J.M.Coetzee, Disgrace, Man Booker Prize 1999


20141012_212447‘Disgrace’ and the reactions of those who have to bear it is the central theme of this novel. The main characters of David Lurie and his daughter Lucy both suffer from forms of disgrace. The attitudes of some of the minor characters to their predicaments can be seen as disgraceful, as indeed does the recent Apartheid past of South Africa, which is the home of its author, J.M.Coetzee.

Rarely has a novel created such sympathy for a character that doesn’t really deserve it. Lurie, who breaks one of the chief taboos of being a University Professor and has an affair with one of his students, is dismissed from his job and relocates to the Cape to spend some time with his daughter. When events there take a dramatic and awful turn, suddenly you begin to feel for David, and not just in a pitiful sense, but in you actually agree with his thoughts and his feelings. Coetzee skilfully creates a compelling, human and ultimately tragic character. Through his writing, you can see why a middle-aged, divorced academic who writes about the English Romantic poet Lord Byron may think that he is some sort of latter-day Byron. Of course the reader knows better. We know he is a deluded womaniser and that seducing one of his students is wrong, but there is something noble about Lurie’s pushing against modern political correctness in the name of his own romantic ideals.

Coetzee’s writing is also heavily influenced by its setting. The shadow of Apartheid is still strong in this novel; the main characters constantly live with reminders of the racial divisions which scar South African society. You see Lurie’s fears around a Black African farmer called Petrus wanting to drive him and his daughter out of her small-holding and using violence and intimidation to get it. However, Coetzee’s doesn’t make it that simple; Is Lurie’s imagining that Petrus is trying to get Lucy’s land or is it just his racial prejudices clouding his judgement?

The novel itself is quite short, but it follows the Ernest Hemingway rule of using short sentences and short paragraphs which are direct and to the point, which benefits a novel which tackles such a large and diverse subject as human nature. Overall, Disgrace is powerful and shocking novel which works both as a study on human nature and as a piece of social commentary.