Disgrace

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DisgraceDisgrace by J.M. Coetzee
Published: 1999
Length: 220

This was assigned reading in a literature course I took in my first year of university. I eventually became quite a good student by the time I graduated, but that year I was still in high school mode and as a result never finished this. I’m slowly redeeming myself for the reading sins of my past.

This tells the story of an aging university poetry instructor, David Lurie, who falls into disgrace after having an affair with a student. He ends up leaving his life in Cape Town temporarily to live with his daughter at her small farm in the country. He hopes to take a break from the pain in his life, but he only finds more of it when he leaves the city.

Because a woman’s beauty does not belong to her alone. It is a part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it.

Lurie is misogynistic and racist and borderline sociopathic, but you still want to see things turn out well for him and, more so, his daughter, which is both a testament to Coetzee’s writing and to the extreme difficulties these characters suffer. It can be an infuriating read at times, as characters often act against their own interest in ways that don’t immediately make sense to the reader, usually a major pet peeve of mine, but at least here I can see the characters’ reasoning even if I don’t necessarily agree.

In some ways, Lurie reminding me a lot of Meursault in The Stranger. Both characters live by their own idea of morality, committing horrible acts without regret, and both stand trial and refuse to defend themselves. However, in Meursault’s case, he sees it as immoral to lie about feeling shame. In Lurie’s case, I think publicly apologizing and working with the prosecutors would make him have to face the shame he actually does feel, which he refuses to do even if it means the end of his career. He doesn’t even fully acknowledge his crime in his own head, twisting words to justify it.

Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core. As though she had decided to go slack, die within herself for the duration, like a rabbit when the jaws of the fox close on its neck. So that everything done to her might be done, as it were, far away.

This tackles a lot, with a focus on sexual violence and post-apartheid racism. Coetzee really takes the title to heart. It feels like every page of this deals with disgrace in some way. This story could have been a disaster in a lesser writer’s hands, but his writing is fantastic and really pulls you in. It left me with a lot to think about, and the more I do think about it the more layers I notice.

This actually would have been a really interesting book to discuss in a class setting, so I probably screwed up not reading it the first time around. I picked up Life and Times of Michael K at a book sale earlier in the year, so I think I’ll read that one fairly soon.

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