viraga, September 2, 2011 (view all comments by viraga)
On the face of it, this is the story of a rape. Or man's relationship with animals. But it is so multilayered and faceted that several readings are needed to delve into the nuances.
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This short novel begins as a story of personal excess, even disgrace, but quickly becomes much more. David Lurie is a fifty-two-year-old, twice-divorced, academic teaching poetry at a small college in South Africa, who sees his life and career ebbing away. Still a reasonably good-looking man, he partly counters his boredom, even disgust, at teaching indifferent students by keeping sexuality as an important part of his life, usually via paid services. However, his, by accident, though insistent, seduction of a female student in his class, who is not really all that willing, is, not surprisingly, turned back on him as a case of sexual harassment. In the subsequent hearing, his quick admission of guilt is actually quite offensive to college officials, especially the women in attendance. To expectations that he admit that his behavior was inappropriate, even deviant, and then seek counseling, he contends that sexual desire is only natural and “enriching.” And that gets him dismissed, which he almost seems to welcome.
Little does Lurie realize that he is now on a path where gritty realities will come crashing into his life far exceeding the unpleasantness of violating petty sexual correctness rules. In what begins as only a short visit, he is quite surprised to find his daughter Lucy eking out a minimal living by growing and selling vegetables and flowers and boarding dogs on little more than a large patch of dirt, hardly a farm. He is startled by the isolation, the harshness of conditions, the dirt, and the danger of living in rural S. Africa. Simmering racial tensions suddenly intrude as he is stunned by the brutal assault by three black men on Lucy’s holdings and on them both. Not only is there physical devastation and personal injuries, but more significant is the physic damage and the shattering of personal and social illusions.
Forced to manage Lucy’s affairs while she recovers, Lurie is astounded by her lack of vindictiveness and willingness to remain. However, Lucy recognizes that harmony with the land and one’s neighbors comes at a cost. Her neighbor Bev Shaw, who attempts to help broken down animals, mirrors that same toughness and acceptance. In fact, its Lurie’s work at Bev’s makeshift clinic that has a transforming impact on him. Euthanasia is a reality at the clinic. It is gut-wrenching to inject the drug, while a dog, seemingly aware of what is happening, licks his hand. Lurie accepts that there comes a time for us all.
Perhaps one would want more character development in the book; there is little of their backgrounds provided. But they are well sketched for the author’s purpose. No doubt life is rather bleak in the author’s world, yet somehow accepting and dealing with gritty reality is strengthening, perhaps ennobling. This is a book that will stay with one for quite a while.
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leaf slayer, January 13, 2009 (view all comments by leaf slayer)
I read this book a few years ago and intend to read it, and more by this author, later this year. How a book can be so sparse and so complex is beyond me. It's not a pleasant read but it's an amazing piece of literature. I would have loved to have read this in college. I imagine a classroom discussion of this book would be intense.
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pebbeb, September 22, 2006 (view all comments by pebbeb)
A heartbreaking story so magnificently and tautly written that one cannot help but be propelled along with the story. This is a book that is destined to become a literary classic.
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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.
"Publishers Weekly Review"
by Publishers Weekly,
"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)
by Sunday Telegraph,
"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."
"A subtly brilliant commentary on the nature and balance of power in his homeland...by a writer at the top of his form."
by The New Yorker,
"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."
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.
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