Disgrace (1999) – J.M. COETZEE

I should start this review by admitting I’ve never had much interest in reading Coetzee. The only thing I really know about him is that I never know whether to put his books in Australian Literature or not at work. But then this came up on a reading list at uni, so I didn’t really have a choice. Well, I had a choice, but I didn’t want to sound like an uninformed idiot when I went into the tute.

David Lurie is a twice divorced man of 52, who is rapidly realising his place in the world is being superseded by those younger than him. His job at the university no longer interests him – in fact, the only pleasure he derives from life is sleeping with prostitutes. But when he has an awkward sexual encounter with a student, he is forced to go bush, to go to his estranged daughter’s farm. Waiting there, though, is something that will affect their already fractious relationship.

It’s funny that this was on a reading list for postcolonial literature, because I never really got that vibe from reading the novel. Sure, it’s set in South Africa just after the fall of apartheid, and there are some race politics bubbling under the surface, but I don’t buy for a second that that’s the focus of the novel, or even the aim of Coetzee here. Here, he seems far more interested in gender politics, and how men and women interact with each other in the most extreme of situations.

Central to the plot, and indeed, the philosophy of the novel, are two sexual assaults – though they are world apart in tone and intent. What I’m about to say shouldn’t in any way make you think I’m ok with rape (because I’m really not), but Disgrace asks us to think about some difficult questions, so these are the things I’m trying to answer here.

The first one is uncomfortable, though vague enough for some people to perhaps not qualify it as a rape. Of course, David, our narrator, certainly doesn’t think so, and there is enough ambiguity in the way the girl acts, both during the incident and afterwards, to make us question what we might call the event that occurred. David is in no doubt of what happened – he was caught up in the moment, and it was a momentary lapse of judgement. He offers no kind of apology, simply an explanation of what was going through his mind when it happened. As you can probably guess, he doesn’t come off as a likeable kind of guy.

The second, though, is not so much uncomfortable so much as very confronting. There’s something to be said for typing your main character up in a room where he can hear his daughter be gang raped by three men. Not pretty, but then, I guess that’s the point. Stupid me was so shocked by the whole thing it took me a few more pages to realise what Coetzee was doing here – mirroring the sexual assault at the beginning, and forcing David to think about it from a different angle. Lucy’s reaction to her assault, and Melanie’s reaction to the first, are interesting in that, in some ways, they are the same. Neither of them want to talk about it – Lucy insists that it is not shame, but rather, that her father will never understand her, so she just doesn’t want to talk about it.

And this brings us to the central question of the novel: can a man ever understand what it’s like to be a woman, particularly one who’s been sexually assaulted? It’s not a question that I can answer, and Coetzee only provides a very tangential answer – I suspect he leans towards no, but his narrator is so messed up anyway, I can’t decided if he’s just presenting David as an idiot, or a wider symbol of manhood everywhere. Of course, David is not a symbol of manhood everywhere – he is a symbol of a particular kind of man at a particular stage in his life, where women have abandoned him willy nilly, and he’s done nothing to help the situation, by sleeping around like a man whore, and treating the women he sleeps with very little respect.

It is perhaps telling that, for an hour a few weeks ago, when we had a tute about this novel, I had very little to say. I don’t know how I feel about Disgrace. Certainly, it’s not at all what I thought it was. It is taught, sparse, and above all, unsettling. While David is understandable, he is not likeable. And no other character is, for me, understandable. These people are just doing things that I cannot comprehend. Perhaps, though, that was the point. David is out of touch with the world, and we are just seeing the world through the eyes of a tired, middle-aged man.

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4 thoughts on “Disgrace (1999) – J.M. COETZEE

  1. Justine says:

    Matthew, the discomfort that you find in this book is one that I too felt when I read it – and I am a huge fan of Coetzee’s earlier work. He lost me after this book. I couldn’t quite find myself appreciating him again and I think that this is largely because of the disquiet that we have both seen in this text. Fortunately for me, Disgrace has not defined my Coetzee experience because of the way that I was exposed to his earlier work. I think, indeed, that he is a wonderful writer, with a powerful voice and an exquisite way with language. I wouldn’t file him as Australian or South African – he is neither. The beauty of his work is that his narrative voice is constantly shifting: he is a black man, a white woman, a white man, a child. He is all of these things and the way that he breathes life into each protagonist is testimony to the fact that he is a master at his art. I expect that certainly for the bulk of his work, post colonial would be the most suitable classifying term … I wonder what Coetzee himself would think?

    • Matthew Todd says:

      Yeah, I’ve heard his earlier stuff is a bit more experimental and po-mo. Which sounds more up my alley.

      And I’d love to ask Coetzee a whole load of things, but I’ve heard he just snipes at interviewers – I don’t think my ego could take it…

  2. I’m a Coetzee fan. I love his spare writing … and I really liked the complexity of this novel and the way Lurie learns some lessons. The book is very much about how the personal becomes the political. I thought, for example, that his daughter’s decision was incomprehensible on one level (the normal rational level) and yet very understandable on another level (the emotional level in which she has made a connection with land/place and is prepared to make huge concessions not to lose it). It’s a very uncomfortable book as you say but I found it “believable” if that makes sense.

    I’ve seen Coetzee in person once. He read from his book and took no questions. I think he is a very quiet reserved man and doesn’t much like the author trail. Does he have to, do you think?

    • Matthew Todd says:

      It’s funny, actually. I didn’t particularly enjoy Disgrace at the time, but I’m still thinking about it, and what it was trying to tell me. So I suppose, in that regard, it’s worked quite well. I’d like to reread it at some stage, and try and get some of the deeper levels that Coetzee is hinting at.

      And I don’t think Coetzee has to talk about his work, but it might be nice. As someone who thinks knowing where an author has come from, and why they wrote, is important, I’d like for him to give me that information! Of course, he doesn’t have to, but still…

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