Replete with strong themes of family, love, violence and scandal, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee is surprising and unnerving, leaving the reader anxious and shocked with each turn of the page. Disgrace is a brilliant insight into the mind of a perplexing man. To an outsider, he is the plain professor, the scholar; normality and monotony make up his daily life. However, Coetzee lets the reader peer inside the mind of this man, a man struggling with indecent sexual desires, growing accustomed to old age and a lack of personal relationships, all with a destructive, blunt and obscene, yet comical outlook on life.
After a sexual affair with a student causes Professor David Lurie to lose his job at Cape Technical University, he starts to roam a seemingly hopeless path towards self-acceptance, and begins to grasp at the last straws to mend and find meaning in the only personal relationship he has left, the one with his lesbian daughter, Lucy. He decides to make a prolonged visit to his daughter Lucy at her “smallholding” in South Africa, and there ensues an inner battle of personal growth. Lurie actively struggles against becoming a better person, wanting to stay exactly as he is—a very stubborn and self-righteous man. But everything changes when an unexpected and violent event sets the tone for the rest of the novel.
Caught between conflicting emotions of personal desire and fatherly devotion, Lurie is forced to work through his moral demons while desperately trying to help his daughter cope with the violent act that occurs during his visit.
Coetzee writes with solidity and a simplicity that immediately draws the reader in. His language, lyrically ominous, keeps the reader on edge, wondering what could possibly happen next, and in a way, shapes the reader themselves to see the world for what it truly is. There is no silver lining. Reading each page is like taking the pin out of a hand grenade, with a moment of tranquility, as if it should be read in a whisper, right before the explosion. If readers let down their guard during these few tranquil moments, they will get smacked in the face with sudden and crude imagery and unexpected outbursts of passion and violence. Coetzee does not let readers think for a moment that they are safe, because as soon as they do, they are surprised with another hair-raising twist that will leave their eyes wide and eager for more.
Disgrace is a very appropriate title for this novel. Perceptions of being a disgrace to society and oneself shape the content from sentence to sentence, page to page, and involve every character from beginning to end. The character development is fantastic, raising philosophical questions such as inhumane animal treatment, issues of race, and much, much more, forcing readers to reflect on their own lives and their own values.
Once anybody, of any age, any religion, any background, picks up this book, they will be challenged and tested and forced into self-reflection just as Lurie and Lucy are. The reader becomes one with the story, inhabits the characters’ lives, their feelings. This is a novel that is impossible to close once it has been opened, and continues to haunt the reader long after the last sentence has been read.
John Maxwell Coetzee is a native of Cape Town, South Africa, and studied at the University of Cape Town for his undergraduate and graduate degrees, then got his PhD at the University of Texas in Austin. He has a wife and two children, and is currently living in Adelaide, South Australia.
Disgrace won Coetzee the Booker Prize in 1993, making him the first writer to win it twice. Disgrace was also made into a major motion picture starring John Malkovich. His other Booker Prize winning novel is Life & Times of Michael K. Also, his novel In the Heart of the Country (1977) won South Africa’s then principle literary award, the CNA Prize.
“Written in a deceptively spare prose that lets an eerie story unfold, Disgrace is a revelatory, must-read portrayal of racial fortunes reversed.” –USA Today
“[Coetzee’s] mastery of literary technique is peerless, his seriousness is unimpeachable, and he is one of the most intellectually sophisticated novelists writing today.” –The Washington Post
“One suspects that Disgrace will continue to perplex and disturb long after South Africa, and the rest of our worlds, find the path back to grace.” –Los Angeles TimesKayla Patnaude served as a student intern at the Writers Institute for the summer of 2012 through UAlbany’s Community and Public Service Program.