Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

David Tripp
Core faculty, BA

I’ve been reading Coetzee for many years, starting with his brilliant early novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, which I use in the Literature course I teach each Summer. Initially he was an obscure South African author coming to my notice during a period when I was immersing myself in African literature. Since then he has gone on to win the Booker prize twice (the only author ever to do so, unless you count Rushdie winning for Midnight’s Children and then winning the 25th anniversary “Booker of Booker” prize) as well as a Nobel prize.

Disgrace is just a stunning tour de force, as they say. I wont weigh you down with an inadequate summary of the plot, but will instead just tell you a brief story about my experience of reading the novel. Early on, making my way through the first few chapters, I was intrigued and interested . . . it seemed his voice was especially sharp and focused even during what appeared to be detours. Then I soon found myself lost in the subtle complexities of the story and admiring the great job he was doing exploring larger political issues in post-apartheid South Africa without ever really directing the reader’s attention there in an obvious and overt manner. As the novel built to its climax I could read all the hints he was dropping about where it was headed–he was setting one of the characters up for what I could only understand as a morally horrific outcome. I found myself thinking (perhaps saying aloud) over and over again, “No, don’t do this, don’t go there, there’s no way he can do this to this character.” As it got closer and closer to the moment of decision I got angrier and angrier at Coetzee. And then the decision came and I was crushed–violently crushed. I literally flung the book across the room (something far out of character for me). I couldn’t believe he had betrayed the character in this way, or betrayed me in this way.

Then, about 24 hours later I had one of the most amazing literature inspired moments of my life: it was a giant “AHA!” It dawned on me what he had really done and the point (if novels can have a point) he was actually getting at and it was just genius, pure genius. It was the kind of “gotcha” that actually alters your thinking because of how deeply it takes you into the complexities of your own emotional/political being. A brilliant work by one of the 20th century’s best.
“University of Texas Acquires Coetzee’s Papers.” NYT
Video interview with J.M. Coetzee Peter Sacks and J.M. Coetzee, Recorded at the Lensic Theater in Santa Fe, New Mexico on November 8, 2001. A Piece of Monologue.
“Letters Offer an Intimate Portrait of Poet Lord Byron.” NPR

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