Review: 'Disgrace' by J. M. Coetzee

Winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature

J. M. Coetzee PictureLife happens. Life can bring pleasure, and pain. Over this we have no control. What is within our control, however, is the attitude(s) we choose to adopt in the face of existence. 

J. M. Coetzee, two-time winner of the Booker Prize, and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (2003) brings this to focus in his novel Disgrace – a slim page turner written with exquisite brevity. Like Hemmingway’s Old Man and the Sea, every sentence is a coiled spring unleashing a cascade of thought-provoking ideas. Ron Charles (Christian Science Monitor) describes Coetzee as a novelist “of stunning precision and efficiency” writing “brutally clear prose.”  

David Lurie, the protagonist of Disgrace, is a privileged white man with the cultural arrogance of a colonial mindset; a sexually attractive man, twice divorced, who uses his charm and charisma to gain the favors of women; a professor at the Cape Town University in post-apartheid South Africa, now demoted to Adjunct Professor, teaching basic Communications to a disinterested student body; a published author, working on writing an opera on the poet Byron; a father who believes he still has some influence over his daughter, Lucy, living in the rural Eastern Cape.

We witness, in the course of the novel, how this man is bruised, broken and bereft of all that makes him who he is.

“All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporate[s], and one [shrinks], with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness….”
-- Virginia Wolf’s To the Lighthouse

What wisdom does this stripping, these losses, bring to David Lurie? What attitudes does he adopt to cope with the situations he is catapulted into? Defiance? Defeat? Penitence?  What lessons, if any, are learned?  What wisdom, grace, peace, gained? 

(Disgrace was made into a movie in 2008 starring Oscar-nominated actor John Malkovich.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  -- js