on 3 January 2013
For me, the most intriguing and beguiling aspect of this novel is not the apparently controversial picture it paints of post-apartheid South Africa but the skill with which Coetzee draws us into a deepening understanding of, and sympathy with, his disgraced anti-hero David Lurie's relationships with women. All but one of these women are , at best, two dimensional ~ ex-wife Rosalind, rabid feminist power-woman Rassool, part-time prostitute Soraya, animal lover Bev, lesbian Helen, and of course, the naive victim Melanie. These women are caricatures not because of any limitations in Coetzee's skill as a writer but because we are only allowed to see them through Lurie's eyes. We are invited to share the strength of Lurie's emotional responses to these women ~ boredom, anger, duty, lust irritation ~ which, like the women themselves, are strongly felt but lack any real depth. Lucy, Lurie's daughter is the only woman with whom Lurie has a complex relationship,the only woman whom Lurie loves unconditionally and the only woman who is fully drawn. It is by no means incidental that he is prevented from defending her violation because he is locked in a toilet.....such a dismissive cruelty by the author. Reduced in the end to accepting a relationship of "visitorship" with his daughter, Lurie attempts to pour all of his inarticulate feelings about love and loss into an opera but only succeeds in retreating into a bathetic fantasy world where the cries of his operatic creation Theresa for her dead lover Byron are accompanied by the plinking of a toy banjo. After the first few pages of this novel I disliked Lurie intensely...ah yes, I thought, I know what sort of character he is, I have him taped. Towards the end of the novel I realised that in being so quick to dismiss, to define, to pigeon-hole and to caricature, I had done exactly what I had been so critical of Lurie for doing. And at the very end I recognised that his flaws are a pre-condition of his humanity.
on 17 January 2011
Underneath the troubling and bleak subject matter of Disgrace bubbles a power and a beauty subtly infusing it with hope. It is far from uplifting but the writer creates a space where nothing is definitive, not ourselves nor our politics. This is the space where possibility, and therefore hope, are born.
Set in post-apartheid South Africa, written in prose that is spare and precise, Disgrace explores the nature of power and desire through the personal fall from grace of a white Capetown academic, David Lurie, and the subsequent rape of his daughter, Lucy, by three black men.
David, a fifty-two year old divorced Professor of Romantic Poetry and Communications believes he "has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well" until the prostitute he sees weekly discontinues their arrangement. Afraid he is losing his "magnetism" he approaches one of his students and coerces her into having an affair. Privately recognising that his advances were "not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core" he pleads guilty to the charges she eventually presses before the university but refuses to admit he was wrong. He later rests his case on "the rights of desire". It's difficult to discern, however, to what extent he believes this making him a fascinating character as we are never quite sure of who he is. Fired from his job and disgraced, he visits Lucy at her smallholding where both of them are attacked.
David is outraged by his daughter's rape. He is confounded by her refusal to press charges and by her rejection of his help to leave the isolated smallholding on which she lives as she considers instead the offer of "protection" from her progressive, black neighbour Petrus. This is a changed political landscape and through the microcosm of David and Lucy's relationship Coetzee ponders questions relating not only to South Africans but to us all. Both David and Lucy have reacted in a similar, stubborn fashion to their individual crises but neither understands the reasoning of the other. Are we destined, therefore, to unconsciously repeat the mistakes of our forefathers? Will we ever understand one another, or as in the case of David, will we ever understand ourselves? These and many other questions are woven into the fabric of this deceptively simple story imbuing it with a complexity that makes it great.
Many reviewers have seen Cotzee's vision of South Africa as nihilistic but I do not think he is as decided as all that. David is at first a very unappealing character, behaving in a solipsistic and cowardly manner but later revealing compassion and concern for both his daughter and the animals at the clinic in which he volunteers. After frequently avowing that he is too old to change he does just that as reflected in his different use of the word "enriching" in regard to his experiences of women. By refusing to judge David and by writing in the present tense Coetzee makes room for possibility. Disgrace is wonderful, challenging read. Don't miss it.
on 29 October 2009
It is interesting to read the reactions to Disgrace and particularly to its two main characters David Lurie and his daughter Lucy. Most readers seem to have a very poor opinion of Lurie and even those who do not overtly dislike him appear to agree that he is self-obsessed and/or some kind of sexual deviant. Surely it is closer to the truth to say that he is among the most genuinely realistic middle-aged male characters ever created. He is admittedly driven by some selfish instincts but is that not true of all people? Is Lurie not in fact a more admirable person because he understands himself, his desires and impulses? To criticise him is to criticise human-kind, well maybe man-kind and that is perhaps why some people find him so uncomfortable to read. His attitudes towards women form one of the novel's central tensions, the age-old struggle between the sexes. He is not unkind or unpleasant to the women in his life, quite the reverse usually, but he does, to an extent objectify and pursue them, like many men. Coetzee does not try to tell us whether this is right or wrong he simply presents it as fact and gives us the opportunity to think about it, to compare it with our own lives and to try to make sense of it.
In exactly the same way he invites us to consider Lucy's attitude as a white South African woman towards her black male attackers. To some people, including her father, her attitude is inexplicable. Instead of hating and seeking revenge she accepts the offence as some kind of inevitable consequence of the years of apartheid and simply refuses to even criticise her assailants. In complete contrast to her father's instinctive id driven life, she deeply feels the collective sins of her race and is anxious to atone for them. As uncomfortable and frustrating as this may be, given the crime she has experienced, she is as 'true' to herself in her way as her father is in his.
Coetzee's prose is masterful throughout and is matched by his ability to draw his reader into the complex lives of these people in this muddled and deeply damaged country. Disgrace is not an easy read and it does not offer any easy solutions, but it is extremely well constructed, deeply moving and constantly engaging.
on 23 June 2012
David Lurie, a professor with high but narrow principles, teaches the English Romantic poets at Cape Technical University. The 52 year-old Lurie is also twice divorced, a participant in numerous affairs, and a patron of prostitutes. He finds both truth and philosophical/aesthetic justification for his concupiscent ways in the work of Wordsworth and Byron and, to a lesser degree, Blake.
Long-story-short, Lurie risks an affair with a young student and then faces an ethical inquiry, which he basically stonewalls because he believes, not just teaches, that a man lives nobly as a "servant of Eros" and with "madness of the heart." The disgraced Lurie then visits his daughter Lucy, who lives alone at an isolated farm on the veldt. In Lucy's marginal world, David's high-minded principles, for which he staked his career, are irrelevant and inutile.
Regardless, David tries to behave honorably in the country, standing by his powerless daughter, who bears deep psychological scars from the divorce of her parents. He also continues to seek honorable expression for his aesthetic values and interests, which ultimately reach a moment of brutal honesty that Coetzee phrases perfectly through the fate of a loving but lame dog.
DISGRACE is a fine novel that explores the nature of aesthetic insights and moral responsibility, as well as the cost of survival. Highly recommended.
on 8 February 2012
Disgrace is a story about Professor David Lurie. Lurie is a sexually addicted fifty-two year old. Unable or unwilling to control his obsession, he has a liaison with one of his students. His relationship with the student is an exploitative one and she registers a complaint leading to his resignation as a Professor.
He moves to the East Cape to stay with his daughter, Lucy, with whom he has a difficult relationship and who clearly carries psychological scars from her father. She has little sense of self-worth. Father and daughter are attacked on her smallholding. Lucy is raped and becomes pregnant by one of the rapists.
The second arc of the story is the dystopian journey of the newly post-apartheid South Africa and the changing balance of power. The book tries to draw parallels between Lurie's disgrace and the parlous position of whites in rural South Africa.
The study of Lurie is an excellent one, but the parallels between his addiction and South Africa are overwrought, leading to some bizarre behaviour by both father and daughter which strain credibility. With such an excellent, if depressing, character study, I felt the book should have delivered more. We have no real idea of what Lurie's addiction is hiding him from. There is negligible context for his, or his daughter's, stories.
on 25 February 2014
Disgrace is both simple and difficult. Simply beautiful in its careful but sparse prose. Difficult as it wrestles with harsh and shocking realities in 1990s South Africa. This is a relatively short novel, and yet it deals with big issues. Its narrative and meaning are clear yet complex, and arguably none of the characters are as clear cut as fictional characters tend to be, but rather they are the multi-faceted and ambiguous characters of our mixed-up real world. Disturbing at times, this is a wonderful piece of writing richly deserving of being a winner of the Booker Prize.
A short novel, a Booker Prize winner, and one that I have been meaning to read for some time now. This is a very bleak novel with two main characters that it is really difficult to like or to empathise with. Despite that, the writing is gripping and I was drawn into the story almost instantly, not putting it down until I had come to the end a couple of hours later.
The main characters, David and Lucy are father and daughter, they have never had a close relationship and David goes to stay with Lucy on her farm after he leaves his job in disgrace. Their relationship grows stronger as they get to know each other and then almost disintegrates after they experience a terrible event together.
The events are quite disturbing and Coetzee's use of quite clipped writing really brings home the cold, stark horror of the events and the effects of these on the main characters.
on 7 February 2001
Disgrace is set in South Africa and centres on the life of ageing professor David Lurie and his daughter Lucy who runs a small farm in the remote countryside. Lurie embarks on a relationship at work which exploits his position of power, and his questionable morals are thrown into sharp relief by a sinister encounter at his daughter's farm. The book goes on to describe the uncomfortable father-daughter relationship which develops and analyses the behaviour of Lurie, a man at an important junction in his life. It also raises questions about race relations in post-aparteid South Africa, where the cultural divide still seems to be very marked.
I found it easier to pity Lurie rather than sympathise with him, which is sometimes a disadvantage in a main character. However, the writer's understanding of women's nature made Lucy come alive and my empathy for her meant that her actions were easier to understand and justify than Lurie's were. One of the book's strengths is its descriptive passages which allow the reader to build up a good picture of the setting and put the lives and often harsh actions of the characters into context.
I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys an engaging story. The essence of the book is quite dark, and there is not much to be upbeat about by the end of the novel. However, rather than be depressing, the book encourages you to question where your sympathies lie and seems to be some sort of lesson in moral standards.
on 28 October 1999
Disgrace' deals brilliantly with the distance between people - between men and women, between the white settler and the black history of Africa, between the intellectual and the petit bourgeois, between the 'thinker' and the feeler, between father and daughter.
David, the principal character, is an empty, desiccated, husk of a man. It would be easy to call him bitter, but it's hard to see what could have caused such bitterness, other than perhaps a thousand small disappointments amidst the waste of his life in this unwelcoming country. His primary emotions - those which drive him, which he controls - are calculating, callous, unfeeling. He regards Melanie (the student and cause of his downfall) less as a conquest than a trinket... he toys with the idea of making her more than this but is ultimately careless, in the literal sense of the word. Careless and uncaring in his attitudes, he is surprised by the anger which his actions stir up in others - her lover, her family, his colleagues. Even here, confronted by the collapse of the structure of his life - his job, his home, his colleagues - his reaction is lethargic, langorous. You wonder what could stir this man to a passionate response. A visit to his daughter Lucy in the veldt throws him into a different world, of barren heat and dust, hardship, dogs, and a simmering antipathy between the white settlers of the land and the black natives who are gradually reasserting themselves. It also brings an experience which even he cannot shrug off - the brutal robbery and violation of his daughter, and an assault on himself by fire which he leaves him stunned, and in some ways ridiculous, his hair burned away, his head half shrouded by bandages. The experience ages him too...
Themes of heat, dust, fire and dryness persist through this novel. There are echoes of older writers in the descriptions of the wasted landscapes - like Eliot's Gerontion, he is suddenly an old man in a dry month, in a country which, in an ironic counterpoint to Yeats, is 'no country for old men'.
None of the themes or narrative lines in the book is brought to completion. There is no resolution, no satisfaction, for the protagonists or the reader. That David is a Professor of Communications is an obvious irony - every line of communication (or reconciliation later in the novel) evaporates in the heat or disappears into the dust - with Melanie's family, with Bev, with his ex-wife, with Melanie herself. The men in the book behave like jackals throughout, preying on women... the men who rape David's daughter differ only in degree from David himself. Lucy's feeling that in some sense her assailants have a right to avail themselves of her is echoed by David's assumption of droit de seigneur over his students. Small, passing cruelties between men and women recur through the book...
This is a bleak and nihilistic book, which leaves the impression that there is little hope for relations between peoples in Africa... and little enough for relations between peoples elsewhere. At the end of the book, as David, reduced to nothing, begins to develop his opera - Byron in Italy - the possibility of redemption through passion, love and longing arises. Eventually, though, even this is reduced to a terrible howl of pain and loneliness, echoed by the confined and doomed dogs at the clinic, howling at the moon from their dusty kennels, accompanied by the thin, mechanical clank of David's banjo. The final scene, as David condemns his last dog to death, is like the flickering of a flame being snuffed out, and almost unbearably sad - the last gesture of love and affection which the dog has shown him destroyed with the animal.
on 24 May 2000
This is a depressing read! One by one, the ideals of a modern, liberal society - education, tolerance, justice, dignity - are stripped away. And the thin veneer of civilization gives way to the elemantal and destructive forces that lie not far beneath society's surface. It is interesting that I was left feeling that it was the white characters in the novel who had somehow been abused - that their descent into chaos was somehow more appalling than the lot of the black characters who have borne injustice for generations. Coetzee cleverly plays on our fears of the norm being overturned - however unjust - and induces helpelessness both in his white characters (the 'dogs') and his readers. This is not an enjoyable book, but it is thought provoking.