Disgrace by J.M.Coetzee

Disgrace is a 1999 Booker Prize winning novel by J.M. Coetzee. Oddly despite having notched up two Booker prizes (Disgrace and Life and Times of Michael K in 1983) and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003 amongst other accolades, Coetzee hadn’t featured on my radar before recently when I picked up my copy of Disgrace in a charity shop. I’m now really pleased that I happened upon this novel as I found it to be a bit of a gem.

The protagonist of Disgrace is 52 year old Professor David Lurie, a complicated character who whilst being a learned teacher of Romantic poetry at a Cape Town university is also consumed by an almost uncontrollable desire for women. An affair with a student gets him into hot water and he moves to the country to stay with his daughter Lucy with the purpose of finding some kind of refuge from the repercussions of his dalliance. David and Lucy’s relationship is put under pressure after a violent incident occurs and the novel explores their emotional conflicts against the backdrop of South African countryside where there is a constant undercurrent of violence and cultural differences become starkly highlighted.

For me, Disgrace definitely earned it’s Booker Prize-winning status. It’s a novel that marries complex emotional issues with a skilful writing style which gets you right into the head of David and keeps you turning the pages. It’s descriptive but not flowery, poignant but not sentimental and addresses the societal issues in South Africa as a fluid part of the storyline. The character of David reminded me a little bit of Humbert Humbert in Lolita in his sort of blind pursuance of the university student Melanie. At the outset he was both distasteful and pitiably human and as the book continues and he and Lucy’s lives are disrupted I found myself empathizing with his frustration and confusion. I actually found it hard to associate with his daughter Lucy, but I think that this is for a reason – after the event that happens she is changed indelibly and even before that her mindset is markedly different as a result of living out in the sticks by a set of unsaid rules that she in part makes for herself and has imposed on her. I didn’t like her, but she was a very real person in my mind when I read the book and an effective character.

Disgrace is a short novel at just over 200 pages and I think that Coetzee got the length just right. I found it a quick read, but with what was covered almost felt as if I’d read something much longer. A sort of Tardis of a book that packs in so much in just a few pages. This is quite a hard-hitting book with some shocking scenes, but not gratuitously so. Coetzee wastes no words and everything is appropriate to the story he tells. Don’t read this if you want something light-hearted but equally don’t be put off. I felt it was a novel that opened my eyes but also kept me gripped. I’ll definitely read more Coetzee and although it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, I highly recommend Disgrace.

Have you read any Coetzee novels or plan to? If you have, what did you think?

23 responses to “Disgrace by J.M.Coetzee

  1. What an excellent review. I have not yet read this Coetzee but now really want to and I should as I have had it for ages. I read his book Summertime during last years heatwave by the lido so despite its darkness and slight oodness (its a fiction novel of someone writing Coetzee’s biography) I have happy memories of it. This is a soon to be read for me.

  2. I think I have both this and The Life and Times of Michael K on my shelves but I never got around to cracking them open. Now I better get Disgrace off my shelves and on to my bedside after reading this review. Thanks.

  3. I haven’t read this one yet, but hope to soon. I wasn’t a fan of Summertime, but hope Disgrace will be better, as it has a more conventional writing style.

    • Yes, I think you might like it, the writing style is straightforward as you say. I’ll be curious to hear what you think when you get around to it!

  4. I haven’t read any Coetzee yet either. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed Disgrace, I’ve been a bit curious about it.

  5. I read Summertime last year and loved it. It was actually my favorite to win the Booker, even if Coetzee has won twice already. The premise was a bit strange, but it was readable and really interesting. It led me to lots of musings on the nature of biography and autobiography. Disgrace will probably be my next Coetzee because I’ve heard such good things about it.

    • I hope you like it, especially as it’s quite a different style by the sounds of things. I will have to keep an eye open for Summertime in the library.

  6. I did a module on South Africa at uni and we had to read this book as part of the course, I thought it was really interesting and I agree that Coetzee only puts in the shocking scenes where they are really needed. I haven’t read any of his other books but I think this one deserved all of the praise that it received.

    • I’m glad you think so too! That must have been an interesting module to study – South Africa seems a fascinating but dangerous place.

  7. I read this book sometime last year. A great introduction to Coetzee. The racism issue was especially close to my heart.

    • Hi Mee. It really does highlight the differences and problems quite starkly doesn’t it. I see you’ve reviewed it so I shall pop over and have a look!

  8. I’ve read Disgrace, Summertime and Diary of a Bad Year – remains my favourite, although it’s a difficult one to read. I love Coetzee’s style of writing, and his works are normally thought-provoking and insightful.

  9. Great review, Polly! Disgrace was one of my favourites of last year; I was blown away by how Coetzee could achieve something so profound and intelligent with such sparseness. I agree that Lucy wasn’t very likable or meant to me; I didn’t understand her or was fully sympathetic to her as a character but the trauma of her experience was heat-wrenching.

    Summertime is exceptionally good on the nature of writing and the privacy of the writer and is a very erudite novel. I have Life and Times of Michael K lined up to read next.

  10. This was the first Coetzee I have read and by far the best I have read.

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  13. coetzee’s disgrace grapples with post-apartheid disgrace,effectively affirming the dangers of anticipating a complete reversal of fortunes from whites to blacks.it demonstrates the uneasy tensions which should be redressed if south africa is to embrace the rainbow.

    • Thanks for popping by with your thoughts Robert. I thought it was very effective at conveying these themes too.

  14. i am reading this novel currently as one of my study novels for master’s degree at egerton university,kenya..the book paints a microcosm of contemporary south africa with changing configurations on land ownership and contestation of guilt and shame,redemption and blame in the post-apartheid era.the novel’s portrayal of rape can be compared to zakes mda’s portrayal of the violation of black women’s sexuality during the apartheid era.in both novels,sexuality is a powerful tool in contesting power in the post-apartheid period.

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