The irony does not escape him: that the one who comes to teach learns the keenest of lessons, while those who come to learn learn nothing.
J. M. Coetzee’s Booker Prize-winning novel Disgrace, set in post-apartheid South Africa, takes us into the disquieting mind of twice-divorced university teacher David Lurie as he loses his job and his honour after engaging in an ill-advised affair with a susceptible student.
When he retreats to his daughter’s farm, a brutal attack highlights their fractured relationship. Is it only through intense suffering and shame—his own as well as that of others—that David can begin to change, to understand his country and what it means to be human?
In Disgrace, this Nobel-Prize winning writer examines ideas of evil, violence, dignity and redemption in a country dominated by the power dynamics of race.
J.M. Coetzee was the first author to win the Booker Prize twice and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. He lives in Adelaide.
‘Coetzee captures with appalling skill the white dilemma in South Africa.’ Daily Telegraph
‘Disgrace explores the furthest reaches of what it means to be human; it is at the frontier of world literature.’ Sunday Telegraph
‘A great novel by one of the finest authors writing in the English language today.’ The Times
‘A masterpiece...perhaps the best novel to carry off the Booker in a decade.’ Independent
‘Disgrace is the best novel Coetzee has written.’ London Review of Books
As a writer, Coetzee is a literary cascade, with a steady output of fiction and criticism (literary and social) over the last two decades. This latest book, his first novel in five years, is a searing evocation of post-apartheid South Africa; it earned him an unprecedented second Booker Prize. An uninspired teacher and twice divorced, David Lurie is a 52-year-old poetry scholar-cum-"adjunct professor of communications" at Cape Technical University. Spooked by the flicker of twilight in his life trajectory, he sees himself as an aged Lothario soon to be "shuddered over" by the pretty girls he has so often wooed; he is disappointed in and unengaged by the academy he now serves by rote; and he cannot locate the notes for his opera, Byron in Italy, in which he has placed so much reluctant hope. He is, even at his best, a man of "moderated bliss." So when he seduces Melanie Isaacs, a lithe student from his poetry elective ("She does not resist. All she does is avert herself"), he believes her to represent the final object of his desire, his last act of lush, Romantic desperation. And then he is found out. This not uncommon outrage earns him a dismissal and censure from the university committee he refuses to cooperate with in hopes of saving his job. He immediately shoves off for Salem in the Eastern Cape where his daughter, Lucy, manages a dog kennel and works her smallholding, harvesting a modest crop. Here David hopes to cleanse himself with time-honored toil. But his new life in the country offers scarce refuge. Instead, he is flummoxed to discover an unfamiliar Lucy-principled, land-devoted, with a heroic resignation to the social and political developments of modern South Africa. He also memorably encounters Petrus, Lucy's ambitious colored neighbor and sometime assistant. Petrus embodies the shifting, tangled vicissitudes of a new national schematic, and forces David to relate to the broad segment of society previously shrouded by the mists of his self-absorption. But a violent attack on the estate irrevocably alters how the book's central figure perceives many things: his daughter and her bewildering (to him) courage, the rights of South Africa's grossly aggrieved majority, the souls of the damaged dogs he helps put down at the local Animal Welfare League and even the character of Lord Byron's mistress and the heroine of his operatic "chamber-play." But this is no tale of hard-earned, satisfying transformation. It is, rather, a paean to willfulness, an aria on the theme of secca, or the drying up of "the source of everything." In Coetzee's tale, not a single note is false; every sentence is perfectly calibrated and essential. Every passage questions the arbitrary division between the "major and minor" and the long-accepted injustices propped up by nothing so much as time. The book somehow manages to speak of little but interiority and still insinuate peripheries of things it doesn't touch. Somber and crystalline, it "has the right mix of timelessness and decay." It is about the harsh cleansing of humiliation and the regretfulness of knowing things: "I lack the lyrical. I manage love too well. Even when I burn I don't sing, if you understand me." To perceive is to understand in this beautifully spare, necessary novel. First serial to the New Yorker. FYI: Viking accelerated the pub date after the Booker Prize was announced on October 25.