(My Rating: 4/5)
Winner of the 1999 Booker Prize, Disgrace revolves around certain incidents that take place in the life of middle-aged David Lurie, a South African professor of English.
After Lurie’s sexual relationship with a student comes to light, he is brought before an enquiry committee at the university he teaches at and as a result he is ultimately forced to resign from his position, since he refuses to apologise or show any real remorse for what he has done.
After resigning he moves to the country to stay with his lesbian daughter on a farm she runs. While there, both become victims of a violent attack and Lurie is unable to do anything to protect his daughter. The incident alters both their lives not only individually, but also strains their relationship as each comes to terms with and deals with what has happened in their own manner.
The story does not end here, but I am not going to write a synopsis of what happens next – I don’t really like to write a full summary when I write a review. I feel it spoils it for those who haven’t yet read the book. So I’ll now move on to what I thought and felt about the book.
I think to truly appreciate this book, while reading it in today’s times, one must first understand the backdrop against which it was published, in 1999, just five years after the apartheid regime had ended in South Africa.
It was a time of change, not only in a broader political sense, but also at the micro level, affecting each and every individual living in the country, in their day to day lives. A change in the balance of power, the arrival of freedom and human rights for one set of people, while another set no longer wielded the power they once did. It was a time of uncertainty. Coetzee’s writing conveys this uneasiness – like something bubbling and about to boil over.
But a portrayal of the post apartheid regime isn’t the only thing this multi-layered book is about and that’s what I most liked about Disgrace – the complexity of the book and how Coetzee was able to weave so many issues into a novel just over 200 pages long.
There is Lurie’s coming to terms with his mortality and probably declining sexual attractiveness, the dynamics of a strained father-daughter relationship, a man’s mid-life crisis, and so much more. I am not a man and neither am I middle aged, but I feel Coetzee’s portrayal of the thoughts of such a middle-aged man is done very well.
As far as his writing style goes, I really liked that Coetzee doesn’t state the obvious. He treats his readers as intelligent human beings, to whom he doesn’t have to spell every single thing out. He also uses incidents and imagery beautifully to convey the ‘broken’ man Lurie has become and the sorry state of affairs he finds himself in.
I also thought the dialogues (and there are a lot of them) were very well written, accurately conveying the thoughts of the various characters in a believable fashion. Finally, I felt that the narrative style – free indirect discourse – works very well in this novel. I had to do some research to find out what the technique was called and I found the answer on another WordPress user’s blog – conflicterature – which is an informative blog that explores the relationship between conflict and literature.
I liked how Coetzee subtly portrays the change in Lurie’s outlook from the cocky, arrogant and perhaps condescending university professor at the beginning of the novel to a more mellow man after he moves to his daughter’s farm – even to the extent that he develops an attachment to working with stray and sick dogs.
This change is also reflected in the opera Lurie is working on during the course of the novel. At first he wants to write about a young Lord Byron and Teresa, Contessa Guiccioli, but later, probably as he comes to terms with the changes that are happening in his own life, he is drawn towards writing about a middle-aged Teresa.
This isn’t a happy story and David Lurie isn’t a likable character, but as a piece of literature I think Disgrace is pretty great and I haven’t read anything similar before.
Incidentally, Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, four years after Disgrace was published.