Book Notes: Disgrace

‘How humiliating,’ he says finally. ‘Such high hopes, and to end like this.’

‘Yes, I agree, it is humiliating. But perhaps that is a good point to start from again. Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level. With nothing…No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity.’

‘Like a dog.’

‘Yes, like a dog.’

An exchange between David Lurie and his daughter Lucy near the end of Disgrace. J.M. Coetzee

  • J.M Coetzee’s 2nd Booker-prize winning novel. 220 pages of compelling reading with a deceptively simple surface.
  • A story of personal disgrace (professor engages in lurid behaviour with a student which includes borderline stalking and a borderline rape – it is not named rape in the book, nor does the girl name it so, which in itself is part of the denial which lies at the heart of the book) – rooted in racial disgrace in post-apartheid South Africa.
  • Characters wrestle with aging, death, desire, aloneness, responsibility (or lack thereof), and the ability to make reparations to others. Gender and generational relations are also powerful themes. Also, relationships with animals.
  • Lucy, the twenty-something daughter is the first of the post-apartheid adult generation – attempts to make reparations through the body which can be read as somewhat naive. Coetzee himself clearly made decisions in his own life – by moving out of SA to Australia – that the Lucy character is confronted with. How much do we internalize the history of our countries? By staying on, do we make it right?
  • Book was criticized for portraying Blacks as wanting to humiliate Whites who stayed on – but I wouldn’t read it this way – the characters of David and Lucy subject themselves willingly to their own “disgrace” (and by this I do not mean that Lucy subjects herself to her own rape, but she has agency in her choices afterwards). What I read in this narrative is the difficulty of building new relationships in the wake of the social shift. Roles are not reversed, and yet new demands are made on all characters that they are unsure of how to meet.
  • What redeems David Lurie, if he is at all redeemed, is women his own age and his ability to seek counsel from them in meaningful ways. In addition, he has minor revelations about the nature of power and neglect through working at the animal hospital.
  • I say the book is deceptively simple because it is a quick read at 200 compelling pages – but it is deeply layered and could be re-read from a number of different angles.


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