never mind what the women might think about these exchanges; they only serve as symbols in the novel.)

I’m both intrigued and perplexed by Coetzee’s approach to race in the novel. He often doesn’t state a given character’s race outright. He makes vague illusions via physical characteristics, although never specific enough for me to be able to say definitively what race a given character is, or he’ll later clarify a character’s race. But he often leaves race unspoken. I’m torn on whether this is a clever commentary on the reader’s prejudices (that we assume the attackers are black Africans without being told immediately) or whether the author is revealing his own prejudices (of course the attackers are black Africans because they are the source of violence in post-Apartheid South Africa). (I’m still not clear on whether I’m supposed to read the character of Melanie, the student, as black, white, or other; given the context of the novel, I think it matters to how you interpret that exchange and the fall-out from it.)

So I feel like I’m missing something, that I’m not getting the joke, so to speak. Surely we wouldn’t celebrate someone who seems to valorize such a despicable character and, by extension, such deplorable views? Yet the novel doesn’t seem to be broad enough for satire. What am I not reading in this novel? Can someone smarter, better read, more insightful please explain this book to me?
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LibraryThing member tracyfox
Disgrace is sparse, sharp, and dark. It contained no colorful natives, no majestic wildlife, and no exotic scents or flavors. It quickly, almost surgically, boxed the main character, communications professor David Lurie, into a prison of his making. Chance circumstances leave Lurie looking for sexual companionship and a series of bad choices lead to his disgrace. Readily admitting his guilt, but unwilling to admit to any remorse, Lurie compounds his disgrace and is exiled to his estranged daughter's country home. In a self-imposed solitary confinement, cut off from the rural community by his homophobia, sexism and racism and other bigotries, he is forsaken even by the romantic poet Byron and can only empathize with Byron's left-behind lover Teresa as she fades into middle age.

I specifically chose this book because it deals with the aftershocks of apartheid. Due to Coetzee's minimalist approach, the reader learns little about the various characters' previous experiences. No specific reasons are given for David Lurie's suspicions about Petrus, his daughter's black "dog man." No details are shared about the circumstances that left Lurie's daughter Lucy running a dog kennel and a farmer's market garden by herself in rural South Africa. Nonetheless, what Coetzee does choose to include paints a complex picture of human interactions -- between men and women, parents and children, victims and perpetrators of crimes and blacks and whites. Coetzee's characters are maddeningly inarticulate, but in many ways their inability and unwillingness to explain their motivations speaks for them. I was left in many places feeling that I would never understand Coetzee's characters' actions because I haven't lived their lives.

One of the most interesting aspects to me was the role that animals played in the story. As part of his disgrace, Lurie assigns himself to help at a local animal shelter which attempts to give unwanted dogs a dignified death. He even goes so far as to transport the dogs to the local hospital for incineration and oversee the process himself. Despite being a thoroughly despicable character, Lurie's tenderness with the dogs left me sobbing and gasping for breath. This was especially troubling because the terrible things that happened to other characters in the story didn't move me to nearly the same degree.

Although this was a dark, depressing book it is masterfully written and I have thought more about it after the fact than any book I have in several years.
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LibraryThing member fieldnotes
I read Coetzee after going on a binge of African literature. Given his world-historical and cultural position, I couldn't help being bothered to the point of acute aggravation by the fact that "Disgrace" seems like propaganda--excellently disguised, subtle, hand-wringing propaganda against the good hopes of his country. The whole time I was in South Africa it was impossible to avoid being besieged by white people who sought to poison my own conception of their black countrymen. This was especially irksome because white or wealthy people from other countries are more ready to absorb the judgments (and prejudices) of white South Africans than other Africans with whom they do not identify so easily. My own sense of the continent could not be more different from the prevailing sense of that demographic. I never forget Richard Rorty's explanation (I think it's in "contingency, irony and solidarity" or "philosophy and social hope") that we should replace dickering about ethics with a commitment to expanding people's circles of empathy and that the most expedient and respectful way to do this is through narrative and story-telling. Coetzee impacts the global perception of South Africa whenever he writes or speaks. And "Disgrace" for all of its craft and merit, is a hopeless and back-broken book that feeds into stereotypes and cynicism that are better left unfed.… (more)
LibraryThing member John
If one measurement of a good novel is one that can be read on different levels and which stays with you after reading as you think through the various meanings and interpretations, then this is a fine piece of work. It won the Booker Prize last year, the second such prize for Coetzee.

David Lurie is a Professor of Literature at a university in South Africa with a specialty in the romantic poets, particularly Wordsworth and Byron; he is 52 years old, twice divorced; he fancies himself Byronesque in his pursuit and conquest of women, especially it seems, those younger than himself; he has a regular weekly meeting with a woman from an escort service, but he accidently discovers her real identity as a housewife and mother of two small children; this introduces a strain in what had been a very comfortable and pleasant relationship for both; she terminates it on an excuse and is furious when David tracks her down through an detective and calls her at her home; the first example of David's inability to understand or perceive the limits to actions and spheres. He then seduces one his students, a 20 year-old who always seems to be a reluctant partner; and then things go bad when the boyfriend shows up, and so does the outraged father, and there is a hearing before the ethics committee of the university; Lurie refuses to play what he considers the game, will not show contrition, whether heartfelt or not, and practically invites the university to turf him out, which it does. David goes to visit his daughter, Lucy, a single woman, lesbian, not currently in a relationship, but trying to make a go of a market-garden farm and dog kennel operation with help from a neighbouring black farmer, Petrus, who is rising up in the world with the acquisition of land and animals. One day, when Petrus is away, David and Lucy are attacked in their home by two black men and a younger teenager; David is beaten and an attempt is made to set him on fire; Lucy is raped. Lucy, to the complete consternation of David, refuses to register the crime of rape, limiting her story to the police to things that were stolen. David, meanwhile, has been helping Lucy, and Petrus, with work around the farm, and has begun to help a woman who tries to help sick and abandoned animals. He suspects, although he cannot prove, that Petrus was conveniently absent on the day of the attack and that he knows more about it than he lets on. David finds himself increasingly distanced from what he thought was his life in the university, and having to adjust to many new ways of looking at things, and to acting. He visits the family of the young woman he seduced; he returns home and tries to work on an opera that he has had in mind for many years, based again on Byron and one of his loves, but that fades; he goes to see the young woman in a play and is immediately confronted by the boyfriend who tells him to stick with his own kind; David`s problem at this point is that he`s not sure what his kind is. He thought he was pretty secure in that knowledge before, but he has been jolted out of all his familiar universes and is not certain what track he should now follow.

This book can be read on various levels. As a comment on apartheid and the future of S.Africa, David can be seen as representing the old system: jolted out of is unreal world by forces that it cannot foresee, nor understand; Petrus represents the new S.Africa: competent, hard working, rasing his living standard and with an eye to the future and the acquisitions that will get him there; Lucy is perhaps the future for those of the old ruling class who do see the inevitability of the future and the futility of fighting against it: she agrees finally to sell her land to Petrus in exchange for being allowed to continue to live in the house. The role of Petrus in the attack is never made clear, but what is certain is that he has the authority to extend his protection to Lucy and that his pledge in that regard is sufficient to ensure that it will not happen again. Contrast this with a neighbouring white farmer who has lots of wire fences and gates and dogs to protect himself, but whom Lucy fully expects will end up with a bullet in his back. Lucy understands these shifts in basic power-relationships; David does not and continues to rail against what he sees as Lucy`s shortsightedness.

On another level, the novel says something about the treatment of women. David would be horrified to think of his seduction o f the student as being in anyway comparable to the rape of his daughter, but in fact I think he comes to understand the parallels even if he could not articulate them. While he might (as he did) argue that a 20-year old is an adult who can make up her own mind, and although he never physically forces himself upon her, it is clear that the young woman is ever a reluctant rather than a willing participant, and that a determining factor is the power relationship with an older, much respected professor who has a certain authority over her future. He is using her for his own ends and his own gratification, with no thought as to what it means and will mean for her, as compared to the men who attack Lucy and who, as she puts it, `do rape` with a hatred that surprises her. I think it is a sense of this that drives David to visit the family (parents and younger daughter) of the student he seduced and to express, for the first time, true contrition for his act.

Another angle involves the parent-child relationship between David and Lucy with his need to realize and recognize that he must deal with her as an adult, fully capable of making her own decisions, even if those are mistakes in his eyes, and that she is fully justified in resenting his interference, however sympathetic or positive the motivations, as interference with her life. He begins to see this, and at the end of the novel, there are clear signs that he is able to move to the more mature relationship.

In fact there are a few hopeful signs towards the end of the novel concerning David`s awakening to what is important in life. His grand plan for an opera fades away with his changing self-image. He becomes quite involved in helping with the animals and even perseveres in giving them dignity in death when he takes the bodies of those who have been put down to the hospital crematorium where he insists on delivering them into the furnace rather than leaving them to the hospital workers who would simply treat them as they would all the other hospital waste. His new-found compassion extends in particular to a dog of which he becomes quite fond, but which is paralyzed in the hindquarters and has to be put down. He could spare the dog`s life for another week, but chooses not to, recognizing that the dog is suffering. Bev, the animal-helper, believes strongly in soothing the transition to death by suffusing the atmosphere with a sense of calm and affection for each animal, a ritual that David inwardly scoffs at when he first sees it, but which I suspect, although the scene is not played out at the end of the novel, that he emulates with the death of this particular dog.

The story is also about spheres and recognizing the limits of actions. David does not at the beginning, whether with respect to the student, to Lucy, to the university, to Bev, even to the animals, but he comes to do so, and it is the sense of this, along with Lucy`s stance on the future of her life on the farm, that gives the novel a hopeful, uplifting sense at the end.

Coetzee has a wonderful, spare, clean writing style. It is amazing how much can be conveyed through one novel in such a style. A book worth re-reading.
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LibraryThing member richardderus
BkC 18) Coetzee, J.M., [DISGRACE]: Wonderful writing, is there a story here?

I think I must have been in a foul humor when I wrote that. There is indeed a story here.

About disgrace, about the taking of grace from another being, about the horrors of which grace, in its religious meaning, is capable of holding back.

David Lurie, fifty-two, isn't a bad man. He isn't a good man, either. He is a human male possessed of a libido and enough facility of mind and tongue to service that libido's demands. This means he is also capable of performing, to the absolute minimum standard, the demands of teaching the youth of Cape Town, South Africa, a subject barely worthy of attention: "Communication." Not, you will note, English, or a language, but the abstraction of communication, whole and entire.

Bah. Modern "education" rots. So David, after he loses his erotic focus Soraya, leaves it and Cape Town behind to join his daughter Lucy in the countryside. She has a farm there, and it is the farm that leads to dis-grace, the shedding of grace, the negation of grace, for father and daughter alike. Horrors occur that I have no desire to relate to you, and that should keep those readers whose anxiety buttons are easily engaged far, far away from this book.

I don't think Coetzee likes people too terribly much.

The ending is the final act of dis-grace. I strongly strongly urge dog-lovers not to read the ending. Put it this way: I'd love the ending had it featured a cat. Now, does that scare y'all off? Good.

But the writing. Oh me, oh my.
A rik to own anything: a car, a pair of shoes, a packet of cigarettes. Not enough to go around, not enough cars, shoes, cigarettes. Too many people, too few things. What there is must go into circulation, so that everyone can have a chance to be happy for a day. That is the theory; hold to the theory and to the comforts of theory. Not human evil, just a vast circulatory system, to whose workings pity and terror are irrelevant. That is how one must see life in this country: in its schematic aspect. Otherwise one could go mad.

Thus the musings of a father after a horrific crisis. David Lurie is dis-graced. Grace is no longer part of David Lurie's mental furniture, and while he fights it for over 100pp, in the end, at the ending, David Lurie accepts his fate:

He is disgraced.
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LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
I don't usually love novels like this--you can see the craft that goes into them, often, but I go for books that are more "novels of ideas," like reading a dissertation (maybe? That seems a cruel way to characterize Mann or Dostoevsky, but they're what I'm going for) or a little bit more fantastical. The numinous life! Jus'appy to be here!

Maybe this simply means I don't like novels about real(istic) people? I like people. I almost wonder if it's just that it's so hard to do people right. Like, harder than a dissertation, harder than fabulism. DH Lawrence'd be one great example of a writer who does people mildly wrong, and you can see the craft like I say but ultimately he doesn't seem to produce psychically real blood-and-nerve-bags, only behaviorally real simulacra.

Coetzee does people right. He makes you (me) feel that you so easily could have been David Lurie with a few different life circumstances (like being born a white-English South African--I know fuck-all about it, but if Die Antwoord can be believed, the Boers are doing much better at adapting to the brave new world and not mourning the cowardly old one). He perfectly conveys this situation in which people on both sides of the racial divide can feel themselves under threat, and entitled to take or at least fantasize about bloodsexcrime. But then the actual crime that occurs isn't at all sensationalized, not "…and then everything was different." It just feels like a really, really awful day, which in my limited experience is what this stuff feels like when it really happens. The narrative, the sensemaking, emerges in retrospect if at all.

The politics are there, and the deft observations about empathy and the animal in the man. But they emerge out of a story about people that seems, I want to avoid the cliche "reporterly," but matter-of-fact. Unchoreographed. He does it immaculately, and you walk away feeling like you learned something gut level, unnecessary to intellectualize, about how human beings behave and collide under a particular set of emotional and social pressures. Remember how that was supposed to be the thing the novel could do that nothing else could? I have to admit, though, that I would have been fascinated to see how this would have come out if it were written by a black South African writer with Coetzee's powers.
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LibraryThing member edgeworth
I sometimes divide my TBR pile into books that I want to read and books that I feel obligated to read, and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace – as both a Booker prize winner, and a contender for the Best of the Bookers, and the most famous novel of a Nobel Prize winner – would certainly fit into that category. The word that comes to mind is “inaccesible.” Fortunately, Disgrace turned out to be not only an easily readable book, but a deeply rich and literary one.

David Lurie, a protagonist simultaneously unlikeable and identifiable, teaches literature at a university in Cape Town. After an impulsive and unrepentant affair with a young female student, he is sent on what might be politely described as “administrative leave,” exiled to his daughter’s small farm. I already knew this was the set-up of the novel, but still found those early chapters entertaining, and was pleasantly surprised when the novel expanded into unexpected dimensions.

As an Australian – a Western Australian, for that matter – one has a certain perception of South Africa, and South Africa for white people. (90% of the new students introduced to class during my entire time at high school were white South African immigrants.) I naturally went into Disgrace assuming that it would have something to do with the state of post-apartheid South Africa and the plight of white South Africans, and then chastised myself for pigeonholing it as such. The white South African community is huge, after all, and must contain a relatively normal society and a multitude of stories, and assuming a novel written by a white South African author in the late 90s must be about race relations is like assuming that a novel written by an Australian author must be about the Outback.

I was wrong. Disgrace is very much a novel about South Africa as a nation, pivoting around an act of violence at the novel’s centre (which I won’t detail) which makes David’s affair with a student seem like an utterly pointless and irrelevant matter. The beauty of it is that it treats the event both as a symptom of a national issue, and as a personal, individual ordeal. One can be quite left-wing – as I myself am, as David’s daughter is, as David himself is more moderately implied to be – and believe that Africa is and was an African land, and that blacks are perfectly entitled to be angry after many years of oppression. (Australia, after all, has a very similar situation with crime and vengeance at the hands of our original inhabitants, and the only difference is that the weight of numbers favours whites.) But politics makes no difference in the heat of the moment. Violence is violence, and it’s a disgusting and horrific thing for whomever it is visited upon, no matter what the context.

“I don’t agree. I don’t agree with what you are doing. Do you think that by meekly accepting what happened to you, you can set yourself apart from farmers like Ettinger? Do you think what happened was an exam: if you come through, you get a diploma and safe conduct into the future, or a sign to paint on the door-lintel that will make plagues pass you by? That is not how vengeance works, Lucy. Vengeance is like a fire. The more it devours, the hungrier it gets.”

Yet the consequences of David’s affair are revisited towards the end of the novel, as he returns to Cape Town. I thought it would be washed away, but it’s an integral part of his life, no matter what may have happened on the farm. Although it’s only 220 pages long, Disgrace is a deceptively complex book, containing divers themes, from white South Africa to women’s rights to animal rights’ to the condition of growing old, and it ties them all together as part of a deeper narrative, making them more than the sum of their parts.

Certainly, Disgrace is a depressing novel. There’s one scene, literally in the last few pages, where David has to make a decision, which would have been thematically appropriate either way, but which would have been the difference between making it an optimistic or a pessimistic novel, and Coetzee chooses the latter. It reminded me of The White Tiger, a fellow Booker Prize winner, in that I can safely say that it’s a deep and outstanding novel which genuinely moved me, but one which I will never read again, because I did not enjoy living inside it. That’s not an insult. The world is a dark place. J.M. Coetzee is a novelist.

Disgrace is doubtless one of the best of the Booker Prize winners, a rich and meditative novel that I found both compelling and easy to read. It’s a mark in Coetzee’s favour to be capable of such pure literature without rendering his prose tediously esoteric, and I’ll definitely be reading more of his works.
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LibraryThing member writestuff
.M. Coetzee's novel Disgrace explores the ideas of race, gender and generational differences. In simple, yet powerful prose, Coetzee develops his main character - a professor of communications named David Lurie - amid the social and political complexities of South Africa.

David Lurie is a middle aged man of questionable morality, whose passions lie with young women...girls, really. When he begins an affair with one of his students - the beautiful Melanie - David finds himself on the other side of a sexual harassment investigation. He retreats to his daughter Lucy's farm in the country where terror and unexpected violence unfold.

Throughout the novel, Coetzee intersperses the poetry of Byron, and the tangled life of this poet as he pursues a girl much younger than himself. David Lurie's desire to write an opera about Byron and his lover is largely symbolic of David's own struggle within himself.

In fact, the novel's largest theme seems to be about the confusing nature of language - filled with misunderstanding, second meaning, and the breakdown of communication - specifically that between the sexes, the generations, and the races. It is clear throughout the book that David's perceptions, as a man, are different from Lucy's (or Melanie's) female perceptions; and that David's understanding of African culture as a white man, are different from the black Petrus (who lives on Lucy's land). David's struggles to communicate and connect with his daughter are fraught with misunderstanding.

Coetzee won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003 - and it is easy to see why after reading Disgrace. His style is spare and shocking, and the novel is not one that a reader can put down and forget.

Highly recommended; rated 4.5
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LibraryThing member Laura400
Disgrace is an amazing book, perhaps my favorite by Coetzee. As with all his work, the writing is strong and clear. The story is set in contemporary South Africa. Coetzee is unsparing in this novel. He does not shy from ugliness, or brutality, or racial issues, and this is a difficult book in many ways. It's not a feel-good or fun story.

Even in his autobiographical novels, Coetzee often presents his narrator as a very flawed man with feet of clay. But in this novel he goes farther and makes the narrator nearly irredeemable. And of course because it's Coetzee, he's a wonderful character who comes vividly to life. Though the narrator does change somewhat in the novel's third act, after a terrible incident, there is no upbeat ending. No happy resolution.

But it is a beautiful, searing story that will stay with you.
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LibraryThing member Clara53
I have to say that a few pages into the book one is totally unprepared for what's to follow. We see this man, this drifter in his affections (if you can call it "affections"), a man with preconceived cynical notions about himself and about the world around him, as he gets a rude awakening when he comes face to face with the reality that threatens his daughter.

I went from disliking David Lurie to pitying him to having respect for him (the latter being due to his unwavering devotion to his daughter in her unimaginable plight and his humane attitude to homeless dogs). In my dislike of him, I even felt a whiff of "Lolita" there: he being driven by desire that much, in particular - his emotions when seeing Melanie's younger sister, not a pretty sight of his inner thoughts... Even though Lurie himself admits that "desire is a burden we could do well without", he is pretty much powerless in that respect. But after all, to various degrees, in all of us there is some duality of nature - the author certainly strikes a cord there.

The deplorable political and economical situation of South Africa is another focus of the book - sharp criticism mixed with disillusionment and resignation, both on the protagonist's, and, I felt, on the author's part.

Coetzee's relationship with his protagonist seems to be that of an aloof observer, an observer with no judgement, watching the man's unintentional, unscripted, unpredictable thoughts. This format worked so well. I certainly mean to put this author on my reading list.
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LibraryThing member Widsith
David Lurie, 52, professor, seduces a student. ‘Not rape,’ we are told, ‘not quite that, but undesired nevertheless.’ The girl's name, Melanie, means black. The power dynamic between them, the disparity of authority, is foregrounded.

Later, Lurie's daughter is raped by intruders, and violently. She is white; her assailants – three of them – are black. We are in South Africa.

~~~~

David is forced out of his position at the university for his ‘undesired’ liaison. An investigating committee asks him to issue a statement of contrition and regret, but he refuses to do so on principle. He insists on accepting his due punishment. He insists on what he calls his ‘freedom to remain silent’.

Later, David's daughter refuses to report her rape. She refuses to take medical precautions. She refuses to seek vengeance against one of the men when she sees him in the neighbourhood. She, too, insists on remaining silent. She, too, bases this on a moral principle.

~~~~

Apartheid was in force in South Africa from 1948 to 1991. This book, published in 1999, is set after apartheid has ended.

There are many animals in this book. The way people talk about animals sounds a lot like the way that white South Africans once talked openly about black South Africans. ‘By all means let us be kind to them,’ Lurie comments. ‘But let us not lose perspective. We are of a different order of creation from the animals. Not higher, necessarily, but different.’

~~~~

What is the moral of these correspondences (which I write down here only to order my thoughts, not to elucidate the book's point)? The answer is the novel, and it can't helpfully be further distilled. What makes Disgrace so impressive is precisely that it is no simple allegory, but rather a series of dynamics that echo and echo against each other in painful and confusing ways.

Lurie's employers talk primly about the undesirability of ‘mixing power relations with sexual relations’. But Coetzee suggests that the two might be – if not quite synonymous, at least tightly bound together. He writes about sex in an extraordinary way: unsentimentally, even anti-sentimentally, to the point of misanthropy. Libido is described in terms of

complex proteins swirling in the blood, distending the sexual organs, making the palms sweat and voice thicken and the soul hurl its longings to the skies. That is what [Lurie's regular prostitute] and the others were for: to suck the complex proteins out of his blood like snake-venom, leaving him clear-headed and dry.

Lurie's daughter, who is gay, addresses the link between sex and violence directly, in a monologue that is the more shocking for her tone of calm, dispassionate analysis:

‘Maybe, for men, hating the woman makes sex more exciting. You are a man, you ought to know. When you have sex with someone strange – when you trap her, hold her down, get her under you, put all your weight on her – isn't it a bit like killing? Pushing the knife in; exiting afterwards, leaving the body behind covered in blood – doesn't it feel like murder, like getting away with murder?’

Jesus. Coetzee's words hit like whiplash. And they are very carefully chosen, despite an expressed conviction in the novel that ‘English is an unfit medium for the truth of South Africa’.

Only the monosyllables can still be relied on, and not even all of them.

This is a very grown-up book (it reminded me a lot of Max Frisch's Homo Faber. But it isn't a hopeless one – it expresses confusion, anger, and sometimes despair, but also a certain sense of searching that at least imagines a different future. Perhaps, as one of the characters thinks, it is necessary, in order to build something up, for everything to be first brought down to nothing. For that, you need disgrace. And Coetzee offers that to everyone in the book – and everyone reading it.
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LibraryThing member shawnd
All it's cracked up to be. A tough but fair indictment of men. I'd never read anything like this, subtle and direct, not over the top, which culminated in a twist that broadens and sharpens the message of the book. (Don't want to spoil it). Apartheid and Africa are the backdrops but this is a book about men and women and the life we're in. Read this.… (more)
LibraryThing member HHS-Staff
For two years, my esteemed comrade Mr. Boland has implored me to read DISGRACE. This weekend, I did. It is truly among the best novels I have ever read. Coetzee is a white South African emigrated to Australia, and, among other things, this novel is about life in post-apartheid South Africa. But that's just scratching the surface: it's also about culture clash, gender, aging, animals, parenthood, sexuality, ethics, mortality, morality, and much more. And, despite its complexity, it's intensely readable; I consumed its 220 pages in about three hours. However, it's not the place to go for easy answers about human nature--which is why Mr. Boland's students will be lucky if they get to read it as a class. The 1999 Booker Prize Winner.Reviewed by:Phil OvereemLanguage Arts teacher… (more)
LibraryThing member cameling
An English professor in Cape Town, twice divorced, having enjoyed liaisons with prostitutes, is forced to resign from his post after his relationship with a student is exposed. He moves out to the country with his daughter and in doing so, finds a different rhythm of life to settle down to. However, a terrifying incident soon changes their lives.

It's a wonderful, sobering and disquieting study of South Africa post-apartheid. The evolving relationships between David Lurie, the professor and his daughter before and after the incident, between Lurie and his student, between Lurie and Bev, the woman he helps out at the animal shelter, between Lurie and Petrus, and between Petrus and Lurie's daughter, Lucy, make for fascinating studies. What's most interesting is the change in Lurie himself and how he goes from being a pretty self-centered individual to one who starts to put the needs of others before his.
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LibraryThing member icolford
Disgrace is the work of one of the best novelists in the English language writing at the top of his form. More nuanced than a simple tale of moral transgression and redemption, it is also a story of clashing cultures and a society that has made no headway against historically motivated racial divisions that occasionally boil over into violence. David Lurie's affair with a student is uncovered when the student reports him to the university, but when he is called upon to answer for his behaviour he responds with haughty indignation, refusing "on principle" to issue a public apology. He resigns his post and, essentially blacklisted, retreats from the city to live with his daughter, Lucy, on her farm in a remote corner of the Eastern Cape. Here he encounters first hand the tensions and incongruities of a society divided along racial lines, and one afternoon Lucy's home is invaded by a team of three black men who rape her and assault her father. In the aftermath of the attack, the differences between David and Lucy that he had detected as minor flaws in their relationship are magnified until he is forced to leave. As the story progresses, David becomes more and more isolated by attitudes that are not in keeping with the new reality in which he finds himself. Solace is elusive, but he does find it, in a most surprising place. Coetzee's Booker prize winning novel is tersely narrated in clipped prose that heightens the tension and gives the story a visceral urgency that makes it riveting and unforgettable.… (more)
LibraryThing member StevenJohnTait
Powerful fiction.
LibraryThing member johnxlibris
To his mind, David Lurie has everything figured out: sex, Wordsworth, his daughter, Africa, the way of the world. His problem is that no one else sees things just the way he does. A professor of modern literature and communications at Cape Technical University in Cape Town, South Africa, at fifty-two his utter lack of passion-- reciprocated by his students and the university's "rationalization" of academic studies-- has created a space, filled by a single urge: young(er) women. When the accusations, journalists, and threats of Jovial seduction come flying into his (up-to-now) placid life, David leaves the university and takes up residence on his daughter Lucy's farm in Salem on the Eastern Cape. Not long after, a group of men lie their way into Lucy's home, rape her, beat David and set him on fire, and drive away (in David's car) with all the electronics. Oh, and they shoot her dogs as well.

The story, powerful in its own right, interoperates* with J.M. Coetzee's almost deadpan style of narrative. Together, these elements resist the reader's attempt to ascribe meaning to the events. Events happen. Narrative happens. But where do we go from there? Are we permitted to go forth? David, who as character should have a right to be involved in the story, ratiocinates the hell out of his daughter's traumatic experience but everything resists him: the culture, the language, the landscape, Lucy herself. He forces meaning from what he sees to be obvious associations and conclusions but he is only left playing the fool.

Which begs the questions: Who is disgraced? David doesn't think himself to be disgraced (on matters of principle) but his colleagues and students do. He sees his daughter as having been disgraced but she relentlessly resists that conclusion. The maimed and decrepit animals he helps euthanize and incinerate on the weekends, are they disgraced? These questions continually hover in the margins of the next but are never permitted to enter. The only exception being when a character choses to accept their situation. At that moment, the disgrace waiting to devour is momentarily let in only to be devoured itself, entirely consumed by the character it should be consuming.

As reader, I wanted to see disgrace make an appearance. Like a medieval allegory, I kept expecting it to stride into the narrative, beaten and bloody, stripped bare, blinded and bald. Only, in wanting that I suffer the same delusion as David: that I can bestow disgrace upon others. Disgrace emerges from power: the power to thrust shame into the public sphere. But if shame is a private matter, can others draw it out into public? David resists the shame of having slept with a student 34 years his younger and in that sees himself as being above the disgrace. Yet he forces the name of disgrace upon his daughter's rape, threatening to steal her power to keep shame in the private sphere.

The book deserves a slower read that I gave it in my attempt to devour the few lines of fiction I manage to find time for each week. It lends itself to contemplation and certainly merits additional readings, especially at different (read: older) stages in one's life.
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LibraryThing member PiyushC
Based in South Africa, this is one of those rare books with no likeable characters, "not likeable" being a relatively mild term for the host of feelings most of these characters induce. The characters in this book are so disjointed from anything that I could empathise with, sympathise with, or even mildly relate to, that most of the time I spent reading this book was like watching one of those really weird cartoons and not being able to look away.

This book challenges all the moral boundaries, and then some more. There is hardly a thought, a line of argument I could agree with. Be it, "How she reconciles her opinions with her line of business he does not ask." comment in one of the opening pages where the protagonist questions the right of a prostitute to hold an opinion against public beaches, or one of the many he comes up with in the course of the book. A morally bankrupt character, shrouded in a veil of artistic pageantry, faux sophistication; a conjurer of expressions - I am now reasonably sure, we weren't meant to like him. But I couldn't like any of the other characters either - Lucy, Melanie, Bev Shaw, Petrus or any of the other minor characters, with the possible exception of Rosalind and Mr. Isaacs. In more ways than one, this book is more depraved in thoughts, if not deeds, to the very infamous, and brilliant, Lolita. There is no repentance, even as there is some understanding of his deeds, after his stay with his daughter and all the events that transpire.

For a major part of the book, and the belief hasn't disappeared even as I write this review after a good couple of weeks since reading the book, I have thought if the author is screwing with us, trapped in his perverse fantasy world. I believe I would know better once I read some of his other books, which I fully intend to do.

Coetzee's writing is poetical, lyrical, with the odd quality of not making you feel for any character, no matter how tragic their life story, revisit the weird cartoon reference. I can hardly remember being so detached from a book and yet unable to put it down. There is a not so subtle, undercurrent of the social and legal system in the then existing South Africa.

Hate the characters as much as I did, I couldn't hate the book.
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LibraryThing member kencrowe
J. M. Coetzee is the South African writer who won the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature,
DISGRACE is a piece of literary writing without pretensions of being literary. Coetzee is so commanding a writer that it just is literary. The story flows easily, the writing is relatively simple and very engaging. I was drawn into the world of the protagonist David Lurie, a 52-year-old twice-divorced, college professor in Cape Town, South Africa.
Sex is the center of his life; with prostitutes, with students, with hungry women. An affair he pressed on a 19 or 20 year student plunges him into disgrace in the minds of everyone but himself. He is so extraordinarily self-centered and arrogant he isn’t aware of the impropriety of what he did with the student.
His arrogance prevents him humbling himself to save his job and his pension. He didn’t like his job anyhow. He had no respect for his students, and a strong distaste for his teaching. His dream is to write an opera about Bryon and one of his many mistresses, Teresa, a young Italian woman, only 19, recently married, whom Byron has dumped. Teresa, however, longs for Byron for the remainder of her life. Their affair was a transforming experience for her.
In the aftermath of being forced from his teaching post, Lurie goes into the backcountry of South Africa, where his daughter, Lucy, a lesbian whose lover has abandoned her, is running a small farm with the help of Petrus, a hired black African. Lucy doesn’t respect her father, who like so many, if not almost all, parents still wants to run his daughter’s life, assuming that he knows what is best for her no matter how much she resists.
On a day the black African, Petrus, isn’t around, two black men and a youth appear at Lucy’s farm. Lurie, who is suspicious of the three from the outset, is shoved into a bathroom and locked in with little resistance on his part. Dealing with predators, Lurie acts as though talking to them will make them go away. His daughter is raped and impregnated; the three pour mineral oil on Lurie and set him afire, laughing at him. They steal his car and whatever they find valuable at the farm.
Lurie’s burns are painful and embarrassing, but not devastatingly serious. He comes across as a wimp at best and a coward at worst, a man so civilized that he has lost the capability of fighting in the face of superior odds no matter what the outcome. Later in the book, he comes across the youth involved in the attack on Lucy and bats him around—an easier task than fighting two strong, determined, violent men.
It turns out that the boy is a relative of Petrus’ and Petrus has designs on Lucy’s farm. Petrus owns the land next door. Petrus is used to illustrate the shift in power in South Africa in that he decides he will no longer farm for Lucy and that if she wants to fall under his protection she has to become his third wife or concubine—not that he really wants her sexually, but because he wants to own the land and dominate his little world.
Lucy is willing to go along with that arrangement if Petrus will guarantee she can keep her house. She is just as empty as her father, but in a different way.
The two grown predators were more interested in demeaning the once dominate whites, Lurie and Lucy, than in robbing them. They use rape to illustrate the shift in power in post-apartheid South Africa. Perhaps there is play on the issue of rape domination since Lurie used his dominant role as a professor to impose himself sexually on a young woman, which is a subtle form of rape/domination. The earthy Africans used the old fashioned approach to physically forcing themselves on the white woman, Lucy, in their exercise of domination/rape.
There is an interesting subplot of the fascination and lure of creativity with Lurie locked into his opera, living in his mind. But the emptiness and self-centeredness and selfishness of the professor is driven home at the end of the book when he allows a crippled stray dog, who has come to love him and depend on him, to be euthanized instead of saving him. Perhaps it also shows how little Lurie values life, his own and other creatures. At no point did the book become a drag. Coetzee, indeed, is a great writer, a great creator of characters, a great grasper of the turmoil in the South African society in which he once lived.
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LibraryThing member banjo123
I can see why Coetzee is an award-winning novelist. His writing is like butter; deceptively simple and rich. In [Disgrace] he covers themes of sexual politics and sexual violence, post-colonialism; race; the urban/rural divide; animal rights and father-daughter relations. And he does it in just over 200 pages, without seeming rushed.
The butter’s a little rancid (I mean that in a good way) and the book is difficult to read at times. The protagonist, David Lurie is a creepy English professor who has a sexual relationship with a student, and loses his job as a result. The book describes how Lurie deals with the sequelae of that event.
I was particularly struck by the way Coetzee shows similarities between how women and animals are viewed. Neither is accorded the power to control their own body. In the beginning of the book, Melanie, the student, is trying to resist Lurie. He tells her “a woman’s beauty does not belong to her alone. It is part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it.” Later, Lurie is irritated by the way an African farmer is treating sheep. He notes “Sheep do not own themselves, do not own their lives. They exist to be used, every last ounce of them…..”
I finished this book a few days ago, and have been thinking about it since.
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LibraryThing member stephmo
It should be made abundantly clear that Coetzee is not falsely advertising Disgrace. David Lurie's disgrace comes overtly in the form of a scandalous affair with a student that leads to his loss of position at the university in Cape Town.

But this is not a simple story about a teacher/student affair. Coetzee's brilliance in Lurie's character is that we're only given the perspective of a man who has the emotional depth of a puddle. We see this scandal roll out and we know that there is more to the story, but we have to piece together the true nature of it from the occasional flashes our main character gets?

When our main character moves in with his daughter, we're given her life through his filter. So while this might have been a more interesting perspective on post-apartheid South African race relations, it becomes a self-absorbed commentary on how his daughter reflects on him, on how her relationships reflect on him, and how she won't remain attractive if she stays in the country. Is this the disgrace Coetzee refers to? The inability to remain nonjudgmental about your children and their choices?

The attack on David and his daughter is brutal, but we are only given David's perspective. Again, this is the beauty of Coetzee's novel. It is harsh and in watching David try to piece together the events of the afternoon, Coetzee's novel truly shines. This is where one has to remember that we've been given a tale called Disgrace, because we will be pulled emotionally into a number of directions that longs for a tale about anything else. But Coetzee's writing shows us that disgrace can come in many forms, can be self-inflicted, can be a product of environment, can be a product of perspective and can simply be a product of circumstance.

Much has been said of not liking the characters in the novel in other reviews. In reality, every character is seen through David Laurie's vision, and David Lurie is a deeply flawed man. We are seeing every character through this flawed vision. That I wanted to catch the few shards of truth in this vision is a testament to Coetzee as an author.
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LibraryThing member petterw
Disgrace is no doubt a masterpiece. The story of a professor's journey from what is considered disgraceful behavior to perhaps a second birth, touches on the way on male anxiety, father-daughter relationships, and not the least on a South African nation dealing with change. The language is so beautiful, the story is so accessible, yet there are layers here that I might have to reread the book to access. There is a sadness here that is permeating the novel, but I sense hope as well, hope for David Laurie, for his daughter, for South Africa, for us all. J.M. Coetzee disproves the myth that a Nobel Prize winner is inaccessible. Admittedly, most are, but he is not one of them...… (more)
LibraryThing member dan.ostermeier
A devastating account of the humiliation of ethical pretense. Lays bare the utter failure of contemporary language to provide more than a quiet witnessing. What Coetzee stuns with here is the inadequacy of human dignity to suffice as our justification.

This is a novel steeped in grace but the revelation is not the glory of man. It is a clear call to abandon all places of privilege.

It is, however, not at all clear that this is also a call to live or to let live. There is only inarticulable release in the final scene.
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LibraryThing member jmoncton
I picked this book up because it is set in South Africa and my daughter is spending a quarter abroad in S. Africa to study marine predators (don't they have predators closer to home??). The book centers around a middle aged college professor who loses his job at a university because of an affair with a student. Already, this is not the book a parent of a college student wants to read. But that's not all. He decides to take a break away from his life by visiting his daughter who runs a small farm/dog kennel. They are brutally attacked by 3 African men (the professor and daughter are white) and things continue to get worse. OK. This was probably not the book for me right now.

The last book I read by Coetzee was Elizabeth Costello which I read, felt pretty ambivalent about it, and then donated to the library. The odd thing was that weeks later, I kept on thinking about certain parts of the book and wanted to reread it. So, I haven't donated this book yet, but unless I have a huge ephiphany, I will not be rereading it and it's going into the give away pile.
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LibraryThing member AlexAustin
A disgraced professor is ensnarled in the horror and paradoxes of events beyond his control. Here comes everybody. A terrifying, intelligent, provocative story.

Pages

220

ISBN

0140296409 / 9780140296402
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