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Book Club Wed Oct 10 2007

November 2007 Selection: Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

Disgrace
J.M. Coetzee
(Penguin Books, 1999)

A man who brings his own shame upon himself; a woman who must live with the indignities forced upon her – these are the fates of the characters in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. Though set in a world unknown to most of us, Coetzee’s David Lurie and his daughter Lucy engage in a universal exploration of what it means to be a man and a woman, a father and a daughter. Their story is one of opposing ideas – learning, outrage, indignity, tolerance, disbelief – at discovering the cruel nature of the world in which they live.

For David Lurie, a communications professor who teaches at Cape Technical University in South Africa, disgrace happens when his affair with a student is found out and he does nothing to save himself from the worst fate possible. It’s never clear who leaked the information about the affair and whether the girl in question truly wants him punished, but Lurie refuses to make excuses for his behavior when tried by his peers and is subsequently fired from his teaching position. With little more to keep Lurie going than the his suppressed love of Romantic literature and his work on a book about Lord Byron, he leaves Cape Town to spend some time with his daughter on her farm in the Eastern Cape. It is here that Lurie undergoes an event that forces him to examine what disgrace and punishment really are.

Lurie is a man dissatisfied with his place in life. He’s been married and divorced twice, his passion for literature has been whittled down to a single class he’s allowed to teach at the university and he uses women for sex while never once offering them love. “Yet the old men whose company he seems to be on the point of joining, the tramps and drifters with their stained raincoats and cracked false teeth and hairy earholes – all of them were once upon a time children of God, with straight limbs and clear eyes,” he thinks, pondering the type of man he sees himself becoming. His affair with his student has nothing to do with love, but rather is a product of how seducing and exploiting a young girl - both physically and, as he would like to believe, intellectually - makes him feel. Little does Lurie know that his move to rural South Africa will teach him more about what it means to have the passion for subjugation dominate one’s life.

A product of Lurie’s first marriage, Lucy lives, by Lurie’s own comparison, a more-small minded and simpler life. She walks barefoot to greet him, keeps dogs in a kennel on her farm, and maintains friendships with people who are unattractive to him. This simplicity is part of reason he chooses to spend time with her following his hearing, hoping that he’ll be able to complete his Byron book, but it is also something he tries to change in her. “And this? Is this what you want in life?” he asks Lucy, gesturing toward her house. “It will do,” she replies. When the two are later confronted by a group of men who not only rob them of their possessions, but also rob them of their dignity and, for Lurie, social power, they find themselves dealing with the calamity in very different ways. While Lucy’s method of coping is one of quiet acceptance, Lurie is outraged that such things can happen with little recourse for justice. This is the first time he truly knows what it means to be used and exploited and to be left in a state of disgrace.

Though the novel’s outlook and central story may be grim, Coetzee’s sparing and exacting prose wonderfully complicate an otherwise depressing tale. Disgrace could easily be read as little more than a depiction of political unrest in post-Apartheid South Africa, but the trials undergone and perspectives gained by the father and daughter make their plight universally recognizable. Disgrace was awarded the Booker Prize in 1999 and was named as the “greatest novel of the last 25 years” written in English outside the United States by The Observer. A film starring John Malkovich as David Lurie is currently in post-production and is scheduled to be released this year.

* * *

John Maxwell Coetzee was born in Cape Town, South Africa where he received degrees in both Mathematics and English at the University of Cape Town. He has worked in London as a programmer for IBM, received his PhD in Linguistics at the University of Texas, Austin and served as a professor on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Coetzee won his first Booker Prize for Life & Times of Michael K in 1983, making him the first author to have been awarded the Booker Prize twice. In 2003 he was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Currently he maintains Australian citizenship.

 
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