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the Complete Review
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To purchase Disgrace

Title: Disgrace
Author: J.M.Coetzee
Genre: Novel
Written: 1999
Length: 220 pages
Availability: Disgrace - US
Disgrace - UK
Disgrace - Canada
Disgrace - India
Disgrâce - France
Schande - Deutschland
Vergogna - Italia
Desgracia - España
  • Disgrace won the Booker Prize (1999) and the Commonwealth Writers Prize (2000)
  • Disgrace was made into a film in 2008, directed by Steve Jacobs and starring John Malkovich

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Our Assessment:

A- : impressive, but full of unpleasantness

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Antioch Review . Summer/2000 John Kennedy
Christian Science Monitor . 10/11/1999 Ron Charles
Commentary . 3/2000 Carol Iannone
FAZ . 21/3/2000 Jochen Hieber
The Independent . 3/7/1999 Paul Bailey
The Lancet . 8/1/2000 Daniel Davies
Literary Review . 7/1999 Nicholas Mosley
London Rev. of Books A+ 14/10/1999 Elizabeth Lowry
The Nation . 6/3/2000 Joseph McElroy
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 27/5/2000 Lewis Nkosi
The New Republic . 20/12/1999 James Wood
New Statesman A 18/10/1999 Douglas McCabe
The NY Rev. of Books . 20/1/2000 John Banville
The NY Times . 11/11/1999 C. Lehmann-Haupt
The NY Times Book Rev. A 28/11/1999 Michael Gorra
The New Yorker . 15/11/1999 Daphne Merkin
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Summer/2000 Rebecca Saunders
Salon . 5/11/1999 Andrew O'Hehir
San Francisco Chronicle . 28/11/1999 Oscar C. Villalon
The Spectator . 10/7/1999 Katie Grant
Time A 29/11/1999 Elizabeth Gleick
TLS . 26/6/1999 Ranti Williams
World Lit. Today . Winter/2000 Robert L. Berner
Die Zeit . 15/6/2000 Iris Radisch

  Review Consensus:

  Very impressed.

  From the Reviews:
  • "In its honest and relentless probing of character and motive -- reminiscent of Walker Percy's insightful writings -- this novel secures Coetzee's place among today's major novelists. It deals with love and relationships at their most basic and dark levels -- as paths to both meaning and survival." - John Kennedy, The Antioch Review

  • "It may be that 200 pages have never worked so hard as they do in Coetzee's hands. He's a novelist of stunning precision and efficiency. Disgrace loses none of its fidelity to the social and political complexities of South Africa, even while it explores the troubling tensions between generations, sexes, and races. This is a novel of almost frightening perception from a writer of brutally clear prose." - Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor

  • "This is a dry, hard novel, not as affecting or as imaginatively fashioned as Coetzee's other Booker winner, Life and Times of Michael K. The characters are so flatly presented that we cannot fully enter into their mental worlds, and the prose is so sparse as to verge on the lazy. (...) But at the same time, Disgrace is a gripping read, paced, shaped, and developed in a way that locks us into the narrative, and threaded with recurring images, like that of fire, which slowly build to an unbearable climax." - Carol Iannone, Commentary

  • "In Sachen David Lurie jedoch hat er sein Mitgefühl ein wenig zu dick aufgetragen. Die eindeutige Symphatielenkung, die er für seinen traurigen Helden in Gang setzt, erscheint deshalb etwas aufdringlich, ja kokett. (...) Die herbe Handlung etwa, die er seinen Hauptfiguren aufbürdet, ist vollkommen plausibel, folgerichtig und, man soll das nicht verachten, spannend von der ersten bis zur letzten Seite.(...) Schande ist kein tröstliches Buch. Es ist viel mehr: ein beunruhigender Roman." - Jochen Hieber, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Disgrace is a subtle, multi-layered story, as much concerned with politics as it is with the itch of male flesh. Coetzee's prose is chaste and lyrical without being self- conscious: it is a relief to encounter writing as quietly stylish as this. I was not totally convinced by Lurie's musical abilities, with regard to his proposed opera, but that is my sole complaint." - Paul Bailey, The Independent

  • "Disgrace offers an apocalyptic vision of contemporary South Africa. (...) What transforms Disgrace from a good, compelling book into a work of brilliance is its allegorical reach." - Daniel Davies, The Lancet

  • "What makes the book interesting is the contrast between the urban life of an older-generation white male (who cannot escape from pride or principles even when these have led him to a dead end) and the rural life, where suffering, death and brutality are daily occurrences and have to be dealt with if there is to be any life at all. This conflict is no doubt epitomised in South Africa today." - Nicholas Mosley, Literary Review

  • "Disgrace is the best novel Coetzee has written. It is a chilling, spare book, the work of a mature writer who has refined his textual obsessions to produce an exact, effective prose and condensed his thematic concern with authority into a deceptively simple story of family life. Half campus novel, half anti-pastoral, it begins quietly enough in Cape Town. (....) As so often in Coetzee's fiction, the characters in Disgrace have a metonymic or symbolic function." - Elizabeth Lowry, London Review of Books

  • "Yet if it is faith Coetzee confesses, complete with annunciation and sacrifice, the form it takes is an art of stubborn, palpable inquiry. The apartness and pastoral retreat in some of the earlier work find in Disgrace even hints of a future for groups, for the polis." - Joseph McElroy, The Nation

  • "(A) very good novel, almost too good a novel. It knows its limits, and lives within a wary self-governance. It sometimes reads as if it were the winner of an exam whose challenge was to create the perfect specimen of a very good contemporary novel. It is truthful, spare, compelling, often moving, and thematically legible: that is to say, it does not overflow interpretation. It does not rise to greatness, in part because of a certain formal, cognitive, and linguistic neatness -- almost a somber tidiness, if such a thing can be imagined -- that is obscured, and almost successfully subjugated, by what is most powerful about the book, its loose wail of pain, its vigorous honesty." - James Wood, The New Republic

  • "Unable to communicate at the best of times, the characters' relationships crumple completely under the strain of momentous events. Coetzee, meanwhile, maintains the miracle that is his style: a determinedly clipped, abrupt prose that defies the brutality of events by nourishing a poetic vision. The main events, and the threads and stories within stories, all emerge in the end as the same central tale: a tireless reiteration of the impossibility of communication." - Douglas McCabe, New Statesman

  • "The effect of the novel's plot is deeply disturbing, in part because of what happens to David and Lucy, but equally because of the disintegrating context of their experiences. Not even language can be trusted." - Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times

  • "This novel stands as one of the few I know in which the writer's use of the present tense is in itself enough to shape the structure and form of the book as a whole. Even though it presents an almost unrelieved series of grim moments, Disgrace isn't claustrophobic or depressing, as some of Coetzee's earlier work has been. Its grammar allows for the sublime exhilaration of accident and surprise, and so the fate of its characters -- and perhaps indeed of their country -- seems not determined but improvised." - Michael Gorra, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The novel's juxtaposed inquiries and trials, for example, constitute a compelling debate over legal and confessional versions of ethics (.....) Similar dialogues are elicited through the novel's repeated scenes of intrusion and its meditations on disgrace, on animality, on the perfective. They are conversations that will not let us have ethical issues wrapped up in lovely clarity, with a bow of clean conscience on top." - Rebecca Saunders, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "Disgrace is Coetzee's first book to deal explicitly with post-apartheid South Africa, and the picture it paints is a cheerless one that will comfort no one, no matter what race, nationality or viewpoint. (...) There is something fundamentally cryptic and unsummarizable about Disgrace, but I read it as an almost metaphysical journey from this Romantic variety of love to the harsher, leaner strain David eventually learns from life on and around Lucy's farm." - Andrew O'Hehir, Salon

  • "And though Coetzee's protagonist serves as an impeccable guide into the new South Africa that lies outside the squalor of the townships, that is the least of Coetzee's achievement here. What Disgrace has on its mind is more urgent, more pitiless. In stark, wintry prose, Coetzee unflinchingly examines the absence of consolation; he finds that words are incapable of hiding our common solitude (.....) That he keeps the reader from cowering at such an unhappy subject is testament to the smoothness of his writing, his clinical yet exquisite tone and his unexpected hiccups of humor." - Oscar C. Villalon, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Coetzee has devised a subtly brilliant commentary on the nature and balance of power in his homeland. (...) Disgrace is a mini-opera without music by a writer at the top of his form. Its bleak vision lingers, shattering any hope of a redemptive state of grace." - Elizabeth Gleick, Time

  • "Lurie is a fascinating, fully realized character, defined throughout the novel in terms of his inability to relate to the women in his life (.....) In fact, Disgrace is not about Lurie's relationship with women, but about what these relationships tell him about himself." - Ranti Williams, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Disgrace is yet another surprise, a straightforward narrative that means just what it says, its real subject perhaps too grim for fashionable "progressive" opinion in its current state. (...) It is the present-day Republic of South Africa, in which, at least in Coetzee's vision, an English professor who seduces a confused student is inevitably disgraced and exiled but three thugs in the countryside can get away with rape, robbery, and attempted murder." - Robert L. Berner, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Disgrace is the story of David Lurie, a professor at Cape Technical University in South Africa. The first sentence of the novel claims that: "For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well." In fact, sex has become a big problem for him, and is about to get much bigger.
       When the book opens Lurie gets his satisfaction from weekly visits to the same prostitute, a woman he knows as Soraya, but it's an arrangement that soon falls apart. Lurie, however can't accept it: it was an arrangement that worked, and the alternatives don't satisfy him. He even goes so far as to hire a detective to find Soraya, but ultimately backs off when she makes it clear that she wants nothing more to do with him.
       Lurie is getting old, and no longer catches the eyes of the ladies as he used to. The prostitute-solution was a good one while it worked, but there's more to his sexual frustration than merely finding that brief release. Just another whore won't do, and when the opportunity to seduce a student, Melanie Isaacs, presents itself he avails himself of it.
       It's an awkward relationship that develops: the first only "mildly smitten" professor, falling for the attractive and vulnerable young woman. Melanie appears slightly confused and troubled, a young student unsure of what she wants. Unequipped to deal with the professor's advances -- and not entirely adverse to the flattering attention -- Melanie more or less goes along with it. But she's a reluctant participant, and, as was ultimately also the case with Soraya, Lurie never gets a good handle of the parameters of the permissible in his relationship with her. Yet again (recall: he's twice divorced, too), Lurie fails with the woman he's with, wanting something from them they can't provide (perhaps because all he knows how to ask for (or demand) is sex, when that's not what he's after at all). Previously the cost of failure was only divorce and loss, but now it's disgrace.
       Lurie is charged with sexual harassment. He chooses not to defend himself: "I plead guilty. That is as far as I am prepared to go." The university, indeed contemporary society, demand more: remorse and an admission that he understands he has done something wrong, but Lurie is only willing to say he did what he did. If he wanted, he could be forgiven: a token punishment and then everything probably pretty much back to how it was before. Lurie isn't willing to go along with the charade, and he forces them to impose the harshest punishment, and he leaves the university in disgrace.
       Lurie flees to his daughter, Lucy, who has a plot of land in the countryside and lives by selling flowers at a local market and boarding dogs. It's no stretch to think that Lurie's bad example of what a man does to women (Soraya and Melanie being only the two most recent examples of what surely is a life-long pursuit) drove his daughter to homosexuality. Perhaps, as with Lurie, it may once again very well not be about sex at all; in any case, she hardly seems any more successful at relationships with a partner, as her lover has moved out, leaving her all alone.
       A second disgrace comes: three hoodlums come and attack Lurie and his daughter, raping her. Once again, sex isn't about sex: as Lucy later describes it, the violation was an act of: "Subjection. Subjugation." Lucy also chooses not to tell the police that she was raped, only that her father was attacked and some property stolen. As her father did in his case, she does not believe the authorities and the systems in place are equipped to deal with what happened to her. She explains to Lurie:

'The reason is that, as far as I am concerned, what happened to me is a purely private matter. In another time, in another place it might be held to be a public matter. But in this place, at this time, it is not. It is my business, mine alone.'
    'This place being what ?'
    'This place being South Africa.'
       Race, history, politics (in the widest sense of the word) come into it: Lurie and his daughter are white, their attackers black. And the situation is more complex: Lucy has a black hand, Petrus, who asserts his independence, getting his own plot of land, working it, obviously the future whereas Lucy is only a sliver of the past that will soon be able to survive there only at his sufferance. Power shifts throughout the novel, steadily from Lucy to Petrus. Conveniently and obviously not coincidentally, Petrus was absent when the attack occurred. It turns out one of the attackers is a relative of his, a disturbed boy who later even moves in next door. Lucy isn't happy about these facts, but she doesn't go to the authorities with them and she doesn't want to move, accepting her new role and willing to make even greater sacrifices to hold onto what little she has.
       There's a show of rule of law, but throughout the novel there's little patience or respect for the authorities and procedures. When the police say they've found Lurie's stolen truck he goes to the Vehicle Theft Unit and is shown a car that's obviously not his. To add injury to insult, the culprits caught with the stolen vehicle were released on bail, leading Lurie to rub the police's incompetence in their noses:
Wouldn't it have made more sense to call me in before you set them free, to have me identify them ? Now that they are out on bail they wil just disappear. You know that.
       But clearly having the criminals disappear -- not having to deal with them, or rather their crimes -- is what everybody in this society wants. (When Lurie returns to Cape Town his home has, of course, been ransacked; he doesn't even appear to bother calling the police.)
       It's a world uncomfortably in transition: Lurie's penance includes working for one of Lucy's friends, in "a place not of healing -- her doctoring was too amateurish for that -- but of last resort". But everything Lurie comes close to seems a place a of last resort. Aging Lurie, who can now expect no better than to bed this woman who puts animals to sleep that he then disposes of (a very decent human being, but a sorry piece of flesh), feels good and sorry for himself after having sex:
     Let me not forget this day, he tells himself, lying beside her when they are spent. After the sweet young flesh of Melanie Isaacs, this is what I have come to. This is what I will have to get used to, this and even less.
       Lucy's situation becomes more precarious, but she won't accept Lurie's offers of escape. He's willing to send her to Holland, but she's not ready to abandon her small piece of land and what life she has here, despite the compromises she will have to make. And far from getting over the rape, Lucy decides to live even with the traces of it she could have done away with. Her philosophy doesn't augur well: asked whether she loves the child growing in her yet she says:
No. How could I ? But I will. Love will grow -- one can trust Mother Nature for that. I am determined to be a good mother, David. A good mother and a good person.
       Her father doesn't remind her where determination has gotten her, nor does he question her theory of love (or, for that matter, of goodness). A failure at love himself, he chooses this the one time to be entirely supportive of a woman in his life. And, at least, he can take some sort of pride in the fact that she apparently truly is her father's daughter.

       Disgrace is a terribly dark book. The rape is discreetly handled, but there is a great deal of unpleasantness that is described quite closely. Much of it involves violence against animals (both arbitrary and necessary). Even where there isn't outright violence, there is almost always menace in the air, from Lurie's seduction of Melanie to Lucy's relationship with Petrus.
       Lurie and Lucy are strong-willed but misguided, unwilling to do the obvious or simple. But Coetzee handles these basically ugly characters well: they are convincing, if not sympathetic. The writing is compelling, the voices (there is a great deal of dialogue) and descriptions sharp and true. The book moves forward somewhat uncertainly, but this mirrors Lurie's own state. More impressively, Coetzee does not impose an easy resolution, allowing for uncertainty (though leavening it with a dash of hope).
       Disgrace is a troubling work, of troubled people in troubled times. Ill-equipped -- or unwilling -- to face the new realities of post-apartheid South Africa, Lurie and his daughter nevertheless try to find their place in it. As they live largely apart from society in any case (uncomfortable with it under the best of circumstances, one imagines), the book is not as effective as it might be in shedding all that much light on the new realities. Still, it's a powerful work and a gripping (if unsettling -- and not always in a productive way) read.

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Disgrace: Reviews: Disgrace - the movie: J.M.Coetzee: Other books by J.M.Coetzee under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       John M. Coetzee was born in South Africa in 1940. He has won many literary prizes, and was the 2003 Nobel laureate in literature.

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