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?