Disgrace (Penguin Essential Editions)

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9780143036371: Disgrace (Penguin Essential Editions)

Set in post-apartheid South Africa, J. M. Coetzee’s searing novel tells the story of David Lurie, a twice divorced, 52-year-old professor of communications and Romantic Poetry at Cape Technical University. Lurie believes he has created a comfortable, if somewhat passionless, life for himself. He lives within his financial and emotional means. Though his position at the university has been reduced, he teaches his classes dutifully; and while age has diminished his attractiveness, weekly visits to a prostitute satisfy his sexual needs. He considers himself happy. But when Lurie seduces one of his students, he sets in motion a chain of events that will shatter his complacency and leave him utterly disgraced.

Lurie pursues his relationship with the young Melaniewhom he describes as having hips “as slim as a twelve-year-old’s”obsessively and narcissistically, ignoring, on one occasion, her wish not to have sex. When Melanie and her father lodge a complaint against him, Lurie is brought before an academic committee where he admits he is guilty of all the charges but refuses to express any repentance for his acts. In the furor of the scandal, jeered at by students, threatened by Melanie’s boyfriend, ridiculed by his ex-wife, Lurie is forced to resign and flees Cape Town for his daughter Lucy’s smallholding in the country. There he struggles to rekindle his relationship with Lucy and to understand the changing relations of blacks and whites in the new South Africa. But when three black strangers appear at their house asking to make a phone call, a harrowing afternoon of violence follows which leaves both of them badly shaken and further estranged from one another. After a brief return to Cape Town, where Lurie discovers his home has also been vandalized, he decides to stay on with his daughter, who is pregnant with the child of one of her attackers. Now thoroughly humiliated, Lurie devotes himself to volunteering at the animal clinic, where he helps put down diseased and unwanted dogs. It is here, Coetzee seems to suggest, that Lurie gains a redeeming sense of compassion absent from his life up to this point.

Written with the austere clarity that has made J. M. Coetzee the winner of two Booker Prizes, Disgrace explores the downfall of one man and dramatizes, with unforgettable, at times almost unbearable, vividness the plight of a country caught in the chaotic aftermath of centuries of racial oppression.

 

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Review:

David Lurie is hardly the hero of his own life, or anyone else's. At 52, the protagonist of Disgrace is at the end of his professional and romantic game, and seems to be deliberately courting disaster. Long a professor of modern languages at Cape Town University College, he has recently been relegated to adjunct professor of communications at the same institution, now pointedly renamed Cape Technical University:

Although he devotes hours of each day to his new discipline, he finds its first premise, as enunciated in the Communications 101 handbook, preposterous: "Human society has created language in order that we may communicate our thoughts, feelings and intentions to each other." His own opinion, which he does not air, is that the origins of speech lie in song, and the origins of song in the need to fill out with sound the overlarge and rather empty human soul.
Twice married and twice divorced, his magnetic looks on the wane, David rather cruelly seduces one of his students, and his conduct unbecoming is soon uncovered. In his eighth novel, J.M. Coetzee might have been content to write a searching academic satire. But in Disgrace he is intent on much more, and his art is as uncompromising as his main character, though infinitely more complex. Refusing to play the public-repentance game, David gets himself fired--a final gesture of contempt. Now, he thinks, he will write something on Byron's last years. Not empty, unread criticism, "prose measured by the yard," but a libretto. To do so, he heads for the Eastern Cape and his daughter's farm. In her mid-20s, Lucy has turned her back on city sophistications: with five hectares, she makes her living by growing flowers and produce and boarding dogs. "Nothing," David thinks, "could be more simple." But nothing, in fact, is more complicated--or, in the new South Africa, more dangerous. Far from being the refuge he has sought, little is safe in Salem. Just as David has settled into his temporary role as farmworker and unenthusiastic animal-shelter volunteer, he and Lucy are attacked by three black men. Unable to protect his daughter, David's disgrace is complete. Hers, however, is far worse.

There is much more to be explored in Coetzee's painful novel, and few consolations. It would be easy to pick up on his title and view Disgrace as a complicated working-out of personal and political shame and responsibility. But the author is concerned with his country's history, brutalities, and betrayals. Coetzee is also intent on what measure of soul and rights we allow animals. After the attack, David takes his role at the shelter more seriously, at last achieving an unlikely home and some measure of love. In Coetzee's recent Princeton lectures, The Lives of Animals, an aging novelist tells her audience that the question that occupies all lab and zoo creatures is, "Where is home, and how do I get there?" David, though still all-powerful compared to those he helps dispose of, is equally trapped, equally lost.

Disgrace is almost willfully plain. Yet it possesses its own lean, heartbreaking lyricism, most of all in its descriptions of unwanted animals. At the start of the novel, David tells his student that poetry either speaks instantly to the reader--"a flash of revelation and a flash of response"--or not at all. Coetzee's book speaks differently, its layers and sadnesses endlessly unfolding. --Kerry Fried

From the Back Cover:

"The richness of Disgrace lies in the elegant and allegorical role reversals, the spare symbolism of the language and in the characterization. We may not like David Lurie, but in Coetzee's skillful hands we can't dismiss him without pity." -- The Globe and Mail

"Coetzee is able to dissect the human psyche with a surgeon's touch." -- The Hamilton Spectator

"Marvellous." -- The National Post

" Disgrace is a subtle, multilayered story, as much concerned with politics as it is with the itch of male flesh. Coetzee's prose is chaste and lyrical -- it is a relief to encounter writing as quietly stylish as this." -- Independent

" Disgrace is at the frontier of world literature." -- Sunday Telegraph

"J.M. Coetzee's vision goes to the nerve-centre of being. What he finds there is more than most people will ever know about themselves, and he conveys it with a brilliant writer's mastery of tension and elegance." -- Nadine Gordimer

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