Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee – Book Review

Oh, where to start with this little doozy.  This was totally an impulse buy.  I read Foe, by J.M. Coetzee a couple of years ago and found it to be a difficult (in terms of characters and themes) but intriguing read.  I don’t recall at the time wanting to run right out and read the rest of Coetzee’s work, but something made me pick this one up, and I know that in the right time (i.e. after I’m not so torn up over this one) I will try reading another- probably all- of his books.

David Lurie is a Professor of Communications at a small college in Capetown.  His employment is terminated more for the fact that he offers no apologies for his questionable involvement with a drama student taking one of his courses, than for the inappropriate relationship he initiates and engages  in with her. Wanting to get away, he goes to visit his daughter, Lucy, on her smallholding of land in the country. Their relationship is a tentative one and he doesn’t plan to stay long, but before he leaves they are brutalized in an attack that complicates his life in ways both unexpected and permanent.

Coetzee brings all of his considerable talent to bear on this book just in the fact that I was even able to finish it.  Lurie brings new meaning to the word unsympathetic character.  He is completely reprehensible, and in all things he is detached (which is usually an issue for me), displays little regard for others and is self-righteous to boot – but when I say that it’s almost impossible to put this book down, it really is.  The reader is creepily inside his head – very close to his thoughts, and even in the most generous of terms, Lurie is unhinged and majorly abusive of his power over the young woman with whom he was involved.  That’s at best – and ambiguous language about the relationship with his student completely aside, I think of him as the worst on the spectrum.

In a country in recovery from the vicious wounds of apartheid, South Africa is making inroads toward a new identity and experience among its people, but the old ways and the ugliness rear themselves up and influence the fabric of the country in ways that cannot be denied. Coetzee places many behaviors side by side to be examined and interpreted in a personal way, that that has a habit of being as revealing of the reader as it is of the characters.  Nasty piece of work that Lurie is, there is no getting around the fact that you can identify with some of his thoughts and impulses in the aftermath of the attack he survives with his daughter, and you definitely have some of the same questions and concerns. You agree with him, and remind yourself of the flip side, you yourself that he is just as despicable.

Visceral reactions aside, Coetzee explores quite a bit here, and I don’t know how he does it since the book is just barely a novel at 220 pages.  For any other author I would probably be wanting a bit more but between the subject matter, the beautiful writing and the suspense of it all, I was worn out by the end of this one.  It definitely *felt* long enough.  There are explorations of animal cruelty and the relationships between men and dogs, women and dogs, dogs and death; the responsibilities that individuals have for the collective actions of their countries and governments, and what constitutes that debt and the appropriate reparations; there is whether men have the capacity to understand what it means to be violated in the ways that women understand it; there are literary references to Byron and what he could get away with as a white man of privilege.

I could go on and on.  Coetzee delivers it all up nicely and leaves you to muddle along with the moral complexities and emotional reactions which are more often than not in conflict with one another.  Definitely worthy of a read and discussion, even if you have to force someone to read it just for that purpose, as I must now make my mother do.

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1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Foe, by J.M. Coetzee   Book Review

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  1. I am sure I will NOT read any book with that kind of character. But you make this book sound good. Now this is seriously a difficult decision for me 🙂

  2. This sounds like it’s got a lot going on and it will make you think. I know exactly what you mean about feeling worn out after reading it. I enjoy a book like that from time to time, but need some light stuff afterward.

  3. Hmmmm . . . I really for the life of me can’t remember whether I own this one. I definitely have not read it, that much I am sure of. Your review has convinced me to read it sooner rather than later. Sometimes the vilest characters are the most entertaining for me.

    1. Well if by entertaining you mean making your blood boil, then you will really get a kick out of him. It was a very interesting read. I loved looking at the reviews on goodreads and seeing people’s very different takes on what happened.

    1. I held onto my copy too! At some point I will want to re-read and see if I come away from it with different feelings. Also, so much was going on, i think it was easy to miss a lot when reading in the heat of the moment.

  4. I saw a quote the other day from an author (can’t remember who) and he said something like “fiction is meant to disturb you in some way.” That if you are too comfortable, then the author is not doing his/her job. I tend to agree.

    I find that I can relate to a lot of vile characters. I’m not sure what that says about me as a person, but it’s true and a little unsettling to admit it in a public forum.

    1. It says that you are a person and they are a person. I think one of the reasons I find “bad’ character so compelling is the way they can explore that darker aspect of the human experience, and we all grapple with it to one degree or another but it’s definitely not a part of ourselves that we are comfortable sharing. The flawed characters provide an outlet for some of that.

  5. Arg, you keep doing this to me. Now I have another book to add to my list. I just love a book that leaves me drained. I really feel like I “got my money’s worth.” Thanks for the great recommend.

  6. Huh. Well, for some reason I had this impression that this book was a big old chunkster. Probably because the plot seems so BIG. I’m still trying to get my head around this. Well, why not try it, right?

    1. It’s very easy to finish in that way. Once you make it to 50, you are a quarter of the way through the book. It’s hard to walk away from.

  7. When I read “between the subject matter, the beautiful writing and the suspense of it all, I was worn out by the end of this one” I think — what a great way to spend a winter afternoon.

  8. I’ve heard this is definitely one that you want to discuss after you read it. That’s nice that your mom will read it so you can discuss it with her.

  9. I read this one quite a few years ago and was blown away by how it made me feel. I read it for a book group discussion and I think we were all just in shock over the events and the narrator’s lack of feelings? I’ve read a few of his other books but none have had quite an impact on me as this one did. Brutal book.