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Disgraceby J. M. Coetzee
One afternoon while talking with a friend about books, I wondered how to best describe my experience of reading Disgrace, and this is what I came up with: it's like a finely-crafted, very sharp knife resting gently against your skin. The uneasiness and suspense are there from the beginning, made all the more powerful by Coetzee's control and use of spare language, and you never really take a deep breath until it's all over. Set in modern South Africa, the book explores what it's like to personally confront deep prejudices. Prejudices of gender, sexuality, class, and race. Far from being a politically correct diatribe, this novel is about how we cope, how we survive as humans, and it forces the reader to reflect upon what seems at first a very twisted reality. For each of the characters in this astonishing novel redemption is attained through what becomes the very reshaping of their souls.
Synopses & Reviews
"For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well," begins J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace. Yet protagonist David Lurie's complacency is short lived, for piece by piece his life begins to crumble around him. David is a middle-aged professor of modern languages, who, under the guise of "the great rationalization," has been relegated to adjunct professor. He now teaches Communications 101. Like his employer Cape Technical University (formerly Cape Town University College), post-apartheid South Africa has also gone through a process of rationalization. The changes wrought by this shifting of political thought and enforced political correctness (which, as Coetzee illustrates, has not been absorbed by the collective consciousness) form a bleak backdrop for David's struggle to rebuild his life, or to at least make sense of his existence.
A brittle affair with a student in his Romantic poetry class leads to his being fired on sexual harassment charges, and he seeks refuge at his daughter's house in the country hoping to write a libretto on Byron. Far from a pastoral idyll, however, rural South Africa presents David with a harsh and violent reality, forcing him to reassess life as he has lived it. In spare and razor sharp prose, and in just over 200 pages, Coetzee presents us with an almost hopeless scenario and an almost tragic hero. Yet Coetzee's brilliance lies in whispering the possibility of hope and managing to reveal the humanity in his deeply flawed protagonist. It is a remarkable book, winner of the 1999 Booker Prize, which captures the political and the personal in a story that is dark, merciless and yet ultimately life affirming. Georgie, Powells.com
Set in post-apartheid South Africa, J. M. Coetzee’s searing novel tells the story of David Lurie, a twice divorced, 52-year-old professor of communications and Romantic Poetry at Cape Technical University. Lurie believes he has created a comfortable, if somewhat passionless, life for himself. He lives within his financial and emotional means. Though his position at the university has been reduced, he teaches his classes dutifully; and while age has diminished his attractiveness, weekly visits to a prostitute satisfy his sexual needs. He considers himself happy. But when Lurie seduces one of his students, he sets in motion a chain of events that will shatter his complacency and leave him utterly disgraced.
Lurie pursues his relationship with the young Melanie — whom he describes as having hips “as slim as a twelve-year-old’s” — obsessively and narcissistically, ignoring, on one occasion, her wish not to have sex. When Melanie and her father lodge a complaint against him, Lurie is brought before an academic committee where he admits he is guilty of all the charges but refuses to express any repentance for his acts. In the furor of the scandal, jeered at by students, threatened by Melanie’s boyfriend, ridiculed by his ex-wife, Lurie is forced to resign and flees Cape Town for his daughter Lucy’s smallholding in the country. There he struggles to rekindle his relationship with Lucy and to understand the changing relations of blacks and whites in the new South Africa. But when three black strangers appear at their house asking to make a phone call, a harrowing afternoon of violence follows which leaves both of them badly shaken and further estranged from one another. After a brief return to Cape Town, where Lurie discovers his home has also been vandalized, he decides to stay on with his daughter, who is pregnant with the child of one of her attackers. Now thoroughly humiliated, Lurie devotes himself to volunteering at the animal clinic, where he helps put down diseased and unwanted dogs. It is here, Coetzee seems to suggest, that Lurie gains a redeeming sense of compassion absent from his life up to this point.
Written with the austere clarity that has made J. M. Coetzee the winner of two Booker Prizes, Disgrace explores the downfall of one man and dramatizes, with unforgettable, at times almost unbearable, vividness the plight of a country caught in the chaotic aftermath of centuries of racial oppression.
"As a writer, Coetzee is a literary cascade, with a steady output of fiction and criticism (literary and social) over the last two decades. This latest book, his first novel in five years, is a searing evocation of post-apartheid South Africa; it earned him an unprecedented second Booker Prize. An uninspired teacher and twice divorced, David Lurie is a 52-year-old poetry scholar-cum-'adjunct professor of communications' at Cape Technical University. Spooked by the flicker of twilight in his life trajectory, he sees himself as an aged Lothario soon to be 'shuddered over' by the pretty girls he has so often wooed; he is disappointed in and unengaged by the academy he now serves by rote; and he cannot locate the notes for his opera, Byron in Italy, in which he has placed so much reluctant hope. He is, even at his best, a man of 'moderated bliss.' So when he seduces Melanie Isaacs, a lithe student from his poetry elective ("She does not resist. All she does is avert herself"), he believes her to represent the final object of his desire, his last act of lush, Romantic desperation. And then he is found out. This not uncommon outrage earns him a dismissal and censure from the university committee he refuses to cooperate with in hopes of saving his job. He immediately shoves off for Salem in the Eastern Cape where his daughter, Lucy, manages a dog kennel and works her smallholding, harvesting a modest crop. Here David hopes to cleanse himself with time-honored toil. But his new life in the country offers scarce refuge. Instead, he is flummoxed to discover an unfamiliar Lucy-principled, land-devoted, with a heroic resignation to the social and political developments of modern South Africa. He also memorably encounters Petrus, Lucy's ambitious colored neighbor and sometime assistant. Petrus embodies the shifting, tangled vicissitudes of a new national schematic, and forces David to relate to the broad segment of society previously shrouded by the mists of his self-absorption. But a violent attack on the estate irrevocably alters how the book's central figure perceives many things: his daughter and her bewildering (to him) courage, the rights of South Africa's grossly aggrieved majority, the souls of the damaged dogs he helps put down at the local Animal Welfare League and even the character of Lord Byron's mistress and the heroine of his operatic "chamber-play." But this is no tale of hard-earned, satisfying transformation. It is, rather, a paean to willfulness, an aria on the theme of secca, or the drying up of 'the source of everything.' In Coetzee's tale, not a single note is false; every sentence is perfectly calibrated and essential. Every passage questions the arbitrary division between the 'major and minor' and the long-accepted injustices propped up by nothing so much as time. The book somehow manages to speak of little but interiority and still insinuate peripheries of things it doesn't touch. Somber and crystalline, it 'has the right mix of timelessness and decay.' It is about the harsh cleansing of humiliation and the regretfulness of knowing things: 'I lack the lyrical. I manage love too well. Even when I burn I don't sing, if you understand me.' To perceive is to understand in this beautifully spare, necessary novel. Publishers Weekly Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
J.M. Coetzee's distinguished novels feed on exclusion; they are intelligently starved. One always feels with this writer a zeal of omission. What his novels keep out may well be as important as what they keep in. And Coetzee's vision is impressively consistent: his books eschew loosened abundance for impacted allegory. Waiting For The Barbarians, his finest allegory, set in a nameless Empire with resemblances to turn-ofthe-century South Africa, has an Orwellian power. Even when his novels are set in a recognizable and local South African world, as is the case with Coetzee's new novel, the dry seed of parable can always be felt underfoot, beneath the familiar surfaces of contemporary life.
But this is a harsh exchange. Coetzee's novels eschew society, and the examination of domestic filaments, for the study of political societies... The New Republic (read The New Republic's entire review)
"The kind of territory J.M Coetzee has made his own....By this late point in the century, the journey to a heart of narrative darkness has become a safe literary destination....Disgrace goes beyond this to explore the furthest reaches of what it means to be human: it is at the frontier of world literature." Sunday Telegraph
"A subtly brilliant commentary on the nature and balance of power in his homeland...by a writer at the top of his form." Time
"Disgrace is not a hard or obscure book — it is, among other things, compulsively readable — but what it may well be is an authentically spiritual document, a lament for the soul of a disgraced century." The New Yorker
Set in post-apartheid Cape Town, Professor David Laurie attempts to relate to his daughter, Lucy, and to a society with new racial complexities. But that is disrupted by an afternoon of violence that changes him and his daughter in ways he could never have foreseen. Coetzee is the only writer awarded the Booker Prize twice, and this work is a finalist for the National Book Critic Circle Awards.
About the Author
Born in Cape Town, South Africa, on February 9, 1940, John Michael Coetzee studied first at Cape Town and later at the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned a Ph.D. degree in literature. In 1972 he returned to South Africa and joined the faculty of the University of Cape Town. His works of fiction include Dusklands, Waiting for the Barbarians, which won South Africa’s highest literary honor, the Central News Agency Literary Award, and the Life and Times of Michael K., for which Coetzee was awarded his first Booker Prize in 1983. He has also published a memoir, Boyhood: Scenes From a Provincial Life, and several essays collections. He has won many other literary prizes including the Lannan Award for Fiction, the Jerusalem Prize and The Irish Times International Fiction Prize. In 1999 he again won Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize for Disgrace, becoming the first author to win the award twice in its 31-year history. In 2003, Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
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