Disgrace (novel)

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This article is about the novel. For the film based on the novel, see Disgrace (film).
Disgrace
JMCoetzee Disgrace.jpg
First UK edition cover
Author J. M. Coetzee
Country South Africa
Language English
Genre Novel
Publisher Secker & Warburg (UK)
Publication date
1 July 1999
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 218 pp (first edition, hardback)
ISBN ISBN 0-436-20489-4 (first edition, hardback)
OCLC 43554616
823/.914 21
LC Class PR9369.3.C58 D5 1999b

Disgrace is a novel by J. M. Coetzee, published in 1999. It won the Booker Prize. The writer was also awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature four years after its publication.

Plot summary[edit]

David Lurie is a South African professor of English who loses everything: his reputation, his job, his peace of mind, his good looks, his dreams of artistic success, and finally even his ability to protect his own daughter. He is twice-divorced and dissatisfied with his job as a 'communications' lecturer, teaching one class in romantic literature at a technical university in Cape Town in post-apartheid South Africa. His "disgrace" comes when he almost forcibly seduces one of his more vulnerable students, a girl named Melanie Isaacs. This affair is thereafter revealed to the school and a committee is convened to pass judgement on his actions. David refuses to apologize in any sincere form and so is forced to resign from his post. Lurie is working on a play concerning Lord Byron's final phase of life in Italy which mirrors his own life in that Byron is living a life of hedonism and excess and is having an affair with a married woman, and "the irony is that he comes to grief from an escapade that Byron would have thought distinctly timid."[1]

He is dismissed from his teaching position, after which he takes refuge on his daughter's farm in the Eastern Cape. For a time, his daughter's influence and natural rhythms of the farm promise to harmonise his discordant life. But the balance of power in the country is shifting. Shortly after becoming comfortable with rural life, he is forced to come to terms with the aftermath of an attack on the farm in which his daughter is raped and impregnated and he is violently assaulted. The novel also concerns David's interaction with a few other characters – Bev, an animal welfare and healer of sorts, and Lucy's former farmhand Petrus, the self-described "dog-man" who lives on the neighbouring property, who took care of his daughter's dogs. David remains on the farm far past his welcome in order to try to keep his daughter safe, but instead finds himself apathetic and demoralized yet on a journey towards redemption.

Reception and interpretation[edit]

According to The Guardian, "[a]ny novel set in post-apartheid South Africa is fated to be read as a political portrait, but the fascination of Disgrace is the way it both encourages and contests such a reading by holding extreme alternatives in tension, salvation, ruin."[1] In the new South Africa, violence is unleashed in new ways, and Lurie and his daughter become victims, yet the main character is no hero; on the contrary, he commits violence in his own way too. This characterization of violence by both the 'white' and the 'black' man parallels feelings in post-apartheid South Africa where evil does not belong to the 'other' alone. By resisting the relegation of each group into positive and negative poles Coetzee portrays the whole range of human capabilities and emotions. The novel takes its inspiration from South Africa's contemporary social and political conflict, and offers a bleak look at a country in transition. This theme of transition is represented in various forms throughout the novel, in David's loss of authority, loss of sexuality, in the change in power dynamics of groups that were once solely dominate or subordinate, in the shift in material wealth etc.[2]

As in all of his mature novels, Coetzee here deals with the theme of exploitation. His favorite approach has been to explore the innocuous-seeming use of another person to fill one's gentler emotional needs.[3] This is a story of both regional and universal significance. The central character is a confusing person, at once an intellectual snob who is contemptuous of others and also a person who commits outrageous mistakes. His story is also local; he is a white South African male in a world where such men no longer hold the power they once did. He is forced to rethink his entire world at an age when he believes he is too old to change and, in fact, should have a right not to.[4] This theme, about the challenges of aging both on an individual and societal level, leads to a line, "No country, this, for old men," an ironic reference to the opening line of the W. B. Yeats poem, "Sailing to Byzantium". Furthermore, Lurie calls his preference for younger women a "right of desire", a quote taken up by South African writer André Brink for his novel "The Rights of Desire".

This is Coetzee's second book (after Life and Times of Michael K) where man is broken down almost to nothing before he finds some tiny measure of redemption in his forced acceptance of the realities of life and death.[5] Coetzee has always situated his characters in extreme situations that compel them to explore what it means to be human.[6] Though the novel is sparse in style, it covers a number of topics: personal shame, the subjugation of women, a changing country, animal rights, and romantic poetry and its symbolism.[7]

Another important theme in the novel is the difficulty or impossibility of communication and the limits of language. Although Lurie teaches communications at Cape Town Technical University and is a scholar of poetry, language often fails him. Coetzee writes:

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.[8]

A 2006 poll of "literary luminaries" by The Observer newspaper named the work as the "greatest novel of the last 25 years" of British, Irish or Commonwealth origin in years between 1980 and 2005.[9]

A film adaptation of Disgrace starring John Malkovich had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2008, where it won the International Critics' Award.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Adam Mars-Jones (1999-11-25). "Guardian review of Disgrace". London: Books.guardian.co.uk. Retrieved 2011-06-06. 
  2. ^ the complete review – all rights reserved. "Complete Review of Books". Complete-review.com. Retrieved 2011-06-06. 
  3. ^ Christian Century Review[dead link]
  4. ^ "Mostly Fiction Review". Mostlyfiction.com. Retrieved 2011-06-06. 
  5. ^ "A Moderated Bliss". Issuu.com. 2010-12-07. Retrieved 2011-06-06. 
  6. ^ "Salon Books Review". Salon.com. 1999-11-05. Retrieved 2011-06-06. 
  7. ^ New York Times Review
  8. ^ Coetzee, J.M. (1999). Disgrace. Penguin. pp. 3–4. ISBN 0-670-88731-5. 
  9. ^ Robert McCrum (2006-10-09). "The Observer poll of novels". London: Books.guardian.co.uk. Retrieved 2011-06-06. 

External links[edit]

Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Amsterdam
Booker Prize recipient
1999
Succeeded by
The Blind Assassin