the stark blank cover used for the U.S. version of Disgrace (1999) by J.M. Coetzee published by Penguin


  • Author:  J.M. Coetzee  (b. 1940)
  • Rank:  #64
  • Published:  1999
  • Publisher:  Martin Secker & Warburg
  • Pages:  220
  • First Line:  “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problems of sex rather well.”
  • Last Line:  ” ‘Yes, I am giving him up.’ “
  • ML Edition:  none
  • Acclaim:  Booker Prize; The Observer “Best English-Language Novel of the Past 25 Years Outside the United States”
  • Film:  2008
  • First Read:  Fall, 2001

The Novel: At the turn of the previous century there was Thomas Hardy.  You could count on Hardy for a brilliant, yet incredibly depressing book that would make you despair over the fate of humanity.  If the end result of naturalism was tragic death then what was the point?  There are inheritors of Thomas Hardy, of course, and while Ian McEwan is the British godson, J.M. Coetzee is his South African equivalent.  You read his works and think to yourself, “my god, this is a writer of immense talent.”  Then you think to yourself, “what the fuck is the point of anything in life?”

Perhaps the point is to read a novel like this and find its art and language to bring a counterpoint to this despair of its narrative.  When you read a sentence like “Patiently, silently, Lucy must work her own way back from the darkness to the light.” you marvel at the sentence, then you think about why she is in the darkness and hope that the art of the novel itself is enough to keep you in the light.  Then you stop to think about the plot and that can be enough to sink you once again.  David, a professor at a South African university makes some foolish choices and ends up retreating from the city out to the rural inland of South Africa.  What is intended as a visit with his daughter turns into so much more when they are brutally assaulted.  The rest of this short novel deals with David’s attempts to normalize both his life and his relations with his daughter.

The overwhelming despair of the plot is enough.  From that brilliant first line, we understand that this solution does not account for the possibility of change.  This is a foolish mistake in the South Africa of the nineties, a period when everything within the nation is changing.  For anyone who has ever dealt with the nightmare of a beaurocracy, no matter what we think of David’s actions, we can understand his frustration in moving towards some finality.  Then, once he retreats, even before the assault, there is the problem of attempting to find peace through a relationship with the following generation.  The haunting passage, “When she does not come, he puts aside his blanket, stands up, and takes her in his arms.  In his embrace she is stiff as a pole, yielding nothing.” comes after the assault, but given the problems that hang over David and his daughter, it could easily have come before.

That all of this is taking place in a South Africa in transition makes it all the more poignant.  Coetzee never overtly brings up the political problems of South Africa, but the differences between life in the rural areas and the life that Davis has known in the city highlight the tensions in the country just the same.  David, just as he was unable to adapt properly to the change of his sexual situation, is unable to understand the ways in which his daughter has adapted to this new kind of life.  But David does have an understanding of the larger problems facing his country, just as Coetzee has been able to succinctly write about it in such works as Waiting for the Barbarians and Life and Times of Michael K.  He even seems to ironically comment on his own subtle approach to such topics: “More and more he is convinced that English is an unfit medium for the truth of South Africa.”

Disgrace is not a happy book and not a fun book.  It is not difficult stylistically, but it is certainly hard to get through.  You don’t move on having enjoyed it.  But you end up being glad to you read it, for not all art is pleasure.  But all great art enriches us for having experienced it.