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Author / Writer Spotlight, Fiction

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

While I was holidaying in Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, on a Chinese junk with several red sails, breaking the waves of the turquoise sea and negotiating between the lime stone islands and grottos, I met a South African young lady on board. Her sister lives in London and she told me about the danger her parents have to endure in South Africa. With constant fear of attack, her father is constantly armed with rifle. She is backpacking in South East Asia, has no desire to go home, and felt nothing for her country, she said. That was way back in 2004.

6 years on, she kept to her words. We lost contact but found each other on Facebook. She kept to her word, she stayed in Taiwan all this while, teaching English and now she is a journalist in Taiwan.

That was my first introduction to South Africa.

Disgrace is about South Africa. It is also about where you belong, about animals with feelings, and what it means to be in perpetual disgrace.

After years of teaching Romantic poetry at the Technical University of Cape Town, David Lurie, middle-aged and twice divorced, has an impulsive affair with a female student, Melanie Isaacs. The affair sours, due to Melanie’s protective boyfriend and parents; David Lurie is denounced and summoned before a committee of inquiry. Willing to admit his guilt, but refusing to yield to pressure to repent publicly, he resigns and retreats to his daughter Lucy’s isolated smallholding farmland.

For a time, his daughter’s influence and the natural rhythms of the farm lull him into a false sense of security, thinking that his discordant life was on the mend, while the nation’s balance of power is shifting. Towards the middle of the book, a twist that took me by surprise. Lucy and he became victims of a savage and disturbing attack which subsequently strained the father-daughter relationship.

The book went on to describe the emotional turmoil of both father and daughter, just when you thought the worse had ended, there were fresh new shocks to make this an exhilarating read. I read this book in two sittings (because it was a work day), but I was pleasantly surprised by the lucidity and the ease of sailing through Coetzee’s words, they just fly, no big words, no flowery prose, simple yet spot-on, with hidden message of an incident, an encounter that signified something bigger than the problem itself, such as about God, about a nation.

Since we are on the topic of disgrace, this is how J.M. Coetzee’s describe it in 3 ways:

The Disgrace of David Lurie

During his second encounter with Mr. Isaac:

“Normally I would say, that after a certain age one is too old to learn lessons. One can only be punished and punished. But perhaps that is not true, not always. I wait to see. As for God, I am not a believer, so I will have to translate God wishes’ into my own terms. In my own terms, I am being punished for what happened between myself and your daughter. I am sunk into a state of disgrace from which it will not be easy to lift myself. It is not a punishment I have refused. On the contrary, I am living it out from day to day, trying to accept disgrace as my state of being. Is it enough for God, do you think, that I live in disgrace without terms?”

The Disgrace of Lucy Lurie

She would rather hide her face, and he knows why. Because of the disgrace. Because of the shame. That is what their visitors have achieved; that is what they have done to this confident, modern woman. Like a stain the story is spreading across district. Not her story to spread but theirs: they are its owners. How they put her in her place, how they showed her what a woman was for.

The Disgrace of the dog

He is convince that the dogs know their time has come. The dogs in the yard smell what is going on inside. They flatten their ears. They droop their tails, as if they too feel the disgrace of dying.

Warning: Animal rights and cruelty is a big feature of this book. Don’t read it if you think you can’t stomach it.

The book is not without flaw. The introduction of Lord Byron’s life was a little annoying and far-fetched from David Lurie’s life and initially I have no clue why Byron was featured. Towards the end of the book, I understood Byron serves as a metaphor of David’s pathetic decadent womanising life, so heart breaking was Byron that he abandoned his daughter and fled to Italy; both acts which David plans to do and perhaps have made up his mind not to (leave his broken daughter, Lucy and fled from South Africa). We will never know what the right solution is, as the metaphor serves as a perpetual White dilemma in South Africa. I also find David’s salacious sexual appetite disgusting. I also fail to understand why the obstinance to continue to stay on the farm after the horrific attack and put oneself at risk, all this is beyond my comprehension.

It’s one of the few books I have read that uses parables so well to describe the dilemma of a troubled nation, besides Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American.” I usually can’t grasp the symbolic meaning of a book very well, but in the case of Disgrace, I grasp the meaning of it all.

‘Yes it is humiliating. But perhaps that is a good point to start from again. Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level. With nothing. Not with nothing but. With nothing. No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity.’
‘Like a dog.’
‘Yes, like a dog.’

Compare “We are dogs” in the above conversation and “the dogs that needed to be put to death” in one of the animal sanctuary that David volunteers.  As a dog in the said country, and as a dog whose soul is to be extracted, twisted and gone.

I conclude that Coetzee is trying to tell us, in a state of Disgrace, one has to learn to accept it. But in accepting it, one loses its soul. That is what I think.

Rating: 5/5

Although books about the narrative darkness of the heart and horrifying incidents have became almost a cliché, Disgrace goes beyond it and I came out of it feeling validated, makes me want to be a better person. I am in awe of Coetzee’s talent.

I wrote quite a long bio about J.M. Coetzee below, I found him fascinating. Needless to say, this is not the end of Coetzee, it will be a permanent feature in my “length of the great wall of China” reading list.

Yes, this is the only life there is. As for animals, by all means let us be kind to them. But let us not lose perspective. We are of a different order of creation from the animals. Not higher, necessarily, just different. So if we are going to be kind, let it be out of simple generosity, not because we feel guilty or fear retribution. (Page 74)

1999 The Man Booker Prize
2000 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize – Best Book
2003 Nobel Prize for Literature (the author)

I’m reading this for 1001 books you must read before you die, although it’s a shame they took it out of the 2010 edition; and the 501 must-read books.

Just when I thought there is no link between this book and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, at page 2 it is said: Call no man happy until he is dead. – Oedipus 🙂

Paperback. Publisher:  Vintage books 2000.; Length: 220 pages; Setting: Late 1990’s South Africa; Source: Library Loot. Finished reading at: 20 May 2010

About J.M. Coetzee:

Coetzee was born in Cape Town, South Africa on 9 February 1940 to parents of Afrikaner descent. His father was an occasional lawyer, government employee and sheep farmer, and his mother a schoolteacher. The family spoke English at home, but Coetzee spoke Afrikaans with other relatives. The family were descended from early Dutch settlers dating to the 17th century. Coetzee also has Polish roots, as his great-grandfather Baltazar (or Balcer) Dubiel was a Polish immigrant to South Africa.

Coetzee spent most of his early life in Cape Town and in Worcester in Cape Province (modern-day Western Cape) as recounted in his fictionalized memoir, Boyhood (1997). The family moved to Worcester when Coetzee was eight after his father lost his government job due to disagreements over the state’s apartheid policy. Coetzee attended St. Joseph’s College, a Catholic school in the Cape Town suburb of Rondebosch, and later studied mathematics and English at the University of Cape Town, receiving his Bachelor of Arts with Honours in English in 1960 and his Bachelor of Arts with Honours in Mathematics in 1961.

Coetzee married Philippa Jubber in 1963 and divorced in 1980. He had a daughter, Gisela (born 1968), and a son, Nicolas (born 1966), from the marriage. Nicolas was killed in 1989 at the age of 23 in a car accident.

Coetzee relocated to the United Kingdom in 1962, where he worked as a computer programmer, staying until 1965. He initially worked for IBM in London before moving to International Computers Limited in Bracknell, Berkshire. (I can’t believe it! Coetzee works in Bracknell?!! I work in Bracknell, now!!) 🙂 In 1963, while working in the UK, he was awarded a Master of Arts degree from the University of Cape Town for a dissertation on the novels of Ford Madox Ford. His experiences in England were later recounted in Youth (2002), his second volume of fictionalized memoirs.

Coetzee went to the University of Texas at Austin on the Fulbright Program in 1965. He received a PhD in linguistics there in 1969. His PhD thesis was on computer stylistic analysis of the works of Samuel Beckett. In 1968, he began teaching English and literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo where he stayed until 1971. It was at Buffalo that he started his first novel, Dusklands. In 1971, Coetzee sought permanent residence in the United States, but it was denied due to his involvement in anti-Vietnam-War protests. In March 1970, Coetzee had been one of 45 faculty members who occupied the university’s Hayes Hall and were subsequently arrested for criminal trespass. He then returned to South Africa to teach English literature at the University of Cape Town. He was promoted to Professor of General Literature in 1983 and was Distinguished Professor of Literature between 1999 and 2001. Upon retiring in 2002, Coetzee relocated to Adelaide, Australia, where he was made an honorary research fellow at the English Department of the University of Adelaide, where his partner, Dorothy Driver, is a fellow academic. He served as professor on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago until 2003. In addition to his novels, he has published critical works and translations from Dutch and Afrikaans.

On 6 March 2006, Coetzee became an Australian citizen.

About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


11 thoughts on “Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

  1. A thoughtful review – glad you got so much out of it. I read this a couple of years ago and found it very thought provoking. I thought it was excellent and think Coetzee is one of those authors I’d like to read a lot of. I agree about the animal rights, this is obviously very important to him.

    Your holiday back in 2004 sounds awesome!

    Posted by Tracey | May 22, 2010, 1:08 pm
  2. I’ve read this book too and my thoughts were similar. Didn’t know Coetzee worked as a programmer before. That’s weird! And about Halong Bay, I went there a couple of years ago. Awesome place 🙂

    Posted by mee | May 23, 2010, 1:56 am
    • @Mee, great to get to know someone who had also been to Ha Long Bay! So you know what I am talking about. 😀
      Coetzee studied maths, so he start his early years as a programmer. I therefore find him very fascinating. For someone as complex a personality as he is, I thought it takes talent to write a simple tale like “Disgrace” that made the pages fly so easily.

      Posted by JoV | May 23, 2010, 8:53 pm
  3. Hey JoV–Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society IS on the list for “future/should be” classics. Sorry about the confusion but I’m glad you found another one that will work.

    Posted by Trish | May 23, 2010, 6:47 pm
  4. Wow. Loved your review. I just finished reading ‘Disgrace’ last week and it was my first Coetzee novel. It’s def. not going to be my last. I posted a review of it up on my blog. I was happy to find that it wasn’t a nice book. It disturbed me and made me squirm, which is what it should do. Being in ‘disgrace’ is a very uncomfortable situation and forces us to look at the ugly side of our nature. It was great that Coetzee didn’t fall in love with his characters and devised a way to get them all to ‘live happily ever after’. Often that is not the case and I felt Coetzee really trying to mimic real-life in that sense (if one can actually do that).

    I read this for the 1001 BYMRBYD list too. I see you have John Updike next. I’m aiming to read that too by the end of the year 🙂 I look forward to your thoughts on it.

    Posted by mywordlyobsessions | August 2, 2010, 10:49 pm
    • Thanks for stopping by Mywordlyobsessions (it would be easier if you have a short nick?), I do like his writing and aim to read a few of his books and see how I feel about him making it onto my alltime favourite list. I’m struggling to find time to read Updike, but I have to, as he is probably the more well known author under alphabet “U”. !

      Posted by JoV | August 4, 2010, 4:27 pm
  5. Good trip and report for me. Thanks alot. Halong bay cruise tour in Vietnam

    Posted by ngatin2 | September 16, 2010, 7:08 am
  6. In “Disgrace,” the affair with Melanie Isaacs didn’t “sour” – it was never fully consensual. In fact it’s a textbook example of an affair on an uneven playing field, where the student couldn’t really offer any free “yes.”

    Posted by Maria | March 28, 2014, 11:50 pm


  1. Pingback: Fasting, Feasting « JoV's Book Pyramid - July 31, 2012

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
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A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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