“Disgrace” John Maxwell Coetzee


It’s been several weeks since I finished the book, and I’m still under its impression. My life with Coetzee begins with “Disgrace.”

To start with, I’d like to write my observations about the language and the style. I think this novel is beautifully written. There isn’t one word out of place. Every sentence makes sense. It’s well thought through. The language is not abundant with sophisticated expressions and words. Instead, it’s minimalistic. It doesn’t overwhelm. That’s the greatest success of this book (one of many) that it reads smooth although it touches upon difficult issues. In this regard, I enjoyed it immensely. Moreover, the narrator is third person, but it feels like it is the main character talking. The narration focuses on the thoughts and reflections of David Lurie, and him alone. It seems like it is his internal voice. Thanks to this, we follow David everywhere from the first to the last page.

“Disgrace” revolves around one person mainly: David Lurie. I’d characterize him as a bitter, cynical and, above all, unlikable person. He suffers from vacuity of emotions, the inability to empathize. Although I love the book, I hate David. Or rather, I have ambiguous feeling towards him. Furthermore, all characters he encounters serve one purpose: he identifies, or is identified, through these encounters. For example, his affair with Melanie shows what kind of person, lover, and teacher he is. One thing I hated the most about him is his attitude towards women. I felt sick reading his thoughts and harsh judgments about Bev, how neglected and unattractive she seems to him, or, in contrast, about Melanie, and how beautiful and sexy she is with her young body. He judges women based on their appearance. It is frustrating because he is by no means perfect himself. Additionally, I like the way the break-in is described. Even though it is a tragedy (Lucy’s rape and setting David on fire), it’s not dramatic, or melodramatic, for that matter. On the one hand, it’s shocking. On the other, there’s no cheesiness, dramatizing, whining. I like this somewhat cold approach.

As far as Lucy is concerned, it is hard to understand her actions; therefore, I can’t identify with her. I think her life is sad, and there is little for her to look forward to. However, I think of her in terms of her influence on David and his transformation. I believe David went through a change. Because of Lucy’s disgrace, he understood his own disgrace, and his influence on Melanie. Maybe he even realized he hurt her. Most of the time, I thought Lucy was raped as a punishment for David – he suffered as his daughter suffered. Similarly, Mr. Issacs must have felt the same when Melanie was, in a way, disgraced by David. I treated it as a lesson for him. However, there is a passage when Lucy says:

You behave as if everything I do is part of the story of your life. You are the main character, I am a minor character who doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through. Well, contrary to what you think, people are not divided into major and minor. I am not minor. I have a life of my own, just as important to me as yours is to you, and in my life I am the one who makes the decisions. (Chapter 22)

It is like a slap in the face (at least, I felt so). I was both confused and ashamed that I treated Lucy as “a minor character.” Thus, her story is even more miserable. There seems to be no reason or explanation to why she was raped. However, there is still the baby, the sole thing Lucy looks forward to. At this point, David behaves selfishly once again – instead of thinking about Lucy, he considers what kind of grandfather he’s going to be.

Another issue is the dogs. What is connected with them is pain, the question of having a soul, the meaning of life. The dogs are mistreated, put down, and disposed of. They are not needed. To some extent, it reflects David’s situation. They no longer need him at the university so he is “disposed of,” or rather does that himself. Interestingly, he takes on the responsibility of taking the dogs’ dead bodies to where they are burned. He cares for them more after they’re dead because nobody else does. I suppose he does that because he’s afraid no one will care for him after his death.

The title disgrace seems to be a contagious disease. David becomes afflicted with it, suffers from it, and refuses to be cured. Wherever he goes, he passes it on those around him. He disgraces Melanie. When he moves in with Lucy, she becomes disgraced by being raped. We could even say he disgraces Bev when he has an affair with her though he doesn’t find her attractive. Disgrace follows him throughout the entire story. In my view, he is never free from it. At some point, he realizes it, becomes apologetic (what everybody is waiting for), and perhaps embraces it. In this respect, his final words are crucial: “Yes, I am giving him up.” I’m still trying to understand the ending. Does it mean that the narrator/author/God gives up on David, that there is no saving for him, no salvation? With a few religious hints (one being a description of Inferno) it is likely.

Last but not least, David is constantly being compared and compares himself to Byron and the poet’s relationship with Theresa. David writes an opera about them, but it seems only an excuse to present David’s situation. The most striking element about it is that David appears to be sensitive enough to understand poetry of the English Romantics, but in life he lacks any sensitivity or tact whatsoever. He is not a romantic character. In this way, there is no hope for him.

I love this book from the first words to the very last. It is a tremendous achievement: beautifully written, though provoking, intelligent, and absolutely amazing. It is also real and realistic. There’s no flirting with the reader, no forced attempts to please anyone – only life and bare emotions. I believe it is one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Long days, pleasant nights,

Veronica Bazydlo

4 thoughts on “…vacuity

  1. Przeczytałam “Hańbę” i mogłam teraz przeczytać Twoją recenzję i przyznaję, że jest świetna. Dogłębna, porusza najważniejsze motywy w książce. Miałaś rację z tłumaczeniem – ostatnie zdanie po polsku brzmi: “Tak, poddaję.” Niemniej jednak czytało mi się świetnie.

    • Queen of the Grubs says:

      Dziękuję ogromnie. Doceniam, że odwiedzasz mój blog i tak przychylnie oceniłaś tą recenzję. Jest to dla mnie sygnał, jak mam pisać recenzje. Myślę, że przemyślenia wyszły mi dobrze, ponieważ ta powieść jest tak wspaniała i trafiła do mnie.

    • Queen of the Grubs says:

      Są spoilery, bo chciałam wypowiedzieć się na temat pewnych wydarzeń oraz końca książki. Jak zwykle czekam z niecierpliwością na twoją opinię. (^_^)

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