DISGRACE by J.M. Coetzee

The last book review I posted was of Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru, a densely plotted, artfully crafted and challengingly narrated tome. After such a hefty read, Coetzee’s 1999 Man Booker Prize winning Disgrace was a much more straight forward tale in comparison. Not in any sort of simplistic way, far from it, but J.M. Coetzee delivers his depth in a more naturally chronological order. As I keep saying, as a writer myself I enjoy reading far and wide to try and absorb some of the language and style used by these extraordinary authors.

Skim reading Disgrace would do this gorgeous book a disservice. Peel off the top layer and you’ll find subtle explorations of contrasting themes running through the story.

David Lurie, a twice divorced teacher at the Technical University of Cape Town has a compulsive affair with a student. The affair itself is awkward and clumsy. Coetzee’s direct and pointed narrative exposes the main character’s weaknesses and his traits as the whole episode unravels. From a position of respect and comfort, Lurie’s life is dismantled and he finds himself seeking refuge with his daughter, Lucy. Lucy lives on a countryside smallholding and her lifestyle, as well as the company she keeps, is a startling departure for David.

What Coetzee does so well with this book is blend the personal, intricate details of lives being lived with the deeper issues of class, race and gender as South Africa attempted to prepare for the 21st century. I found myself opening up to the realisation that so much in life is just accepted. The casual disregard for women, which feels almost institutional in the early stages of the novel, for example. Also the assumptions of how the colour of skin determines our status. Not only that, the horrific crime which occurs at Lucy’s farm (as well as the later crime David suffers) is almost expected. David struggles to understand Lucy’s acceptance of what happens (without giving anything away) and he has an undercurrent of shame which just adds to the disgrace of the book’s title.

There is a brutal honesty about a middle aged white man believing that he “…has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.” He hasn’t of course, as becomes apparent early on. He believes that it is alright to have women slot into his life, purely to fulfil his desires. As I have said, this is both awkward and shameful in its telling. Coetzee, as I’m sure a more scholarly reviewer would better explain, seems to parallel South Africa’s attempts at truth and reconciliation with David’s lived experience. I find myself humbled by writing as eloquent as this. The narration prods and embarrasses the reader into glancing at the mirror to check for signs of the flaws being portrayed.

I don’t think I’m going overboard when I describe this as a ‘masterpiece’. I’d previously read just one of Coetzee’s works, his thinly disguised memoir of adolescence, Boyhood, and in some ways the themes there are taken into later adulthood with Disgrace. I have no doubt there are autobiographical elements to Disgrace too, and I know he speaks directly to those of us similarly aged and privileged as David appears to be in the book.

I wonder how women readers feel about David? I found him frustrating and at times downright offensive. And yet, somehow, I was still rooting for him as the book drew to a close. Lurking behind the decisions made (often as a result of nothing more than his sex drive), there is a man who cares deeply about his daughter, one of his ex wives and the other women he encounters in the book. He also develops as a man (in my opinion) as his empathy for the dogs, which feature prominently, grows. But I couldn’t shake off the feeling that he still felt that women should accept their standing and make life choices accordingly.

In a relatively small number of pages, Coetzee has managed to have me nodding in agreement, lowering the book from my face in embarrassment and pausing to imagine myself in David’s situation. Oh, and he also had me walking around the house with the book in my hands as I simply couldn’t put it down.

I heartily recommend.

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