Short review: “Disgrace”

June 12, 2022 • 11:30 am

In my quest to read all the novels that have won the Booker Prize, I finished my first one on the list (I read four or five others in the past): Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee (1999). Highly lauded, it not only won the Booker Prize, but was a major impetus for Coetzee’s getting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.

Not wanting to convey spoilers, I’ll just say that the story involves two parallel cases of “disgrace”: a professor who has an affair with one of his students and then, refusing to defend himself, is fired; and the Professor’s daughter, with whom he goes to live after his expulsion. She too meets up with an even worse fate, but again refuses to take steps to assure her a better life after her own misfortune. In both cases I take “disgrace” to mean a character’s refusal to try to mend a broken life.

I found the novel readable (not saying a lot) and the plot engrossing, but the prose plodding. When I really love a novel, the prose has to be a major factor, just as the musicality of poetry is an inseparable part of its overall effect. When the Nobel Prize committee gave Coetzee its citation, it said, among other things, this:

J.M. Coetzee’s novels are characterised by their well-crafted composition, pregnant dialogue and analytical brilliance. But at the same time he is a scrupulous doubter, ruthless in his criticism of the cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality of western civilisation. His intellectual honesty erodes all basis of consolation and distances itself from the tawdry drama of remorse and confession. Even when his own convictions emerge to view, as in his defence of the rights of animals, he elucidates the premises on which they are based rather than arguing for them.

Coetzee’s interest is directed mainly at situations where the distinction between right and wrong, while crystal clear, can be seen to serve no end. Like the man in the famous Magritte painting who is studying his neck in a mirror, at the decisive moment Coetzee’s characters stand behind themselves, motionless, incapable of taking part in their own actions. But passivity is not merely the dark haze that devours personality, it is also the last resort open to human beings as they defy an oppressive order by rendering themselves inaccessible to its intentions. It is in exploring weakness and defeat that Coetzee captures the divine spark in man.

. . .In Disgrace Coetzee involves us in the struggle of a discredited university teacher to defend his own and his daughter’s honour in the new circumstances that have arisen in South Africa after the collapse of white supremacy. The novel deals with a question that is central to his works: Is it possible to evade history?

Well, maybe, but I’m not sure what “evading history” means here? Overcoming misfortune, or simply denying it? Both the professor and his daughter are stuck with what happened to them, and refuse to move on, so if that’s “evading history,” well, it’s not something that everyone does. In fact, Coetzee’s failure to make me really understand why the professor refused to defend himself seems a failure of character delineation.

The theme, then, isn’t anything near universal, at least to me. One can understand the feeling of ennui and hopelessness in The Plague, which can be redeemed by caring for others, but that’s something that resonates to many readers. After all, we’re all mortal.

So my take is that Disgrace is a good book, but not a great one—not near the quality of other winners like those by Ishigura, Barker, or Scott. Yet sometimes I think I don’t know how to read novels, and perhaps I’m missing the subtle themes and qualities that struck other critics, the Booker Prize committee, and the Karolinska Institute.

But nevertheless, I persist. I am halfway through the next choice, The God of Small Thingsby Arundhati Roy, which won the Booker in 1997. It’s about a pair of twins and their extended family in Kerala, India, and is set in the 1960s. So far I found the plot engaging (it goes back and forth in time) but the prose overly baroque, with Roy apparently trying to show off her writing skills. At times the writing is so self-consciously “clever” that it makes me cringe. The style, while unusual, doesn’t seem to grow out of the author herself, as it does with writers like Cormac McCarthy, whom I love.

By the way, I noticed a similarity between Roy’s opening paragraph and part Thomas Wolfe’s “Poem to October” from his novel Of Time and the River:


“May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.”


“October is the richest of the seasons: the fields are cut, the granaries are full, the bins are loaded to the brim with fatness, and from the cider-press the rich brown oozings of the York Imperials run. The bee bores to the belly of the yellowed grape, the fly gets old and fat and blue, he buzzes loud, crawls slow, creeps heavily to death on sill and ceiling, the sun goes down in blood and pollen across the bronzed and mown fields of old October.

Any more suggestions for Booker winners I should read next?

42 thoughts on “Short review: “Disgrace”

  1. What Booker winners have you read? You mention Ishiguro, Barker, Scott, and Roy as well as Coetzee. But what else?

  2. Thanks for that.

    Here a few winners that I enjoyed reading: Keneally’s “Schindler’s List”, Kelman’s “How late it was, how late”, and Hollinghurst’s “The Line of Beauty”.

  3. I read Disgrace 22 years ago and was absolutely dazzled by it. Have read other good Coetzee’s since, but none quite as good. I found The God of Small Things overwrought with “poetic” language, unlike Ondatjee, who can pull it off. Agree with Rick on Line of Beauty and How Late it Was. I think I mentioned before that the latest winners (International: At Night all Blood is Black (black Senegalese fighting for France in WWI) , and regular Booker: The Promise (South African))are both superb.

  4. That blurb about Coetzee’s prize by the Nobel committee sure has the ring of committee writing — not the worst writing by committee I’ve ever read, but committee writing all the same.

  5. … but the prose [is] overly baroque, with Roy apparently trying to show off her writing skills. At times the writing is so self-consciously “clever” that it makes me cringe.

    What Nobel laureate John Steinbeck called “hooptedoodle.” (In the prologue of his novel Sweet Thursday, Steinbeck has the character Mack — the same “Mack” from Cannery Row — explain:

    Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. The guy’s writing it, give him a chance to spin up some pretty words maybe, or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up in the story.)

    Steinbeck was no belletrist himself, but he could tell a damn good story, and the prose of his novellas — I’m thinking here specifically of “The Pearl” and “Of Mice and Men” — could by lyrical.

  6. I started Coetzee’s (How the hell do you pronounce that?) book about the death of Dostoevsky’s son and dropped it. Too flowery for my taste. But I really liked Paul Beatty’s “The sellout”. Very funny. I also very muchliked Byatt’s “Possession”.

    1. I pronounce it COOT-see, but I’m not sure if that’s correct.

      I’ve read a number of his novels and I’m not sure that Disgraced is his best. I liked Elizabeth Costello better.

      1. Seem to remember I got annoyed at ol’ Elizabeth C., but it was well-written. It’s been awhile…

      2. “I pronounce it COOT-see”
        Close enough to be understood! The “oo” part would be a short but similar vowel-sound, not the longer “oo” as in boot/good etc. The “zee” sounds like the “sea” syllable of searing, i.e. not as in “see with my eyes”.

        1. Thanks for that!

          ‘boot’ and ‘good’ have different vowel sounds, do you mean the vowel sound in ‘put’?

          For me ‘sea’ and ‘see’ are the same. I’m not sure what difference you’re suggesting.

          The problem with English spelling …

  7. I very much like Disgrace (and have even re-read it) so my recommendations might not be for you, but these are very different:
    Paddy Clarke, Ha ha ha
    The Ghost Road.

    1. The movie of Disgrace, with John Malkovitch, was also very good. Agree on Paddy Clarke and The Ghost Road. I’d forgotten about Milkman; liked that one, too. Shuggie Bain also good.
      @John above, Coetzee is pronounced Cootzeah.

  8. I found Disgrace a very well written book but it left me feeling sadder. I loved The Blind Assassin, and I love everything by Atwood. Paddy Clarke was great and also the Milkman (another Irish author). A Life of Pi was brilliant – the film also. Hilary Mantel x2.

  9. “The Old Devils” by Kingsley Amis. It’ll be free of pretension and have a few laughs as well.

  10. I agree with revelator60 about “The Old Devils”, but I’m not sure you’d like it. Same for Kelman (How Late…) and Swift (Last Orders), much as I like them both.

    Why not try Howard Jacobson (The Finkler Question)? Written by another sceptical, non-practising bloke of Jewish origin.

  11. “Yet sometimes I think I don’t know how to read novels, and perhaps I’m missing the subtle themes and qualities that struck other critics, the Booker Prize committee, and the Karolinska Institute.”

    I don’t think you should ever feel this way. Critics are notorious for finding “deeper meaning” where there is none, or where it’s buried beneath so much crap that the artist should be considered to have done a poor job explicating it. A film like El Topo may have deeper meaning and many themes, but most of them are so surrounded by the amber of surreality and incomprehensible imagery and dialogue that they’re impossible to see, at least under anything but the most contrived interpretation. Similarly, if a book can’t convey it’s meaning/themes to someone as smart as you, I’d say that’s on the author, not the reader.

    1. And much better than the movie! The sort of prequel, In the Skin on the Lion, is even better. Love Ondatjee! Novels and poetry. He’s also easy on the eyes😻 Seen him up close several times in Toronto.

      1. Saw / heard him lecture here Sydney in wake of that Booker, recall him saying EP did not write itself, many takes. He also referred to A bomb. Though alas was not unprovoked, 1931-45.

  12. I strongly recommend ‘The narrow road to the deep north’, by Richard Flanagan. Partly a love story, but also heavy social commentary on the building of the Burma Railway. Described by one member of my book club as ‘violence porn’, although I find that a strange reaction. The main protagonist is probably partially based on Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop, an Australian doctor.

    1. Narrow Road is a fantastic book! I love most of Flannagan’s work. Death of a River Guide is another good one.

    2. My father [also a Melbourne doctor] recalled a WD story from after the war [I think]. Some guy picked a fight with him – Spring St? – who knows why, but it ended with Weary dropping him, then carting him off to hospital for consequent necessary repairs.

  13. ‘Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha’ by Roddy Doyle, the Booker prize winner 1993.

    I recommended one of my favourite works of fiction to you couple of years ago, maybe you read it back then? It’s a long short-story by Alan Bennett, ‘The Clothes They Stood Up In’ (1996) which was initially published by the London Review of Books, available to read on-line here for free:

    I read it to my wife when she was in labour with our son 1998, had us both, and the midwife, laughing often which helped get us through it all. Mother and (23 year old) son doing fine btw.

        1. Just read it. Interesting, though a bit draggy. So did the husband plan for the storage??
          I think I’ve seen a couple of Bennett’s plays in the past.

          1. Draggy? That’s quite the condemnation for a short story!
            If you suspect husband planned the storage, you’ve clearly rushed the read, and completely missed the explanation of the how’s and why’s.

            1. I usually have lots of patience for long reads🙀 So was it the wife? I loved the Mozart aspect and Kiri te Kanawa. There was some rhyming slang near the end – something and te Kanawa. I think the fact that it is one lonnnnng page on my tablet that makes it hard to skim back. I do read a lot on kindld but at least there are pages there.

              1. Well, I think safe to say you just didn’t ‘get into’ the story, it clearly didn’t ‘grab you’ from the beginning, seems you may have skim-read it. Which is fine of course – not every book/story is for everyone.
                I did a search for Kanawa: only appears twice, both at the beginning of the story. “I never thought I’d have to do a Jimmy Riddle over Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.” Jimmy Riddle, piddle, to pee/urinate. The police officer peeing into the toilet onto the page of the opera-program (which showed a photo of Kanawa) the husband had used wipe his bum.

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