J.M Coetzee’s Disgrace is a relatively short work. It is also quite unputdownable. This was my second reading of it, having first read it about four years ago. And it was a far more vivid experience this time.
Professor David Lurie is a University English professor with a penchant for Romantics, whose “disgraceful” sexual liaison with one of his students suddenly lands him in trouble. Though we despise this fifty year old divorce’s lust for someone so much younger, there’s something heroic in his frank admission, in the way he denies an attempt by the inquiry council to elicit an apology, disregard its self-righteous intent to make him grovel in guilt. According to him, at that moment, “I became a servant of Eros.” Yet, finding himself out of a job at the fag end of a career is only the beginning of his woes.
He leaves Cape Town, to visit his somewhat estranged daughter Lucy, who runs a farm, hoping to put his turmoils behind him. But soon after his arrival, a gruesome tragedy strikes their lives (sorry, read the book), leaves both father and daughter shattered(especially daughter). With concern for Lucy, Lurie lingers in the farm far longer than he had wanted, discovering strange solace in incinerating dead dogs (a task he performs with uncanny diligence), finding time to put together a Byronic opera he’s been wanting to write, and trying to pursue his daughter to seek the justice he thinks she must. Yet, it’s also a place where none of his old rules work. As his old world (and life) gradually spirals downhill, Lurie is forced to adapt to a new reality, in which he, remarkably, begins to find both sanity and love.
Coetzee’s prose is terse and powerful, evoking compassion and anger. The undercurrent of racial tension in Lucy’s farm in Eastern Cape is undisguised. But the book’s biggest achievement is in how it engages one to empathize with Lurie, despite his flaws, makes one see his idiosyncrasies and shortcomings, yet makes one feel at times – “that could be me.”
I eagerly await the film version. While not expecting it to match the book, I do think John Malkovich as Lurie would be captivating.
The book won the Booker in 1999 and Coetzee is one of the only two authors to have won the Booker twice.