Coetzee was the first author to win the Booker prize twice: first in 1983 for Life & Times of Michael K, about a young South African man of color trying to leave a terrifying city life to return to the country. One might say that Disgrace is similar in a way, since it is about another man who retreats from the city to a farm. However, Coetzee’s second booker winner (1999) reminds me more of Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist (1974), because both feature a privileged white South African man. Disgrace’s protagonist, professor of communications David Lurie, has not chosen his retreat: he is rather in exile, or disgrace, for sexual harassment of a student. This must have been one of the first novels to deal with the growing political correctness that began to be felt in the 1990s.
After David has his brief and selfish affair with a student, and refuses to cooperate with the investigative committee, he resigns and goes to his daughter’s farm and kennel. He begins to rebuild his life, volunteering and writing, until he and his daughter are attacked by local thugs. The two crimes and their aftermath are vastly different…or are they?
I try not to read too much about a novel before I finish it, preferring to form my own opinions. But as soon as I finished this one, I turned to the front matter: a page of extracts from reviews. The words that jumped out at me were “cold” and “uncomfortable”; “perplex” and “disturb.” I agree with all of those. I also try to refrain from too much interpretation in these reviews, in order to let my reader (readers, I hope!) form *their* own opinions. But I must say that this novel, lean as it is, is rich with symbolic material about fathers and daughters, crime and penance, even dogs and people. It is about a world in which the sexes, races, and species are overcoming centuries of inequality. It’s a slow and painful process.