Book #43: Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee

I’m pretty proud of my reading speed in recent days.

Today I finished my third book in one week’s time. All three of these books happen to be required reading for one of my classes this semester, so the fact that I’ve gotten ahead before the semester begins is just icing on the cake.

I skipped a blog post for Book #42 on my 2015 reading list, which was Salman Rushdie’s Shame. In all honesty, I didn’t write anything about it because I don’t know what to write. I finished the book yesterday afternoon, but my thoughts on it are muddled. Shame was my first encounter with Rushdie, so I’m hoping some class discussions this fall will enlighten me on the subject.

Now to the book at hand: J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (you might notice that with titles like Shame and Disgrace the readings for this class don’t exactly sound uplifting). This was also my first reading of Coetzee, and stylistically, it’s one that’s made me interested in reading more of his works.

My roommate read Disgrace in recent weeks because he’s also taking this class, and told me he had mixed feelings about it. I believe his exact words were something along the lines of “whiny white people,” which certainly isn’t ideal reading, and not the most enticing introduction when I started reading the book last night.

Ryan definitely wasn’t wrong in his assessment of the book. At first, I was a bit amused by David Lurie, the novel’s (anti-) hero. Lurie is a 52-year-old Communications professor at a university in South Africa. He’s far more interested in high brow entertainment than his mediocre students. But then Lurie becomes obsessed with a young female student, luring her into his home for an affair that she only seems to tolerate.

By chapter 2, I was already repulsed by Lurie — I even scribbled “you’re gross” in the margins on page 12. He feels entitled to the affections of his student, or perhaps any female he deems worthy of his love. I was most disgusted by the following interaction, when Lurie tries to convince the girl she must spend the night with him: “A woman’s beauty does not belong to her alone. It is part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it.”

As much as I hated the sentiment in this statement, I ended up feeling more compassionate toward Lurie than I ever imagined. Lurie ends up staying with his daughter in her rural home temporarily, and the two of them fall victim to a horrendous act of violence that carries the weight of the racial tension in South Africa. Though Lurie largely remains self-obsessed, his eyes are opened a bit to the world around him and his humanity comes through by the book’s end.

The hardest part of reading this book with a terribly flawed protagonist is separating him from his creator. Ryan mentioned this to me when he read the book, saying it was hard to tell if the sentiments expressed were those of the characters or Coetzee himself. On my copy of the book, Coetzee’s image is featured on the back cover next to the blurb, so I found it especially difficult to see the character as anyone else. Maybe this was intentional, but I’d like to imagine Coetzee is a better man than his character. I guess I’ll have to do some further reading to find out.

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