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Disgrace: A Novel by J. M. Coetzee

Disgrace: A Novel (original 1999; edition 2008)

by J. M. Coetzee

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Title:Disgrace: A Novel
Authors:J. M. Coetzee
Info:Penguin Books (2008), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 224 pages
Collections:Read and enjoyed

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Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (1999)

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English (158)  Dutch (8)  Spanish (3)  French (2)  German (2)  Italian (2)  Hebrew (2)  Swedish (1)  Norwegian (1)  Catalan (1)  Greek (1)  All languages (181)
Showing 1-5 of 158 (next | show all)
I returned to Disgrace because it is supposedly an old classic. The prose is well-written. It flows, integrating other literature through allusion, and creates a lasting impression in the reader's mind. However, the quality of the prose is not well-sustained. Some passages are outstanding, while others lack Coetzee's touch.

The story is, of course, poignant, but I struggle with fully imbibing the characters and plot. There is something to be gained by reading Disgrace, but it is not clear what that will be. Perhaps that is the genius of Coetzee. However, some readers will undoubtedly be vexed or unsatisfied with plot.

For lovers of all literature, this is a great choice. However, for people looking for consistently good prose and a less philosophical plot, I suggest turning to other novels. ( )
  Rachabake | Jan 21, 2015 |
At the heart of this fine novel set in contemporary South Africa is a man who is self-destructive; a professor of English who cannot communicate and who must face not only the results of his own mistakes but the troubles of others and a world that he is unable to understand. J. M. Coetzee's ability to make this dark story readable is what makes this a great story. As the outset the professor, David Lurie, is medicating himself with weekly visits from a prostitute named Soraya but an incident occurs that ends that relationship. Then we meet the professor in his school room teaching "Communications 101" to bored students whom he cannot reach:
"Silence again. The very air into which he speaks hangs listless as a sheet. A man looking at a mountain: why does it have to be so complicated, they want to complain? What answer can he give them?" (p 21)

But by this time he has begun to meet one of his students, Melanie, on the side. While she does not respond to Shakespeare she seems to respond to David's erotic advances until. Well this is where the story begins to explore the world of personal self-destruction, dramatic changes in David's life and ultimately, disgrace. If it ended there it would be well-written but not interesting, not challenging. David is let go by the University and he leaves for the countryside. But that will not be the end as we see when he is confronted by Melanie's father:
“‘Professor,’ he begins, laying heavy stress on the word, ‘you may be very educated and all that, but what you have done is not right…We put our children in the hands of you people because we think we can trust you. If we can’t trust the university, who can we trust?…No, Professor Lurie, you may be big and mighty and have all kinds of degrees, but if I was you I’d be very ashamed of myself, so help me God. If I’ve got hold of the wrong end of the stick, now is your chance to say, but I don’t think so, I can see it from your face.’” And when Lurie finds the accusation beneath him and turns away, the girl’s father shouts, “‘You can’t just run away like that! You have not heard the last of it, I tell you!’” (p 38)

The challenges, for David, begin when he moves in with his daughter (from an earlier failed marriage) and finds out what fate really has in store for him. He tries to explain his mistake with the student to his daughter Lucy:
"I was a servant of Eros: that is what he wants to say, but does he have the effrontery? It was a god who acted through me. What vanity! Yet not a lie, not entirely."(p 89) He cannot take responsibility to himself or with others. His resulting actions seem out of sync with the world around him. His inability to understand himself fuels his inability to communicate with others.
It is with his daughter in the eastern Cape that we are introduced to Petrus, her black neighbor who is slowly taking advantage of the changed social order to lift himself from a “dog-man” to a substantial land holder. Lucy is nearly alone in her refusal to join the “white-flight” exodus out of such predominantly black areas; in the book’s most dramatic scene she is raped by three black men as her father is locked in a bathroom and set afire. How David and Lucy deal with this event defines the remainder of the story. You can see David's disgrace as a metaphor for the experience of whites in post-apartheid South Africa.

Disgrace is a gripping read, paced, shaped, and developed in a way that gives the narrative an immediacy. Through the embedding of recurring images, like that of fire, the novel slowly builds to an unbearable climax. This is one of the better novels of J. M. Coetzee that I have read; that is it is very good and worthy of the awards. In it he details a story of personal trials and integrates the culture of post-apartheid South Africa effectively into the story. I would have rated it slightly higher, but it is not a pleasant story to read. It is neither as affecting nor as imaginatively fashioned as Coetzee's other Booker winner, Life and Times of Michael K. The characters are so flatly presented that it is difficult to penetrate their mental worlds, yet the sparse prose is eminently readable. After rereading the novel and learning more about these characters I would include this in my list of favorite Coetzee novels. ( )
  jwhenderson | Dec 28, 2014 |
C'e' secondo me uno stretto legame tra C. e Cormac McCarthy. Nei toni, nello stile, nei personaggi delineati. McCarthy è pero' più al limite; C. rimane sempre nel politically correct, anche dove non lo è. Forse è per questo che ha preso il Nobel nel 2003 - l'anno successivo alla pubblicazione di questo romanzo. Tuttavia, da occidentali non si riesce forse a cogliere appieno il mondo del Sudafrica, dove esiste una separazione tra bianchi e non bianchi che riposa su radici bel differenti rispetto a quelle che separano noi da qualsiasi persona non occidentale. Radici che si perdono in un passato durato troppo a lungo - e fino a uno 'ieri' che ancora si intravede - perchè si possa cancellare con qualche provvedimento legislativo. ( )
  bobparr | Dec 14, 2014 |
i'm in a book club. ( )
  behemothing | Oct 25, 2014 |
Coetzee can certainly capture an audience with his emotionally charged story-telling skills. And his style is simple, clean, and direct. But reading Coetzee’s depiction of post-apartheid South Africa is like reading Faulkner’s interpretation of the deep south: offensive, depressing, and repulsive. I love Faulkner’s writing. So why do I hate this book? Perhaps because Faulkner knew most of his characters were uneducated, ignorant, and despicable. I’m not sure Coetzee can say the same for his characters. Coetzee seems to imply that even though some of his characters are ugly on the outside, they are all beautiful within. And it’s ok to be repulsive because it is human nature and the best we can do is humble ourselves, accept our lot in life, lower our expectations, and show some kindness. To me, it’s all bunk!

In a nutshell, this is a story of an aging, twice-divorced womanizer who gets fired from his job as a college professor for having a lucid affair with a student. It’s not just an ordinary affair. It borders on rape and involves stalking. And this isn’t the first time for Professor David Lurie. He’s got a long history of one-night stands and visits to prostitutes, and he lets the reader know the prostitutes are used - not because he can’t get sex for free - it just is less trouble for him to avoid the emotional commitment. He thinks he is God’s gift to women... literally. David truly believes the God of love, Eros is his master and acts through him. He fancies himself a romantic and his sexual behavior emulates his literary idol Lord Byron the poet, who was also a womanizer.

So after David loses his job, his income, and his standing in the Cape Town college community, he decides to pay an extended visit to his estranged daughter Lucy - a frumpy, earthy, lesbian hippy who lives alone in the remote countryside on a working farm. He visualizes himself living a fantasy of romanticized exile just like Byron. From the onset, the father and daughter’s personalities clash and tensions rise. David is having a hard time adjusting to primitive country living. For one thing, there are no attractive women to seduce. And worse, Lucy’s closest friend is an ugly hag of a woman - an amateur veterinarian who spends seven full days a week euthanizing dogs. Can there really be that many stray dogs in South Africa?

As the drama begins, Lucy gets raped by a gang of black African men. And worse - it is all a set-up by her black next door neighbor and handy man who is trying to get control of her land.

I will not fill you in on the entire plot, but tell you that this is where Faulkner and Coetzee depart in philosophy. Faulkner’s characters were amoral. They acted by human instinct and were too ignorant to realize they could aspire to a higher standard of living. But Coetzee’s characters know better. They choose to martyr themselves, wallowing in their own disgrace.

The whole plot is loaded with symbolism; the sex, the dogs, the racial violence, and the references to Lord Byron and Victor Hugo. Yes, when David can on longer rely on Byron for his stereotype, he reverts to Victor Hugo.

"Disgrace" was winner of the 1999 Booker Prize, a finalist for the National Book Critics Award, and received many great reviews. But I would rather have not read the book. Like a bad rotting carcass, it left an affected-soul aftertaste, and lingering anger at the “disgrace” in behavior of people who should have known better. I was particularly angered by Lucy and David’s complacent acceptance of savagery as a way of life and their pride in presuming that acceptance of this behavior would bring redemption. Mercy is never superior to justice and lowering ones standards does not assure redemption. I don’t care what Coetzee says!

I was tempted to rate this book 1 Star - because I abhor the allegory Coetzee presents in "Disgrace", but why shoot the messenger. I do believe Coetzee was trying to convey an accurate depiction of post-apartheid Africa’s cultural limitations, warped moral values, and the grotesque outcome of the struggle to implement the policies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. ( )
  LadyLo | Sep 6, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 158 (next | show all)
The book is written with Coetzee's accustomed steely restraint, and is, like all his work, a masterpiece of understatement. However, there is here what seems a new note of authorial irritation, not only, as might be expected, with the perennial intractability of language and the constraints of the novel form, but with the social changes that are occurring in his country, and in the world at large.
added by rsterling | editNew York Review of Books, John Banville (pay site) (Jan 20, 2000)

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J.M. Coetzeeprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Preis, ThomasTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vosková, MonikaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0143115286, Paperback)

David Lurie is hardly the hero of his own life, or anyone else's. At 52, the protagonist of Disgrace is at the end of his professional and romantic game, and seems to be deliberately courting disaster. Long a professor of modern languages at Cape Town University College, he has recently been relegated to adjunct professor of communications at the same institution, now pointedly renamed Cape Technical University:
Although he devotes hours of each day to his new discipline, he finds its first premise, as enunciated in the Communications 101 handbook, preposterous: "Human society has created language in order that we may communicate our thoughts, feelings and intentions to each other." His own opinion, which he does not air, is that the origins of speech lie in song, and the origins of song in the need to fill out with sound the overlarge and rather empty human soul.
Twice married and twice divorced, his magnetic looks on the wane, David rather cruelly seduces one of his students, and his conduct unbecoming is soon uncovered. In his eighth novel, J.M. Coetzee might have been content to write a searching academic satire. But in Disgrace he is intent on much more, and his art is as uncompromising as his main character, though infinitely more complex. Refusing to play the public-repentance game, David gets himself fired--a final gesture of contempt. Now, he thinks, he will write something on Byron's last years. Not empty, unread criticism, "prose measured by the yard," but a libretto. To do so, he heads for the Eastern Cape and his daughter's farm. In her mid-20s, Lucy has turned her back on city sophistications: with five hectares, she makes her living by growing flowers and produce and boarding dogs. "Nothing," David thinks, "could be more simple." But nothing, in fact, is more complicated--or, in the new South Africa, more dangerous. Far from being the refuge he has sought, little is safe in Salem. Just as David has settled into his temporary role as farmworker and unenthusiastic animal-shelter volunteer, he and Lucy are attacked by three black men. Unable to protect his daughter, David's disgrace is complete. Hers, however, is far worse.

There is much more to be explored in Coetzee's painful novel, and few consolations. It would be easy to pick up on his title and view Disgrace as a complicated working-out of personal and political shame and responsibility. But the author is concerned with his country's history, brutalities, and betrayals. Coetzee is also intent on what measure of soul and rights we allow animals. After the attack, David takes his role at the shelter more seriously, at last achieving an unlikely home and some measure of love. In Coetzee's recent Princeton lectures, The Lives of Animals, an aging novelist tells her audience that the question that occupies all lab and zoo creatures is, "Where is home, and how do I get there?" David, though still all-powerful compared to those he helps dispose of, is equally trapped, equally lost.

Disgrace is almost willfully plain. Yet it possesses its own lean, heartbreaking lyricism, most of all in its descriptions of unwanted animals. At the start of the novel, David tells his student that poetry either speaks instantly to the reader--"a flash of revelation and a flash of response"--or not at all. Coetzee's book speaks differently, its layers and sadnesses endlessly unfolding. --Kerry Fried

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:33:04 -0400)

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At fifty-two Professor David Lurie is divorced, filled with desire but lacking in passion. An affair with one of his students leaves him jobless and friendless. Except for his daughter, Lucy, who works her smallholding with her neighbor, Petrus, an African farmer now on the way to a modest prosperity. David's attempts to relate to Lucy, and to a society with new racial complexities, are disrupted by an afternoon of violence that changes him and his daughter in ways he could never have foreseen. In this wry, visceral, yet strangely tender novel, Coetzee once again tells "truths [that] cut to the bone." (The New York Times Book Review)… (more)

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