I randomly picked this up off my shelf, thinking, I’ll read the first few pages and see if I want to put it on my next-to-read list. A couple hours later I was halfway through the novel.
Written by Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace, winner of the Booker Prize in 1999, is a personal story set in post-apartheid South Africa. David Lurie is a professor at Cape Town Technical University, teaching the British Romantics and Communications 101. His desire for a female student leads him down a path that ultimately ends in his exile from the university. With no where to go in particular, he visits his grown daughter, who lives on a farm and runs a dog kennel in the uplands of the Eastern Cape. While living on the farm with his daughter, a terrible crime is perpetrated, with the rest of the novel exploring how David tries to make sense of his daughter, himself, and the society in which they now live.
The novel possesses a sparse prose style, with each sentence perfectly framed and executed. But for a literary novel, it doesn’t lack on meaningful action or plot either, with several strands of story interweaving with one another, compelling the reader at almost the pace of a thriller.
The novel begins with “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well,” brings to mind a few thoughts. The idea of sex as a problem is quite interesting in itself, but solving that perceived problem is one that quickly begins to unravel once David’s desire for a younger woman takes hold. David Lurie is a bit of a reprobate, with his last name suggesting to me the word lurid. In regards to his actions toward his student Melanie, he is somewhat unaware of how his advances are viewed by the opposite sex. And though he is willing to admit guilt once he is brought before a University tribunal, he’s unwilling to confess any contriteness for what he has done. The viewpoint of the novel is well balanced between being uncomfortable and sympathetic, leaving the reader to pass moral judgments.
But as the novel progresses to the country and farm where a terrible crime takes place, against both David and his daughter Lucy, it brings a harrowing counterbalance to David’s missteps, where moral judgments are encouraged, though fraught with complexities in a post-apartheid South Africa. There is a bit of exploration regarding “white guilt” and it’s interweaving of “victim’s guilt,” where it seems to suggest that the sins of the fathers justifies the crimes perpetrated. To use an English class cliché, this is a “reductionist” reading of the moral complexity this novel tackles, but those ideas are in the mix among this searing portrait of human nature.
The copy I read was the Folio Society edition, printed on Abbey Wove paper, bound in cloth, with an introduction by Christopher Hope and illustrations by Andrew Gibson. It’s a nice standard edition typical of the Folio Society for the contemporary fiction they produce. The art by Gibson reflects the starkness of the prose without being distracting to the novel itself. The introduction by Hope is excellent, providing great insights. In speaking about South Africa after the election of Nelson Mandela, he says,
An election, however, is not an exorcism. In the apartheid era people were classified as superfluous ‘appendages,’ and disposed of like so much rubbish. Yet suddenly it seemed better to forget how deadly things had been for so long, in the hopes of going forward peacefully. The prevailing ideas at the time might be summed up as: amnesty for the culpable; amnesia for everyone else.
Disgrace will have none of it. In this most fierce of his novels, J.M. Coetzee demolishes the pretence that cruelty and murder, customary instruments of policy for centuries, may be expunged by the arrival of a new and better government. No other South African novel has been so admired abroad and so excoriated at home….A dozen years after it first appeared, Disgrace still disturbs and confounds.
Even though Disgrace is a disturbing read, it is compelling and engaging and worth one’s time.