Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee [Book Thoughts]

Coetzee won’t hold your hand so you’re going to have to think and be more than a little sharp to get below the surface of his subtle style. But Disgrace is a one of Coetzee’s best.
-Imran

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My only previous experience with J. M. Coetzee is The Life and Times of Michael K, a book I picked up for dirt cheap at an Exclusive Books sale (sales which I tend to frequent). At the time, all I knew of Coetzee was that he was considered one of South Africa’s greatest writers and is a Nobel Prize Winner. Michael K introduced me to a new kind of writing, something I’m still becoming familiar with but am presently finding strangely fascinating. Disgrace I ran into in Joburg earlier this year and took straight off the shelf (My reading strategy at present is pretty much to read books from great authors at random).

 From what I’ve gathered from Disgrace and Michael K, Coetzee writes in a very different style to what I’ve read for most of my life. For starters there’s really no ‘plot’ or ‘central premise’ to the book; no pressing issue that needs to be resolved. I could say that it’s about a 52-year old twice-divorced lecturer who has an affair with one of his students but, to be fair, that’s only really what happens in the first 30 pages. Further on, it’s about different things and further yet it keeps developing organically. The result is that it’s hard to predict where the story is heading next but, at the same time, it’s not really out to surprise you, it’s just the way it’s written. For most part, I enjoyed it.

 The only thing I found ‘disappointing’ in any sense was the ending. There wasn’t any climax or conclusion in the sense that I’m used to but I wasn’t left wanting either because I felt that the story had run its course. I suppose this kind of story is still new to me. If I have to describe the book in a term, I’d say it’s something of a ‘slice of life’ of the main character.

 And perhaps this is why I found it so interesting. I’m a sucker for minimalist prose and I really admire the way Coetzee could string complex characters and complex relationships together in only a short chapter or two. I also felt myself constantly thinking as I read through each short chapter, always evaluating but being unsure what my response to some of the events.

 With the two books that I’ve read of Coetzee I’ve felt like there’s something subtle going on beneath the surface and I’ve yet to reach that ‘aha’ moment when I can say that I’ve figured it out. For now, I suppose, I feel really strongly about wanting to read more of Coetzee. Even after finishing the book, I still feel like it’s running through my head while I try to work out what I make of everything. I’ve heard Waiting for the Barbarians is quite good. Maybe I’ll get that one next.

Coetzee won’t hold your hand so you’re going to have to think and be more than a little sharp to get below the surface of his subtle style. But Disgrace is a one of Coetzee’s best.

See you next week

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2 comments

  1. Take it or leave it, the Man Booker Prize lacks credibility. Or so it seems. However, books like “Disgrace” manage to salvage most of the lost credibility. Quite clearly Coetzee’s masterpiece, “Disgrace” makes you think; and think hard. If I have seen an author touch that evasive trait of “humanness”, it has to be Coetzee. Coetzee is honest to the core, and does not hide. Most of us do. Most authors do. David Lurie, the protagonist, is lucid. Reviewing “Disgrace” like any other story will amount to insult. Because “Disgrace” is poignant. Because “Disgrace” is overwhelming. Because “Disgrace” is poetry guised as prose. Read.

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    1. Hey Amit, thanks for the comment. I’ve looked up the Man Booker winners and I can’t say I recognize much of it other than Life of Pi, Michael K and Midnight’s Children (enjoyed the first two, have yet to read the third). But then again many awards of this nature seem unsatisfactory. For instance: many of the world’s greatest authors are absent from glory lists while many of those glory-listed end up forgotten. It’s hard to tell until 20+ years later what is and isn’t influential.

      ‘Humanness’ I can agree with. Looking back on these thoughts from six months ago, I’ve since come to believe that Coetzee writes in some kind of meta-language (much like Vonnegut). For all Disgrace’s despair and outward human frailty, I can’t help but feel that it’s not intuitively obvious. I’m hoping that as I read more of Coetzee’s work I’m able to piece more of his ideas together. Since Disgrace, I have yet to go back to him. He’s on my list however.

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