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Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee's 1999 novel, Disgrace, is an excellent, at times emotionally confronting and frustrating, novel.

It is the first novel of Coetzee's that I have read, though I have no reason for why it has taken me so long. Born in South Africa, where Disgrace is set, Coetzee moved to Australia in 2002, married his partner and now lives in Adelaide, where he, like all famous authors in Australia, can live in relative obscurity because no book of his yet has been turned into a football or cricket bat. And, at the age of seventy-three, he is unlikely to begin said sports career that would lead him to fame and fortune in his adopted country. Given his reported desire to keep a low public profile, you have to wonder in what other country could a two time Booker winner author with a Nobel Prize attain such a nice, media free zone?

Amusement aside, Disgrace is a decidedly serious novel. In it, David Lurie, a disenchanted literature professor who, in his fifties, is losing his looks, professional motivation, and place within his preconceived world. After he is rejected by the prostitute that he has visited for a year (he crosses the line between private and public), he begins an relationship with a young student where the sex is 'not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core' and, as it reaches its awful end, is fired and ends up visiting his daughter, a single woman trying to make a life on a farm. Building on what he has established in Lurie's earlier interactions, both he and his daughter are attacked by three black men. The terrible truth of this attack and its reprehensible repercussions, when revealed, tie the novel into the political and racial changes in a post-apartheid South Africa.

Disgrace is a novel of difficult ideas, a novel that will be very difficult for some readers in term of content, but for all the weight in its ideas and themes, Coetzee's prose is not weighed down and difficult to read. Strangely, even, Coetzee's sparse, at times minimalist style, renders the novel as a swift one, and though the narrative of it tends to have a very languid and undefined path until the final acts when it is tied together, it reads quickly. In the hands of a different author, one whose style was more dense, who layered more visually in each scene, Disgrace would be a much larger novel, and one that, I suspect, would be a much more of a slog in places. I found it interesting, in fact, to imagine Disgrace in terms of its theme, characters, and arc, in the hands of different authors, and imagining how much more emotionally exhausting and less effective it would be to read a book of twice its length. How it would have been different in the hands of an author that did not trust in the unspoken spaces between the words to convey its meaning.

Much, I decided, of what Coetzee does happens between the words, in the empty spaces of the books. A good deal is left unsaid, and Coetzee trusts that the reader will interpret that, trusts that restraint, that implication, will resonate better than if he simply stated his intent. It leaves the subtext of men's treatment of women--of their cruelty, their disgraces--the be explored not aloud by Lurie, but in his relationship with his studies of Byron and his wife. It leaves the question of Lurie's daughter, Lucy, and her relationship with Petraus to walk between the lines of white guilt, of a statement of the racial tension, distrust, and hostility that exists in South Africa. It leaves the animals in the shelter to be both metaphors for Lurie, creatures of our sympathy, and representations of how class and government divides.

It is, as I have said, an excellent novel.