Tuesday, April 9, 2024

J.M. Coetzee - Disgrace

Set in post-apartheid South Africa, Nobel Prize winner J. M. Coetzee's searing novel tells the story of David Lurie, a twice divorced 52-year-old professor of communications and Romantic Poetry at Cape Technical University.
Lurie believes he has created a comfortable, if somewhat passionless, life for himself. He lives within his financial and emotional means. Though his position at the university has been reduced, he teaches his classes dutifully; and while age has diminished his attractiveness, weekly visits to a prostitute satisfy his sexual needs. He considers himself happy. But when Lurie seduces one of his students, he sets in motion a chain of events that will shatter his complacency and leave him utterly disgraced.
Lurie pursues his relationship with the young Melanie - whom he describes as having hips "as slim as a 12-year-old's" - obsessively and narcissistically, ignoring, on one occasion, her wish not to have sex. When Melanie and her father lodge a complaint against him, Lurie is brought before an academic committee where he admits he is guilty of all the charges but refuses to express any repentance for his acts. In the furor of the scandal, jeered at by students, threatened by Melanie's boyfriend, ridiculed by his ex-wife, Lurie is forced to resign and flees Cape Town for his daughter Lucy's small holding in the country.
Written with the austere clarity that has made J. M. Coetzee the winner of two Booker Prizes, Disgrace explores the downfall of one man and dramatizes, with unforgettable, at times almost unbearable, vividness the plight of a country caught in the chaotic aftermath of centuries of racial oppression.

Comment: I've brought this tittle from the library the last time I went there. It fit one of the topics for a challenge I'm doing and it's not a big book, and I thought those were both positive reasons to choose it.

In this 1999 (kind of) classic by Nobel winner author JM Coetzee, we have the story of South African professor David Lurie, someone who often has affairs with younger women, including students. When the story begins, one of those affairs goes wrong and David is asked to apologize and to demonstrate regret. When he claims he is not regretful, he needs to take a leave of absence and travels to his daughter's Farm, in a rural area. Although they aren't close and her Dutch mother is in the Netherlands, Lucy decided to come back and establish her life there, taking care of rescued animals and her farm. Everything changes one day, when three men show up and try to steal the farm. In the process, they are also violent and attack Lucy and David. The consequences are immense, and even though Lucy has a partner at the farm to help, can she still live there in safety? Or can David accept his daughter's decision without fearing worse things?

I'll start right away by saying that I'm not knowledgeable enough on South African history to be able to speak correctly about all the likely themes the author might have wanted to convey in this story and I only really grasped some after reading other reviews once I've finished the book. The only thing that seems obvious is that this is a slice of life in the South African reality and how the Apartheid still affects so many lives, years after is was extinguished.

This isn't a big book (my translated edition had 229 pages) and it's not very hard to read, linguistically speaking. I'd say the book might be divided into two parts, the first while Davis is going through his sex obsession phase and the second after he arrives at his daughter's farm. I can't say if the intention of making such an obvious separation was a weird ode to the division in South Africa as well, or just a way to establish David's annoying character, but the truth is that, to me, the division was rather jarring. I can't say I prefer one to the other because deep down, I disliked both, but it was still relatively easier to read the first.

David is going through a terrible middle age stage, fast approaching old age if he is 52 and still thinking about his sex escapades. It has to be intentional from the author how unlikable David is portrayed because who can respect him as a person? Intellectually I could see how complex he can be, but in terms of characterization, he isn't a person I'd want to know or that I felt like reading about with will. The problem is not only his lack of morals, no matter how he wants to sees it as, but to have affairs with students and the way he justifies thinking about women is bad enough.

Still, and this must be the true wonder of reading, the author still wrote things in a way that I felt sorry for David when the second part happens. He is attacked by what is later explained to be a small group of three Black men. Well, two men and a teenager "learning", whose actions were apparently just for the violence itself, as a way for David and Lucy to be taught a lesson. I might have not understood this correctly, but from what I got, this violent attack of David and of his daughter had a purpose, something the main characters sort of debate later on and while this might make logistical sense, it was still... unpleasant to read. At first I imagined that the solution for this situation - involving the police perhaps - would be obvious, easy! But, of course, there's more to it, including the racial division of decades...

In a way, I can see how clever this novel is (especially now that I have thought about it for some days), but having a clever or intellectually challenging story is enough to justify the sum of several terrible parts? I just wasn't interested in reading this all the time, and not only for the themes. The writing is quite irritating, more so because it's heavily focused on David's thoughts and those are certainly irksome to follow throughout the whole novel. Sometimes David has very intelligent ideas, other times I wished we had a different narrator, which made reading tiring and lacking playfulness. Again, probably part of the whole point...

I can imagine there would be many more key subjects to dissect which would enrich the experience of reading this book with different eyes, but I have had enough. I think I can see the author's idea and the "message" this supposedly offers, but the reading itself wasn't that great. Perhaps, if David had been a little more likable part of the story, or if he could have been easier to like, even with his flaws, so that the reader's response would not be easy to happen anyway. Still, this was a cleverly presented story, not easy to like or dislike, except David as a character, who was a true disgrace, as the title indicates.
Grade: 6/10


  1. Well. Damn.

    Nothing about this makes me want to read it--and having Black men attack a white man (and his daughter, if I understand correctly) in a country where Apartheid cost the lives of so many Black people, justified by white fear of the Black "brutes" they explited...

    Yeah, sorry, Nobel winner or not, this author is in my shit list, never to be read.

    Aside: the "notify me of replies by email" function is no longer working for me on blogspot (not just on your blog, but any of the ones I follow on the platform), so if I don't respond, that's why. Sorry, technology hates me.

    1. Yes, this certainly has a lot of themes to develop, to explain, to think of if one wants to dive deeper into the countless meanings of everything... But just from David's characterization, this was not a great story.