J. M. Coetzee: Discovering Disgrace

I can’t explain why I’ve never read J. M. Coetzee until two weeks ago. I always meant to dig into this Nobel Prize winner from South Africa, but never got around to it. Fortunately, a sudden flurry of articles about Coetzee inspired me to grab a copy of Disgrace for a recent airplane flight.

What a book. Disgrace is a brisk morality tale involving two mirror-image incidents of sexual abuse. One incident begins as a vapid collegiate professor-student affair, but the other begins with a brutal rape that then forms the nucleus of an even greater crime, the complete submission of a human being to a degraded state of life. This book offers a potent mix of guilt and outrage, racial disharmony and sexual disharmony, and it makes provocative connections in several ambigious directions. It’s the kind of powerful book I always hoped Philip Roth would write (but he never did). Subtle notes of Nabokov, Kafka and Nietzsche abound. Not bad for an airplane book.

I am now reading three new Coetzee books at once: Waiting for the Barbarians, Elizabeth Costello and the collected literary essays. (The new one? Looks intriguing, but you know how I feel about hardcovers. I’ll stick with the backlist.)

Any other J. M. Coetzee readers out there?

15 Responses

  1. Like you, I picked up
    Like you, I picked up Costello and Barbarians quickly after reading Disgrace – but have yet to read either, so looking forward to your thoughts.

    Slow Man looks good, as well.

  2. I began Disgrace a couple of
    I began Disgrace a couple of years ago on a recommendation and put it down after a few chapters. I found it obvious, overworked (oh, the horror of it all ….), and cliched. Clearly I’m in the minority on this one!

    Is anybody else a Coetzee contrarian?

  3. I’m with you, Dan. The plot
    I’m with you, Dan. The plot was so contrived that I couldn’t suspend disbelief enough to enjoy any part of it. When I was finished, I threw the book across the room.

  4. i bought disgrace in a train
    i bought disgrace in a train station bookstore a few years ago, to have company for a long train ride, and haven’t regretted it. it was an easy read, quickly enthralling, haunting, very straight, yet full of layers. it’s a personal story as much as the story of a country, and it speaks about sadness, betrayal, desire, judging, brutality, hope, revenge, frustration, love, hate, and still the language is plain, precise, not judgemental, almost lyrical at times, always intelligent. a good and rich read.

  5. Surely every reader has at
    Surely every reader has at least one author they hate, while the rest of the world raves. Coetzee and Crace happen to be mine. Who are yours, Levi?

    P.S. I am starting to seriously dislike the Joshua Ferris novel because I simply don’t find much of it funny. However, it has given me a few tips on goofing around at work.

  6. Who are mine? Hmmm … well,
    Who are mine? Hmmm … well, I think Cormac McCarthy and Jonathan Lethem have the top spots sewn up.

    Joshua Ferris, yeah, I also don’t get the whole craze.

  7. I’m with you on Cormac,
    I’m with you on Cormac, Levi.

    As far as Disgrace goes, academic novels in which “the professor has an affair” immediately make me want to hurl. Roth and others do this to death. Don’t professors do anything else?

    A *great* novel about a professor having an affair is Wonder Boys, made into a terrific movie starring Michael Douglas. My favorite exchange:

    Student: “Professor, you’ve gotten your boss’s wife pregnant, you shot his dog, and you’ve stolen his most prized possession. What are you going to do?”

    Professor: “I’ve got tenure!”

  8. I read Waiting for the
    I read Waiting for the Barbarians about 10 years ago. don’t remember much of the plot but what I do recall, and I think this is what makes Coetzee great, is the experience. The deep feeling of empathy I developed for the main character. The loneliness; isolation. I remember one beautiful moving sequence around washing feet. He works I think because of what he doesn’t say. Leaves a lot of room for the reader to join in, participate. I was so affected I decided to start buying Coetzee first editions. Very difficult to get signed copies btw because he’s not big on self publicity, something I admire. I admire the too the ending of Disgrace. Where Lurie literally goes to the dogs…showing real compassion for the first time in his life I suspect. I agree with panta rhei, the book is poetic, complex, intelligent. In the Heart of the Country is another gut-wrencher. Again loneliness an important theme. Also an interesting twist on unreliable narration. But my favourite Coetzee novel has to be his autobiographical Youth. If you are a fan, do yourself a favour and read it.

    As for Ferris…because of all the hype…he’s on virtually all the 10 ten lists, I bought a copy several days ago…oh well, at least my expectations wont be as high now, which is probably a good thing.

    Thanks for the blog Levi.

  9. I read Disgrace the first
    I read Disgrace the first time many years ago and still consider it one of the best novels I’ve ever read. I plan to blog about it in the near future at http://wisdomofthewest.blogspot.com/. What’s missed in ALL the reviews I’ve ever read is the perfect, classic dramatic structure of the book

  10. Haven’t read Disgrace, and
    Haven’t read Disgrace, and the plot doesn’t really appeal to me, but the other books of his I’ve read I loved. My favourite was Foe.

  11. me, definitely. liked
    me, definitely. liked DISGRACE a lot, as well as WAITING. my favorite, though, is THE LIFE & TIMES OF MICHAEL K. i thought ELIZABETH COSTELLO was a bit of self-indulgent sanctimonious failure of a novel (he didn’t bother with, you know, narrative or anything boring like that). but everything else i like.

  12. Exactly two weeks back, I
    Exactly two weeks back, I picked up two Coetzee books for the first time despite intending to read him for quite sometime. It took me just 4 days (mid-week) to finish them. Point to note is that I work 11 hours a day and am a quite slow, though regular reader. It had to be too gripping for me to have done so well!
    The first one was ‘The Master of Petersburg’ and the second was ‘Youth’. Liked the second better but the first was better plot wise. Neither of the two are supposed to be Coetzee’s best, but for me they shall remain probably the best for two reasons – I could not connect more with ‘Youth’ and I am just in awe of the fact that somebody attempted to write Dostoevsky as a character. I have picked up ‘The Life & Times of K’ but cannot seem to grip it so well – this one will go slow as usual, I guess.

  13. Disgrace was my first Coetzee
    Disgrace was my first Coetzee as well and it blew me away. Absolutely harrowing novel with enough starkness to make the reader cringe and verge on putting the novel down…but that’s impossible. Elizabeth Costello was an interesting examination into the decision making process and thought process of a prolific professor. Textured with enough metaphysical aspects to make it a worthwhile read.

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