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Disgrace: A Novel Paperback – August 27, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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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Product Details

  • Paperback: 220 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (August 27, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143115286
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143115281
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.6 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (543 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #20,011 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I cannot recall a book so rich in theme and symbol and yet with plot and character so grounded in the here-and-now. Charting one man's fall from--and reclamation of--grace, "Disgrace" weaves metaphor that is ironic, blunt, disturbing and, ultimately, timeless around two events that could not be more contemporary: sexual harassment of a co-ed by an aging professor; and an attack by native South Africans on a white farm.
David Lurie is a professor of "Communications" at a Cape Town university. His specialty is Romantic poets, in particular Byron. At age 52, twice divorced and finding gratification, if not fulfillment, in orchestrated liaisons with prostitutes, Lurie is a trivial version of the Byronic hero he studies. Despite his professorship, Lurie, by his own admission, is no teacher. He prefers the tag "scholar." He is in fact a manipulator, a controller.
One evening he has a chance encounter with one of his students, a 20 year-old co-ed named Melanie. He invites her for dinner and seduces her. Melanie is quickly repulsed by the idea of romance with a man more than twice her age. Lurie, though, pursues her with what he perceives to be heroic ardor. Melanie soon falls into depression. Her tatooed, goateed boyfriend-another Byronic cartoon-and her fundamentalist father--another teacher by profession, controller by action--confront Lurie and urge Melanie to file harassment charges against him. In an act of deluded Romantic martyrdom, Lurie confesses without apology to the affair, practically daring university authorities to dismiss him from his post. They oblige.
He finds refuge at his daughter Lucy's farm in the rural East Cape. There he strongly resists adaptation to country life.
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Format: Hardcover
A friend recommended this book to me, and from the beginning, with its pitiful seduction scene, I was prepared to dislike it, and the primary character, intensely. This changed, however. Both David Lurie and his daughter consistently make choices and elect to live lives that are to say the least, uncomfortable, open to question, and painful to experience vicariously. But isn't this what opening ourselves to the challenges of literature is really about? It has been some time since I read a novel so well-crafted that I left with sympathy, but not affection, for the characters. This gave me the ability to really think about the book, both while and after I read it. I couldn't sleep for an hour last night when I finished, considering the implications, the carefully layered symbolism, the situations created by the author. It may sound odd, but for once I am pleased to have been made extremely uncomfortable by a novel.
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Format: Hardcover
I cried upon completing "Disgrace," not necessarily for any of the characters in the book but because this story brings home the difficulty of living. Without sentimentality, without emotional manipulation, J.M. Coetzee draws the reader in to a captivating story laden with such weighty questions as the balance of power, sexual and racial politics, animal rights, the question of whether or not a soul exists. Set in post-Apartheid South Africa, the questions of human rights, the distribution of wealth and resources, and shifting power differentials require the reader to set aside both biases and an easy allegiance to political correctness, and read with heart alone. This book reminds me of "The Reader," by Bernhard Schlink, for its sparse prose and thick, ethical, pondering that takes the reader to a difficult but ultimately very worthwhile place.
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By mp on January 23, 2002
Format: Paperback
J.M. Coetzee is one of those modern authors, who like Graham Greene (in my reckoning), is incapable of producing bad fiction. Though alike in perhaps no other way, I am consistently amazed reading their novels at the high standard of literary quality they maintain. That said, Coetzee's 1999 novel "Disgrace" is another outstanding performance. It is an intensely human story, with a main character whose trials and tribulations seem to force readers to qualify their praise of the novel by making moral judgments on him. Written in the sparsest imaginable prose, "Disgrace" manages to convey a tremendous amount of information and emotion in the fewest possible words, making the novel apparently easy to read, but difficult to understand. Dealing with issues of aging, gender, sex, power, race, scholasticism, family, and contemporary political and economic scenearios, Coetzee's novel transcends its South African setting, capable of speaking to practically any audience.
"Disgrace" tells the story of David Lurie, a 52 year old English professor with literally nothing going for him - His teaching is uninspired, his scholarly output is uninteresting, his department has been gradually phased out, and he gratifies his baser urges once a week with the same prostitute. Spotting this prostitute, Soraya, out one day with her children, David himself is spotted, and his comfortable, prosaic routine is shattered. He begins an affair with Melanie, a student in his Romanticism course. Brought up on charges of sexual impropriety, David resigns from his university position, and moves to the hinterlands to live with his daughter Lucy, a homesteading farmer and animal caregiver. The remainder of the novel follows David's attempts to put some semblance of a life together.
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