J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace

JM Coetzee
Vintage (Aus, US)

Disgrace is centred around David Lurie, a Romantic Poetry Professor at a Cape Town University, and an unapologetic lover of the firm, youthful, accommodating female form. He’s been married twice, and in the story satisfies his hunger with a prostitute, and then a student, becoming enamored with both (i.e. tracking down the prostitute at her home, and watching from a dark corner the student rehearsing her play). The affair with the student leads to a harassment case and Lurie, refusing to apologise for his nature, leaves Cape Town and exiles ‘in disgrace’ at his daughter’s isolated property. Here, the bulk of the novel takes place – a quiet series of misunderstandings, Lurie’s work with the dogs at the care centre, and the aftermath of an attack on the property.

The ‘aboutness’ of this novel is so large, and layered, that it is difficult to explain in a way that doesn’t undermine the gentleness of its weight on the reader. The big questions that arise cover true nature, instinct, care, nurturing, beauty and corruption, the interchangeability of these things in each moment, dual ugliness and attractiveness, hate and passion, growing, age and loss, and that old ‘good and bad’ pittance. There is also much about what constitutes stubbornness, denial or defiance, or what is simply as acceptance, in both Lurie and the characters around him – particularly his daughter Lucy, who makes some difficult choices.

The character of David Lurie I found confronting. As a woman, I found it difficult to understand sometimes how women bent to, and had no resistance to him – young and intimidated, or older and married. Even in conversation women do not berate him much (such as his ex-wife and daughter) for his outlook, but perhaps this is because those women know him so well, they know there is no point. Lucy does, however, resist his nature in her actions. Some of Lucy’s motivations remain unexplained, and this makes for much complexity, and I think it reflects in a way a lonely problem for Lurie (and perhaps men in general) that he/they may never truly know the heart of a woman, or what motivates some of her deepest decisions, especially when the body is involved. And while I say I found Lurie confronting, and don’t understand how the women in his life bend so easily, I have also met men like him, whose attentions and charisma, and intelligence (even if used deceptively) can have an effect – and the confidence that goes with the knowledge, has an effect. I see Lurie as this kind of man, and it’s great in the novel to also see the sides of him that bend, that struggle, that are helpless and alone and tragic. He is stuck in his condition, and his nature, as we all are.

On this, the inclusion of the dogs, and his role in ushering them to death, is a reasonably obvious but effective extended metaphor. The dogs have no choice but to act out their natures. They are caged, they seek food and procreation, they express with aggression. They tremble before the end and seek to lick the face or hand of their would-be killer. One last moment of comfort.

There are further layers to this slim novel, such as the dangers of South Africa – where there are rules, difficulties and unspoken things. The novel thus brings up notions philosophical, political and cultural – the Professor constantly references great works (e.g. Wordsworth). He is working on an opera centred on Byron (but the focus shifts through the novel, as the focus of Lurie’s life does).

I found Disgrace rich and challenging. It is a book I will think about again. The themes are deep and difficult and worthy of attention. I was so caught up in the realism I forgot I was reading at times – the best kind of experience, but also harrowing with a book like this. I am definitely going to read more of Coetzee’s works, and I’m looking forward to catching the film version, which has just been released.

8 thoughts on “J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace

  1. Yes, it’s a tough novel. My stomach churned as I read it. It takes a brave, skillful writer to sustain that kind of human suffering – without being clumsy, contrived or preachy.

    And that cover…

  2. Recently re-read this remarakble book prior to seeing the film – which I recommend for any who loved the book. And pondered again some of what your reviewer calls Lucy’s ‘unexplained motivations’ – why does she stay for example? I met a (white) South African woman journalist at a conference in Mauritius who told me she had been held up, robbed, almost been raped but would not leave. “It’s my country” was her only explanation. And you will remember Lucy saying, of the men who raped her, maybe they’re debt collectors. apart fromy any personal motivations, she appears to have taken on the whole history of white South Africa. A wonderful book, one that will stay with readers for a long time

  3. Challening is a nice way of putting it. Whew. Couldn’t read it again. But it was worthwhile reading it once (though it’s been a while so I can’t quite recall what I liked about it)!

    Not sure I’d bother with the film either a friend of mine saw it and said it was “pretty hard going”.

  4. I think that film and stage adaptations are always worth seeing, simply for the comparison, and to better your own understanding of the book. I saw Disgrace last week after gnawing through the book in two days; I was disappointed by the film, but had half expected to be. Coetzee’s Lurie is wonderfully introspective, and a film can never fully grasp that sort of inner dialogue that is one of the strongest points of the novel.

    From a male perspective, Lurie is magic. Every time I felt I didn’t understand one of his actions or his thoughts, a part inside of me piped up “Yes you do – here I am.” Scarily truthful.

    PS. Thanks for teaching me a new term, Ange – ‘aboutness’ – i’ll have to nonchalantly drop it into a couple of articles/essays/conversations, really ramp up the wank factor.

  5. That’s always the difficulty I have with film adaps – the characters just can’t possibly be as rich. There have been a couple of films, though, where the mood and acting did enough – but with a book as layered as this (and a character like Lurie) it would be very difficult.

  6. Coetzee’s Disgrace was a compelling read – so many layers of complexity.
    I kept thinking back to my uni / teacher’s college days, of male lecturers in the Psych Dept screwing students – still unsure whether they we ‘enriching’ themselves as men or whether the females were knowingly ensuring their semester’s HD grade…
    Lurie frustrated me – I note an earlier reviewer stated that he was intospective – I thought he was shallow, self engrossed and arrogant. I was however surprised he didn’t challenge his daughter more. Perhaps it was in fear of losing the ONLY person he needed – who grounded him.
    It was his later interaction with the dogs facing certain death, that he began to show signs of understanding situations or making decisons in the best interests of others.
    That he was able to ‘give up’ the young dog (who likes music and is innocent – it doesn’t realise what happens in Losung) for the dog’s sake, rather than his own needs, that one begins to think there’s any hope of him having a real relationship with his daughter – or indeed anyone.

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