Friday, September 14, 2012

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee — 224 pgs

David Laurie is a ineffectual professor at Cape Town University who has just crossed the line with one of his students. Because he is incapable of showing any remorse or repentance to the college's advisory board, he is made an example of, and his position and pension are snatched away from him. A shameless seducer and lover of women, David is a curious mix. Though he is amorous, he is not passionate; though in some part of his mind he knows that what he has done is wrong, he is constantly justifying his behavior to himself and others. After losing his job, David takes flight to his daughter's rural farm and dog kennel in the eastern Cape, thinking he might rework the disgrace of his life into something more manageable through his labors on the farm. As David mulls over his life and the unhappiness he feels regarding his status as an age-addled Romeo, he finds himself assisting others in unlikely jobs and positions. As he helps his daughter tend the farm and operate her stall in the market, he also begins to assist his daughter's assistant who shares the land with her, and another friend who runs an underfunded animal clinic. One day, coming home from a walk, David and his daughter are attacked and terrorized by three men. The repercussions of this attack have tremendous consequences for David and his daughter, and it is only as they move further and further away from the event and its bizarre complications that David can see just how disgraced he has become. In this painful and spare novel, J.M. Coetzee creates a tale of violence and submission, desire and indifference, and the intense longing that a human being can feel to shed and discard a life full to the brim with shame.

Last year, while doing my daily rounds on the blogs, I can across a review of this book on Steph and Tony Investigate, one of my all time favorite blogs. It was a rare double review, and I read the thoughts of Steph and her husband, Tony, with growing intrigue. The main thing I took away from their review of Disgrace was that this was in intensely powerful book, and that it was such a haunting read that it left both of them stunned for different reasons. When I decided to pick up this book on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I had no idea of its all-consuming raw power. I sat quietly for hours flipping the pages, becoming more and more carried away by the profound and piercing story that was unfolding before me. I’ve purposely left most of the aspects of the plot summary rather vague, as I think in the case of this book, it is necessary. In no way would I want to spoil this book for another reader.

The early part of this book deals with David's struggle at the college and reveals how he gets himself into such a mess. It was very hard to like the man, for a lot of different reasons. A main point of distaste was his all-consuming need to assert himself as a virile and sexual man, and his completely inconsiderate actions towards the women whom he pursues. David is overly concerned, and some may even say preoccupied, with his virility and goes to great lengths to prove to himself that he is desirable to women. He blames his actions and behaviors on the touch of Eros that consumes his life. In this way, he takes no responsibility for the things he does and the problems he causes. He’s proud of these things and almost even glib about the way he gets women to succumb to him. His behavior towards the women who cross his path seems almost like a subtle form of dominance and territorial behavior. As things move from bad to worse in David's life, this attitude is the one thing that prevails, and though it’s sometimes masked by circumstance, it’s always there, lurking behind other things. It made David a tough character to sympathize with, but the events of the plot unfold so painfully and brilliantly that I found myself deeply sorry for him and for the course his life takes.

Much of the cripplingly painful elements of this story surround two very different and complex situations that arise during David's time on the eastern Cape. The first revolves around the attack that is perpetrated upon David and his daughter. Though at first it was hard to see how this incident was going to influence the characters and what it would do to the remaining plot, eventually things stretched out into the horrible and panoptic situation that ultimately left David and his daughter broken semblances of what they had formerly been. I must admit that while I was deeply moved by these sections, I also understood that I was probably failing to really grasp the repercussions of what had happened and the ways they were going about dealing with it. On the surface, my awareness of their plight flowered painfully, but even now, days later, I’m still contemplating what all these things mean, both about the attackers and the victims of this particular crime. There comes a point in the story where everything reaches a horrible crescendo, but it’s almost impossible to understand all this entails with only a cursory first reading of this book. The impressions I’m left with speak to my heart of exploitation and retribution, shame in its many forms, and subjugation.

The second situation that this book tackles has to do with animal rights. When David begins his work at the clinic, he’s forced to do some very unkind things to the animals he comes in contact with. Mainly it’s the country's many dogs that bear the brunt of this harsh treatment. I don't really want to give too much away other than to say that reading these sections was heartbreaking and horrible at times. It made me want to go search out my dogs, who were lazily lolling about the house, and give them hugs and scratches and tell them how much I love them. It made me want to cry. Disgrace makes the argument that the plight of some animals in South Africa is very bleak indeed, and forced me to deal head-on with some uncomfortable situations and ideas. While these messages were be brilliantly delivered, I also found them to be caustic and painful.

There’s not much more to be said about this book without giving it all away. In Coetzee's neat and spare prose, he manages to rip through all of his reader's comfort zones and take them to a place so visceral and exposed as to leave them speechless. It was an extremely powerful book and one that constantly shocked and surprised me. A lot of it was not comfortable, and though it was filled with messages, it wasn’t typically preachy. I think much of the artistry of this book was the fact that the language and style of the storytelling belied the pathos of the story being told. Simple in its construction, the book was aching in its implications. If I haven't said so outright yet, this was a brilliantly constructed masterpiece of a book. It sends its reader on a trip that’s hard to forget and even harder to emotionally comprehend. A tightly constructed and fantastically unforgiving read. Highly recommended.

19 comments:

Beth F said...

This is the first I've heard of the book, though I've heard of the author. Definitely sounds intense. I just looked up Coetzee's work and I see that I've never read anything by him. I'll have to keep this one on my radar.

Harvee Lau said...

I have read a few books set in South Africa and this one is a good one to add.

NovelKatie said...

I have only recently discovered Coetzee but In The Heart of the Country is one of my favourite books. I am desperate to read everything else he has written but I'm trying to ration them! Can't wait to get to this one after your glowing review!

Katie

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

While this sounds like an incredible read, I have a really REALLY hard time with animal cruelty. I don't know that I could read it, based on that fact alone.

Stacy at The Novel Life said...

Your review makes me want to run out and buy this book, right NOW! I really enjoy books that leave me pondering the plot for days afterward. This book sounds like the perfect read during one of those deep intellectual moments - and I bet I'd want to talk with someone about it after finishing. Excellent review Heather!

Marie said...

this is an amazing book. i'm so glad you enjoyed it! it's a tough one for sure.

Mary (Bookfan) said...

I read another book of Coetzee's and was impressed by his compact storytelling. Loved your review!

Jenners said...

I did not quite have the same reaction to this book. I struggled with it a bit, but he does do a lot in a small amount of pages.

Suko said...

Another very intelligent review! I think this would be a difficult but very worthwhile read.

Jenny said...

Oh wow, I am so glad I read this post. I was going to pick up Disgrace next time I was at the library, but I have a very very very very low tolerance for rape stories, which is even lower when it's stories where the person's [insert type of loved one here] has to be present for it. All no.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I've owned this one for probably 10 years and haven't read it yet. I never seem to be in the right frame of mind when I come across it:) Sounds powerful.

Brooke said...

Isn't Coetzee amazing? I had a professor in college that would not let us graduate without reading something by this man! I feel ashamed that I have yet to read Disgrace.

Lisa said...

Wow, this sounds incredibly powerful. I'm headed to the bookstore tomorrow and will be looking for this one.

Iris said...

I keep thinking I need to read something by Coetzee, and this title comes up quite often. But I admit I am intimidated by his status and the themes of his work. Perhaps one day? Your stellar post certainly made me consider picking it up sooner rather than later.

softdrink said...

Wow. I've only read one Coetzee and I'm blanking on the title. The only thing I remember about it is being vaguely confused throughout the whole thing. Guess I should have read this one!

Audra said...

I think my wife owns this one so I'll have to pick it up -- it sounds soooo challenging/intense/painful, but in a good way.

Elizabeth said...

Thanks for the great post...sounds very good.

Elizabeth
Silver's Reviews
http://silversolara.blogspot.com

Jennifer @ Mrs Q Book Addict said...

This one is new to me. Thanks for the great review! Sounds really interesting.

nomadreader said...

I've been meaning to read this one for years, but I never realized it was about academia. I've only heard people rave! It sounds like one is another I need to finally make time for.

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