- Paperback: 220 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Books (November 1, 2000)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0140296409
- ISBN-13: 978-0140296402
- Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.6 x 7.7 inches
- Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 576 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #6,691 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Disgrace: A Novel Paperback – November 1, 2000
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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From 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. First serial to the New Yorker. (Nov.) FYI: Viking accelerated the pub date after the Booker Prize was announced on October 25.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top customer reviews
In Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee artfully navigates the complicated liminal spaces that exist in a world structured by binaries: African/White, old/young, past/future, even living/dead. David Lurie, a shamed Professor of English at a Cape Town university finds himself in the consistently unsustainable position of attempting to live beyond these entrenched oppositions, and Disgrace traces the effects of his resistance.
David is an intensely unlikable protagonist - his utter lack of moral compass remains steadfast throughout the novel. When we meet him, he is perpetrating a scandal that will define the trajectory of the novel - at best, it might be called an inappropriate professor/teacher relationship, at worst a series of unapologetic date-rapes. He leaves his University after refusing to accept the terms of his punishment (therapy and perhaps more importantly, repentance) and retreats to the country to live with his daughter Lucy. There, he only gets to live a few weeks of country life before their household is violently disrupted by a break-in during which Lucy is raped by two men. The rest of the novel deals with the aftermath - both Lucy's reaction, and David's resistance to it.
Certainly, a large chunk of the book deals intimately with the political landscape of South Africa, and in particular focuses on the complicated race relations between the white people and the native Africans. Though this takes place long after Apartheid has ended, Coetzee makes it strikingly clear that history has a way of resisting being laid to rest. The climax of this particular trajectory occurs when Lucy reveals that she has begun to view her rape as restitution: "What if that is the price one has to pay [...]? They see me as owing something" (158). This moment in which Lucy allows herself to be subjugated, to submit to a side of oppositions, is the moment in which Coetzee fully realizes the inflexible nature of the system.
In the last few pages of the novel, Coetzee writes of David's reflections upon his volunteering job euthanizing dogs: "What the dog will not be able to work out [...], what his nose will not tell him, is how one can enter what seems to be an ordinary room and never come out again. Something happens in this room, something unmentionable: here the soul is yanked out of the body; briefly it hangs about in the air, twisting and contorting; then it is sucked away and is gone" (219). With this quote, Coetzee grasps the heart of the matter that he has spent a novel untangling. Life, or at least the life that he describes, takes place within that brief liminal period. Nothing is absolute, and the ostensible binaries that structure the world are proven to fall apart under scrutiny. And yet, though nobody is actually born to live within one side of these binaries, it is a structure imposed upon all humans from birth. We see resistance to this in every action David takes: from attempting to live without age, to refusing to accept or deny his charges, to vehemently chasing down Lucy's rapists, to moving from country to city without finding wholeness in either.
How do we resist this without falling apart? Coetzee doesn't seem to propose an answer to that - as we watch David resist and still fail, resist and still become utterly subjugated, we are forced to come to terms with the fact that living beyond the inflexible structure of the world is absolutely unsustainable. Thus Coetzee doesn't provide an answer, he is just here to give us the lay of the land.
However, just because he writes of an unlikable character dealing with unsolvable problems does not mean that Coetzee doesn't speckle Disgrace with disarming moments of heart. Importantly, amongst the bigger issues that he grapples with, Coetzee also sets a narrative cadence that allows for moments of lovely reflection on particulars of life and relationships. One that is really perfect, I think, is a line describing a short car trip with Lucy: "He sits beside her, eating the sandwiches she has made. His nose drips; he hopes she does not notice" (71). Here, Coetzee's narrative power for developing character and relationships is palpable. We still might not feel tenderness for David, but his humanity is tangible.
Unlike many other novels that begin with a morally ambiguous character, Disgrace is not about redemption or recuperation. David remains unlikable, Lucy remains subjugated, her rapists remain at large. In this way, Coetzee is able to reveal the thrust of a complicated issue without offering a solution. Thus, Disgrace becomes much more than a political statement about race relations in South Africa - it is also a portrait of the shared human condition itself. By blurring binaries that exist in absolutes almost everywhere in the world, Coetzee powerfully reveals the heart of problem everybody must learn to live around. People here can call him a misogynist, a rape-apologist, or any other number of words ending in "-ist," but I do not think that is the case. Coetzee writes David Lurie not as an emblem, but as a warning - this is what happens when a society makes human nature itself an unsustainable condition.
There is little to add to the other reviews which number close to 400, except my own appreciation of this dense and provocative novel. Since I'm an animal person, I appreciate Coetzee's treatment of a theme apparently close to his heart: the mistreatment, neglect and abuse of animals.
David Lurie, a lecherous and arrogant professor who comes to stay with his daughter because of an "lurid" (is the similarity of the sound of this word to the protagonist's name an accident?) affair to which he readily confesses and owns up to, in the end finds the love and devotion of abandoned animals a major comfort in a life that has, at least for the moment, amounted to a wreck.
Lurie's redemption is never complete because he is a damaged human being for oh, so many reasons. But it comes close when he tries (unsuccessfully) to save his daughter from a brutal rape by a band of natives who want control of her land. It comes close, when he embraces the unattractive would-be veterinarian -- a woman that would never catch his eye in the real world. And he comes close when he derides the hearing that accuses him of inappropriate behavior with a co-ed who is one of his students. He is guilty, he says, but he will not beg for mercy in order to save his job and his pension as a tenured professor. He comes close in attempting to save his daughter (now pregnant from the attack of the maurading natives) from more humiliation by insisting she leave her homestead and come back to civilization. She refuses.
Disgrace is a word that fits the old David Lurie. His path from dis-grace leads him in the end to "grace" revealed when he carries his favorite crippled dog, "like a lamb" to be euthanized, knowing the sense of finality, knowing it can no longer be avoided, facing, and accepting the pain and loneliness it will cost him. The dog is his own path to redemption as he recognizes the soul is separate from the body. In this final act, "when the soul is out" Lurie sacrifices his own comfort and well-being --perhaps for the first time in his life but he also performs an act of faith.
This is not a new book, and is probably not his first novel. It is my plan to go back and read them all as J.M. Coetzee is now one of my favorite writers.
Other reviewers have disparaged the protagonist, David, as amoral, but I saw him more as a man of undisciplined courage, unwilling to bend to the judgement of others. David has unconditional love for his daughter, but understands her less than he understands himself.
This is a harsh picture of South Africa, but one I found riveting. If you like "Disgrace" I might suggest reading "The House Gun" by Nadine Gordimer.