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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Re-reading JM Coetzee’s Disgrace

Disgrace won the 1999 Booker Prize and I probably read it that year, perhaps in 2000, I don’t remember. It would certainly be among the top three novels to win that prize in the last decade.

He has not taken to Bev Shaw, a dumpy, bustling little woman with black freckles, close-cropped, wiry hair, and no neck. He does not like women who make no effort to be attractive. It is a resistance he has had to Lucy’s friends before. Nothing to be proud of; a prejudice that has settled in his mind, settled down. His mind has become a refuge for old thoughts, idle, indigent, with nowhere else to go. He ought to chase them out, sweep the premises clean. But he does not care to do so, or does not care enough.

Exiled to an isolated farm after being sacked from his professorial post at the University of Capetown, David Lurie, middle-aged and twice divorced, moves in with his daughter, Lucy. But shortly after his arrival the isolated farm is raided by three men who rape his daughter and try to burn Lurie alive. They shoot the dogs and eventually load up his car with all they can plunder from the house and make their getaway, leaving him and his daughter humiliated and in a state of extreme shock.

Political and historical forces shape our lives in a totally impersonal way. In this novel Coetzee deals with his vision of post-Apartheid South Africa embedded in the life of David Lurie and his friends and relations. We watch as Lurie is broken apart by the forces playing with his life and know that he will only find a grain of redemption when he gives up his illusions and begins to accept the reality of his situation.

David Lurie’s story is a journey mirrored by the transition of Mandela’s South Africa; the country moves from tyranny to anarchy, the man from a hazy and liberally romantic lifestyle to a hospice for unwanted dogs.

And all is rendered in a spare prose style that exactly matches the interiority of the main character.

The book won an unprecedented second Booker Prize for JM Coetzee in 1999, almost a decade after the release of Nelson Mandela and the beginning of the dismantling of Apartheid.

10 Responses to “Re-reading JM Coetzee’s Disgrace”

  1. Nils says:

    I’m slightly ashamed to say that I’ve still not read anything by Coetzee. I’ve wanted to for a long time, but always something has come up. Perhaps next time I drop by the library, I’ll take one home (that’s in a few days or weeks at most). I’ve been saying this for years now. Perhaps appropriate for Coetzee – read on.

    I remember seeing Coetzee interviewed in the Dutch series ‘Van de schoonheid en de troost’ (‘Of Beauty and Consolation’) – a wonderful set of long talks between its presenter Wim Kayzer and several of the most amazing guests.

    There’s a list of them with soundbites here (don’t know how good your Dutch is these days, but most of them speak English anyway) and the Coetzee episode can be viewed in its entirety here (you’ll see ‘video’ and a small animated logo to the centre right).

    To me the Coetzee episode is amazing (as are some of the others, but it’s Coetzee who’s relevant here). The way the interview goes on and on, at different locations, but never finds focus or closure, with Coetzee always postponing, thinking, wandering off in his mind. Enough said, it’s beautiful, watch it 😉 If you liked it, do let me know what you thought of it…

    PS isn’t there something wrong with your dates in this post – 1990-1999?

    jb says: Yes, there was something wrong with my dates, but I’ve fixed it. Thank you for bring it to my attention. Your links were interesting, at least the parts that were in English. My Dutch is not feasible, I’m afraid. I liked what he said about the task of finding himself as an animal, locating himself outside of the prison of history. But much of what he had to say in the interview was fascinating, especially as he was extremely uncomfortable with many of the questions, describing the interview form as torture because it meant he had to answer without reflection. Thanks again, it’s good to have the link, and I’m sure I’ll look at it again quite soon.

    But you really should have a look at at least one of Coetzee’s books. He is something special.

    Although, on a personal level, there is something monk-like about him. He abstains from tobacco, alcohol and meat, rides over vast distances on a bike, rarely smiles, and has been known to sit through an entire dinner engagement without speaking a single word.

    I was at a lecture by him recently when someone’s phone went off half-way through one of Coatzee’s readings. He stopped reading and waited. He said nothing, but looked directly at the woman concerned. I (and a couple of hundred other people in the room) said a silent prayer of thanks that it wasn’t me.

  2. Lee says:

    I must listen to these, Nils, and thanks for the links. I second JB – Coetzee is absolutely amazing, and having lived in southern Africa for many years, I can only say that he captures utterly so much of its essence and (as yet) failed promise, as well as so much more about all of us. I always like to pair Disgrace with Waiting for the Barbarians, not just thematically, but because of the range of voices he’s mastered within this context, and how his voices support what else he does.

    That protracted silence at a lecture: a lesson I learned in Africa!

    jb says: OK, Lee, I’ve put Waiting for the Barbarians on my reading list. It’s now several hours since I watched the video and I still have the image of Coetzee squirming at the interviewer’s questions, as if he was being physically tortured.

  3. Nils says:

    Glad you liked it. I’ve watched bits of it again this afternoon and indeed ‘love’ the way he can’t seem to fit in that blatant medium that is TV – so harsh and direct. I do understand him in that.

    Then I went out for some errands and… picked up Disgrace (for 10 euro) on the way home. Can’t say when I’ll get to it, because I have still so much more in queue, but at least we’re one step further: it’s here, in the house waiting to be got to.

    I almost feel Coetzee-esque (if that’s a word) in my faltering attempts to tackle the man (I won’t even start about Gravity’s Rainbow)

    Thanks for the post. One man’s re-reading can become another’s discovery it seems.

    jb says: Listen to them bells, Nils. The whole world, it seems, wants you to put that book on the top of your pile.

  4. dharini says:

    Hi…i am a huge admirer of Coetzee’s works…in the midst of “Foe”, which i believe is among his best…Coetzee is particularly remarkable with female protagonists. I wasn’t able to open the link to the audio pieces…dunno why…it’s hard to even imagine Coetzee giving an interview…does anyone here have his email id?


    jb says: Hi Dharini. I also read Foe a couple of years ago, but didn’t get on with it as well as some of the others. I tried the video link again just now and works fine for me. Have you got javascript enabled on your computer?

  5. Impressionist says:

    The interview is an excellent piece of information for people who admire John Coetzee. Disgrace was the first Coetzee book that I read; it raised a lot of questions about the man who had written it. So I started finding out all that was said by Coetzee; through interviews etc. Sadly there wasn’t much; the recluse that John is he hardly gives any interviews; and his explanation on the interview format being “incompatible” with him is fairly understandable as he “likes to have certain perfection in his responses”. Apart from the Dutch TV interview; which I guess is the best resource of information I have on Coetzee; there is another interesting interview and reading from Youth here.

    Despite the fact that John is a recluse and its difficult to extract much from him about his own life and its influence on his works; I guess if any one is interested in knowing about him, his books are the best resources. From Boyhood to Youth to Disgrace to Elizabeth Costello and now Inner Workings. I guess all of these draw heavily upon Coetzee’s own life. I have read only Youth, Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello; and I find that a lot of information about the man’s life and mind is available from there.

    In a way I identify with Coetzee to a great sense; my perception is that he is a very confused man; understandably so as he is a perfectionist and instead of accepting a theory or a philosophy which can not prove itself to him; he prefers to remain confused. He doesn’t attempt to preach and provide answers in his works, as probably he understands that there are no write answers. His life seems to have been a continuous struggle with himself more than with anyone else. The world by and large does not seem to bother him after he reached a certain age. I guess, even if he does not dislike human beings; he does not have agreat amount of love for them either. This despite the fact that he is so sensitive to and aware of the human suffering. To my mind he expects a certain level of dignity for every human being irrespective of their backgrounds and political / ideological allegiences.

    I guess he is recluse because he understands the futility of it all; futility of fame; because of the changes it may bring into him. There is something that this man knows and has realized which we all are not aware of as yet.

    If I get to speak with him some day; what a conversation it would be!!

  6. Impressionist says:

    i hope you have been able to access the links by now. I have downloaded version of the interview (which i was able to do after weeks of R&D). the file is pretty bulky in Real format (100+ MB). in 3gp format its around 10 MB or less. so if you can’t get to see the interview; let me know’ we can find a way to share the video.

    Can somebody tell me a little about John’s latest “Inner Workings”. the book is pretty costly here in India, and i was wondering how it is…

    PS – In the last post it should have been “there are no right answers” instead of “there are no write answers”.

    Apologies for the same.

  7. I picked up this book “Disgrace” while housesitting for a 50’ish bachelor in California. What an excellent and spare writer this South African is! However, what struck me as a member of a very multicultural area of my own, the Bay Area of San Francisco, is the complete lack of backbone in this character, David Lurie. In the end, he has no real guts to stand up for himself, to fight for his daughter, to deal with ex-wives or colleagues with any real gumption. In this regard, I see the decline of South Africa, the giving in to chaos, anarchy, black-on-white raping and violence, destruction of the white farmers, etc. as embodied in this seemingly diffident professor. Educated man? Yes! Backbone, guts, common sense, emotional maturity, no!

    SO his decline into his own despair, through volunteer work with dogs to be put down, his deigning to sleep with a woman he finds unattractive (though years younger than him…), I find the typical indulgence of an individual who has in his youth had great arrogance, a belief in his own superiority, vanity, intolerance regarding women. Only in his 50’s when no one looks at him anymore, when no woman turns her head and returns his smiles, when his students don’t listen and look through him, when his wives have left him and even his “ho” rejects him, then he begins a journey of anguish, as the white people of South Africa are now doing.

    On the other hand, this story is so well written, such a metaphor for many other parts of life and parts of the world undergoing cultural decline, that anyone could enjoy reading it.

    I didn’t think that 52 is considered old, but perhaps for men in South Africa, if 30 is old in a woman, then 52 is ancient in a man. I have never been there, but in some ways it sounds stuck in a timewarp, mentally, especially as regards women. His poor daughter doesn’t even try to fight back, or leave the farm, just accepts that she will have biracial children as a third wife of a former dogman! She has to give up the land as a DOWRY! She is allowed to “keep the house”! And the fact that she is lesbian, did not desire to sleep with any man, is ironic: does it represent the old South Africa, which wanted nothing really to do with the nonwhites, esp. blacks, getting forcibly raped by them, one even wrong in the head, so that the country is forced to submit to a new race’s rule!? Violence and rape will win Africa for the blacks, yippiee!


  8. Hicham says:

    Lurie is a tired man. Self indulgent. One morning, he wakes up and realized abruptly that he is a man of the past. What has he done? What has he written? Since then he pursues his disgrace and when he meets it through Melanie he welcomes it like a grace. He seeks to meet Melanie’s father to thank him for the disgrace he brought him. Whithout which no redemption and without redemption, no creation, no operas, no writings.

    The scenes in his daughter’s farm, the animal hospice, the black and white conflict are not central. They just operate as a catalyst.


  9. alanna says:

    i have just read disgrace, finally. in 2008. having been married to a brown south african man from cape town for past 3 years, i really felt i ought to!!! i loved it and agree with the learned comments above 😉

    (i am a white middle class over-educated australian, who speaks 5 languages but not dutch)

    i saw coetzee here in sydney not long after he emigrated to australia (lives in adelaide hills i believe – full of german wine-growers, not unlike stellenbosch and paarl i imagine, in bygone years).

    he did not read anything from his novels, but rather an essay he’d written on a children’s story (i forget which – maybe wind in the willows or alice in wonderland). he was just as weird as you guys described. not broken, but restrained.

    i am now going to read his earlier books – our little local library has absolutely everything of his.

    it helps now to be married to a south african – to understand bits of afrikaans slang and refs to cape town suburbs. but mostly to understand the whole mess that is “legacy of apartheid”.

    the bride price/dowry thing – that is universal in black africa (not just in south africa), well-known i thought.

    But even the most privileged white south africans (who moved to Sydney 15 years ago) are morally and socially at my grandparents’ level. That is, they have been stuck in a time warp since 1930s. I mean they are pre everything, certainly pre-feminism. The flipside is, of course, that they are not confused – men known what men are supposed to do, women the same, and chidlren are allowed a childhood, unlike here in the west where 5 year old girls now dress like paris hilton. Women do not feel like they are missing anything, they “know their place”.

    If I were a lesbian however I would not live there except for the mardi gras thing in Cape Town – it rivals ours here, I hear.

    anyway, that’s my 2 cents’ worth!

    jb says: Hi Alanna. Good to hear from you and good, also, that you enjoyed the book. It is something special. Why do I think your post is going to be a little controversial?

  10. ashmita says:

    In this great book, Coetzee explores the various connotations of ‘Disgrace’- Lurie is disgraced at his workplace because of his short lived affair with his students. He is sacked on the basis of a complaint by his ex-girl friend.
    ‘Disgrace’ however has no meaning in the suburbs of South Africa, where his daughter is rapes and impregnated by local thugs. These thugs go scot-free- and even enjoy a sense of righteousness.
    So it is interesting to note how the meaning of ‘disgrace’ changes with time, place and society. Coetzee’s book is a genius in its genre.