J. M. Coetzee, distinguished South African author and professor of English at the University of Cape Town, is the first writer to win the prestigious Booker Prize for fiction twice. In 1983, Coetzee received Britain’s highest prize in fiction for his novel Life and Times of Michael K.On October 25, 1999, the announcement was made that he had won an unprecedented second Booker Prize for Disgrace. It is his eighth novel, following a gap of five years since his seventh. During that time he concentrated on nonfiction, including two long lectures in The Lives of Animals (1999), although much of that work is presented in a fictional framework. The Lives of Animals examines the relationship between humans and animals and explores the shaping of human values.Disgrace continues these same themes about animals and human values and adds the theme of examining changed race relations in postcolonial South Africa.
Disgrace opens with David Lurie thinking to himself that he has “solved the problem of sex rather well” by having a weekly appointment with Soraya, whom he pays for a ninety- minute session. Lurie’s two brief marriages (he has a daughter from the first one) had ended in divorce. He spent many years having casual affairs, but these now seem difficult to arrange, since he is 52 years old and has lost the magnetism that seemed once to draw women to him. This weekly appointment with Soraya, which has been going on for over a year, suits his temperament, he thinks, and his temperament will not change. He says to himself that the skull and the temperament are the two hardest parts of the body. Then one morning he sees Soraya in the city shopping with two boys who are obviously her sons, and their eyes meet briefly. Shortly after that Soraya tells him that she will not be available. Clearly there will be changes for Professor Lurie after all.
His teaching situation has already changed. What was formerly Cape Town University College is now Cape Technical. Lurie is a specialist in British Romantic literature, with three books of literary criticism, but the classics and modern languages department had been closed down as part of “the great rationalization,” and his job changed to teaching low-level “communications skills” classes. He had never been particularly interested in teaching, and now he has no respect for the material he teaches, and the students are totally indifferent. Like the other “rationalized” personnel, now considered woefully redundant, he is allowed to offer only one course per year in his field.
One evening as he is returning home from the school library, he notices ahead of him one of his students from his Romantics course. Her name is Melanie Isaacs. She is not a particularly good student and is basically unengaged with the course. He speaks to her, without quite knowing why, and invites her to his house for supper. They see each other a few times and have sex, although she shows little interest. A boyfriend comes to class with her one day, and Professor Lurie’s car is vandalized. Melanie stops coming to class, but Lurie gives her credit for a test she did not take. Her father, who lives some distance away, phones and then comes to see him at his office, saying that what Lurie did to his daughter was not right. David is brought before a committee presenting him with charges of sexual harassment and falsifying records. The committee is willing to bargain about “punishment” if he will appear contrite. He instead says he will plead guilty to whatever charges they want to bring against him but refuses to say he regrets the experience. He is thus terminated from his position without benefits.
Lurie leaves the city to go to his daughter Lucy’s small landholding near Salem in the uplands of the Eastern Cape. Lucy has been living there with another woman who has now gone, and Lucy is alone, making a little money from a dog kennel and raising flowers and garden crops which she sells at a Saturday market in a nearby town. She has had some help from an Afrikaner named Petrus who lives in her old stable with a wife and children; he has another wife and more children in the city. Lucy has sold him some of her land, and it becomes increasingly clear that he is ambitious and eventually intends to buy her out although she does not want to leave. Petrus is building a new house and sees himself and his people as the rightful inheritors of the country.
Lurie has not been there long before three black natives, two men and a boy, come to the house, kill the dogs in the kennel, throw acid on Lurie’s head, beat him...
(The entire section is 1884 words.)