Disgrace

Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee

What did it win?

Booker Prize 1999, Commonwealth Writers Prize 1999

What’s it all about?

David Lurie, an English professor at Cape Town Technical University, loses his job because of an affair he has with a student. He goes to live with his daughter on a hobby farm she runs. A gang of ruffians attack, setting the professor on fire and raping his daughter. They both survive, and go on to cope in different ways with what has happened.

Was it really any good?

Well, I finished it. That may not sound like much, especially considering the fact that the book is only 220 pages long, but getting to the end is never a sure bet with these award-winners.

For a while I thought I might not make it. Literary novels with English professors as the main character are definitely not my thing. David Lurie is a typical creation, a man so refined his idea of a “simple” meal is anchovies on tagliatelle with a mushroom sauce. (Earth to Coetzee: A simple meal is a tuna sandwich.) He is, like most fictional English professors, bored with his privileged life (“There are days when he does not know what to do with himself”), exasperated by his stupid pupils (“He has long ceased to be surprised at the range of ignorance of his students”), and bitter about the new breed of politically-motivated yuppie academic. Indeed, the only real surprise is his thinking that he can get away with having an affair with a young woman whose favourite authors are Adrienne Rich, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. I mean really, how much of a warning does the man need?

The writing, especially in the early going, is spare without being economical. “His needs turn out to be quite light, after all, light and fleeting, like those of a butterfly.” Aside from sounding clichéd, this isn’t very effective. A butterfly’s movement may be light and fleeting, but I wouldn’t say the same for its needs. Then there is David’s imagination of a man castrating himself with a knife: “an ugly sight, but no more ugly, from a certain point of view, than the same man exercising himself on the body of a woman.” I know this is meant to tie in with some of the novel’s themes, but I still wonder who that “certain point of view” might belong to. An ex-wife? A feminist academic?

But I’m happy to say that things do improve. Once the action gets out of Cape Town the story comes into a richer focus, gaining in both depth and outline. Much like the previous year’s Booker winner, Amsterdam, it presents itself as a kind of moral fable. All-in-all it is a harsher book than McEwan’s, while at the same time being less clear-cut. The difference may be one of place. Disgrace may not be typical of South African writing, but a moral vision so frankly accepting of violence, seeing suffering as a greater virtue than justice, would seem odd in a novel set almost anywhere else.

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