Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

publication date: 1999
pages: 220
ISBN: 0-670-88731-5

As indicated by its title, Disgrace describes the downfall of its main character, Professor David Lurie, after Lurie sleeps with one of his students. In the midst of the ensuing scandal, Lurie leaves his home of Cape Town, South Africa to go live with his daughter in rural South Africa. While in the country, Lurie examines his attitudes toward women, morality, and the new South Africa.

Do you ever read a book that is entirely foreign to you? And then that raises so many questions, such as: Must a book be relatable to be worth reading? Do the words of a narrator generally reflect the opinions of the author? How unlikable must a character be before the reader should vilify or judge the character?

Disgrace raised every single one of those questions for me. The book is certainly a worthwhile read. However, as I was reading it, my three main emotions were disgust, dread, and bewilderment. The book’s main character was Lurie, a man. I found about 90% of his thoughts completely alien. For example, when Lurie is explaining to his student why she ought to sleep with him, he says, “Because a woman’s beauty does not belong to her alone. It is a part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it.” I can honestly say that I have never, in my life, entertained that thought, although perhaps I have reflexively agreed with that worldview. Lurie also explores issues of father figure as a sexual role. Again, that is not a thought that has ever crossed my mind. But just because I don’t think those things, doesn’t mean others haven’t. And who am I to decide what the human experience is?

Another unfamiliar aspect of the book for me was its setting. Disgrace was set in urban and rural South Africa and Coetzee explores several themes concerning racial politics in that country. When the book was published, apartheid had been abolished not even ten years before. That history influenced much of the book. Because I did not experience that history, there were times when I felt like Coetzee was trying to tell me something, but I just wasn’t fully grasping it. For example, when he wrote about a white man patronizing a dark-skinned prostitute or a white woman living in the country next to a black farmer, I felt like he was feeding me a significant detail without me completely understanding the significance.

This all makes for an interesting read, which was enhanced by Coetzee’s matter-of-fact and unforgiving prose. Disgrace is not for the faint of heart, however. It is a grim and, at times, shocking book, filled with reminders of other lives and experiences.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews of this book:

New York Times

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