1990s Booker Prize

Disgrace – J.M. Coetzee

 Winner of the 1999 Booker Prize

I had always assumed that Coetzee wrote complex books, which were difficult to read. This idea was confirmed when I attempted to read Summertime last year. I am trying to read all the Booker winners and so decided to get through Disgrace before it intimidated me any more. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Disgrace is a fantastic book, which is easy to read yet tackles many thought provoking issues.

Disgrace is set in South Africa and centres on a professor of Romantic poetry who is forced to resign from his position after he is discovered having an affair with a student. With nothing to keep him in the city he retreats to his daughter’s small farm, where they become the victims of a brutal attack.

I was surprised by how modern and readable the book was. I had the idea that Coetzee wrote pretentious, poetic prose, but this was the opposite. The writing was clean and simple, with no flowery descriptions. It was this simplicity that gave power to the words, drawing me into the disturbing life of South Africans struggling to adapt to their changing society.

I was gripped from beginning to end, reading the book in just two sittings. The title is very appropriate, as the book deals with one disgraceful issue after another. I was impressed by the way layers of symbolism were woven into the seemingly simple story. The fact that the book can be taken at face value, or studied to reveal more complex themes, means that this is the perfect introduction to literary fiction.

Disgrace is a worthy winner of the Booker prize and I highly recommend it.



Did you enjoy Disgrace?

Are any of Coetzee’s other books written in the same simple writing style?

75 replies on “Disgrace – J.M. Coetzee”

I loved Disgrace and also found it accessible yet so deep (without being obviously so). I was lucky enough to read it before Summertime so didn’t have any preconceptions although, as you know, I also enjoyed Summertime and how it plays with genre, style and questions the author-reader relationship.

I am currently reading Foe, which is also straightforward (although not what I would necessarily call simple) and have The Life & Times of Michael K lined up; Waiting for the Barbarians and Elizabeth Costello also come recommended to me but I don’t know yet how they appear on the page. Diary of a Bad Year, I know, is very experimental in its style so you should probably avoid that. I’m interested what recommendations your comments bring forth as I want to devour Coetzee’s books.

Claire, It sounds as though you have a lot of Coetzee lined up! I look forward to seeing which ones you like and which ones you think might appeal to me.

I appreciate the skill required to write Summertime, but the writing style just wasn’t for me. I hope that I can find many more of his books to enjoy.

Diary of a Bad Year was my first Coetzee, incidentally, and I absolutely loved it. It’s experimental, and kind-of weird to read, but, it just hooked me on to Coetzee for life. Well, maybe not for life, but you know what I mean…

I liked this one, and also found it accessible, but I agree that not all of his books are like that. I recommend the early autobiographical work – is it Youth and Boyhood?

Verity, Aren’t Youth/Boyhood fictional biographies too? I’m not a big lover of biographies anyway, so I think I’ll try more of his fiction first, but bear them in mind for later.

Jackie, I’m so glad to hear you had better luck with Disgrace! As you know, this was one of the best books I read last year – I found it so powerful and incredibly moving – and it made me want to read more Coetzee. From what I’ve heard some of his books seem to appeal more than others to readers, so I suspect he may be a bit of an uneven (perhaps because he is very creative and willing to take risks?) writer. I am intrigued by Summertime, but there are a few other books by him that I’d like to try first.

Steph, I think Coetzee is an experimental writer and while I admire him for trying new things, I prefer straight forward novels. I’ll try the more normal novels first and see how I get on – I’m sure he’s written a lot of great books. It is good to see our tastes matching up again.

We read this in our bookgroup back in 2004. It was a good choice for discussion with its strong themes. I remember we liked the direct writing. It remains the only book of his I’ve read although I have a couple more including Youth in the TBR.

Annabel, I can see how this could make a great bookgroup choice – I think discussing it would reveal a lot more depth. I hope you get round to reading more of his books soon.

I also loved Disgrace; super accessible (I read it straight through in two hours because I couldn’t put it down) and yet so powerful. Have not read any other Coetzee though, but have been meaning to. I definitely want to try the challenge of Summertime! 🙂

claire, I don’t think Summertime is a particularly challenging read – I just didn’t enjoy the writing style, or the concept of a fictional autobiography. I’ll be interested to see your thoughts on Summertime though.

I would disagree (and agree with Claire); I did find Summertime challenging but not in the difficult to read sense but in the challenging me to look at writing and content and the authorial responsibility in different ways. Summertime in many ways blew me a way because it was such an erudite book; Coetzee’s sheer intelligence and the way he provoked the reader into thinking impressed me.

As for your comment below to Teresa, I think the point of fictional biographies is that they blend truth and non-truths together and Coetzee did it very cleverly because he has a writer does not belong to the reader. I love the fact that I still don’t know what is true and what isn’t!

Anyway, different strokes for different folks ;).

Claire, You are probably right – I should have felt challenged, but instead I just felt annoyed! I think he is trying too hard to be clever with Summertime. Reading a book like Disgrace shows his amazing talent for writing – I don’t think he needs to show off as he does with his experimental books. I find that the simplest books are normally the most powerful.

I agree about the simplest books are normally the most powerful – Disgrace proves that! I think Summertime interested me because of my passion for writing and playing with genre but I can see how it can come across as pretentious.

Summertime is the only Coetzee that I’ve read, and I did like it–so much so that I was actually rooting for it to win the Booker.

I remember thinking that the language itself was accessible and pretty direct (at least compared to a lot of contemporary literary fiction authors), but yes, the structure and characterization were knotty, and I can see why it wouldn’t appeal to everyone. I am interested in reading more Coetzee, though, and Disgrace is on my list. I’m glad to hear that you liked it. I hope I do too. It sounds like something I’d like.

Teresa, I’m afraid I was rooting for Wilderness and then The Glass Room! I just didn’t like the characters in Summertime, or understand why we’d want to read something that may or may not be true. I’m pleased you enjoyed it though.

I’ve not read any of Coetzee, although I was moved when I saw that Summertime was on Financial Times best books of the year. Hmmm…I guess if I had to pick one to start with though, I’m putting my chips on the one you liked!

I’ve been wanting to read this one for awhile. I look books that have a lot of layers. You can read and enjoy the simplicity or you can delve deeper into the other layers and ponder other things.

Kathleen, I love books where the layers aren’t obvious straight away. Some books try to be too clever and confusing, but the initial simplicity of this one is a sign of quality for me. I hope that you enjoy reading it.

Thomas, Thank you for commenting on my blog for the first time! Thank you for the warning about the Slow Man, I’ll avoid that one for a while and hope that I enjoy the next Coetzee I pick up as much as this one.

Am I the only one who loathed this book? It’s hard to explain why without spoilers but I hated the way he treated his female characters (well one in particular). I disliked this book so much I can’t imagine ever reading any other of his books, which is probably unfair. (But then again, there are so many books out there to read.)

avisannschild, Don’t worry about spoilers – just mark your comment with the word SPOILER in big letters!

I think the book is titled Disgrace for the reason you mention – yes a lot of nasty things do happen, but they are all wrapped under the word ‘Disgrace’. The book isn’t glorifying the acts, but highlighting how horrible they can be. I don’t know which particular event disturbed you, but I think it would be a shame if you didn’t try his other books – I’m sure a few of them are good!

Jackie – I’m really pleased you enjoyed this – I did too. I read Summertime last year (these are the only two of Coetzee’s books I have read) and liked Disgrace a lot more. Summertime was an interesting concept but I didn’t especially enjoy not knowing if it was true or not either. I don’t know if a less established writer would have had the confidence to write in that way, but then Coetzee doesn’t seem that conventional anyway. I found both books thought provoking though and it’s this aspect of his writing that appeals.

By the way, I can’t wait to see what you think of After the Fire, a Still Small Voice. I’m reading this at the moment and enjoying it very much!

Tracey, I think if a less established writer has written Summertime it would have been largely ignored. He can get away with the experimental writing because he is so well known.

I enjoyed After the Fire a little bit, but didn’t love it. I look forward to comparing notes next week!

I’m glad you finally read it! I remember that my Disgrace review was up around the first time you popped by my blog :). My thoughts were exactly the same about the book. It’s readable, yet powerful. Disgrace is the only Coetzee I’ve read. I’m not sure which one to tackle next just yet. Probably The Life and Times of Michael K because that won the Booker too. But the title is not enticing to me.

mee, I think The Life and Times of Michael K might be my next choice too – purely for the Booker connection. I agree that the title doesn’t sound very interesting though – let’s hope the contents is better!

Oh, I’m so happy that you enjoyed this one, and rated it so highly. Was a little concerned after your less than glowing comments about Summertime, but you’re right – this book is not complex, despite dealing with some complex (read disgraceful) issues. I loved it when I read it, so…

Anymore Coetzees lined up? I’ve got Life and Times of Michael K next on the list…would help if I had a copy……

anothercookiecrumbles, I don’t actually own any more Coetzees, so a lot will depend on which ones I find first, but I’d like to read Michael K next too. I look forward to comparing notes.

I’m so glad you liked this! I picked it up recently because I am also eager to read more Booker Prize winners, but I was a bit worried about it. Glad to know it’s not impenetrable and I’ll still get a lot out of it.

I will look for this one. So far I haven’t found him to be difficult to read and more often that not I found that the one book that I read by him, Foe, was veru thought provoking as well.

You’ve sold me. Disgrace is going on my reading list this year — maybe in time for the World Cup this summer.

I enjoyed both Life & Times of Michael K and Disgrace, and I think that those who liked one of them, might also like the other. It’s been a while since I read Michael K but as far as I can remember, it is also a straight-forward story, seemingly simple but still very deep. I think Michael K is also an interesting character. I couldn’t decide whether he’s very intelligent or just the opposite!

I just read Coetzee’s debut novel Dusklands, which unfortunately was a huge disappointment for me. It also had interesting and important themes, but it was NOT straight-forward – instead it had far too much rambling going on and on, at least for my taste! 🙂

Satu, It is good to know that Michael K is a straight forward story – I look forward to reading it now.

Thank you for the warning about Dusklands – I’m not a fan of rambling, so I’ll avoid that one for now!

I have not read any of Coetzee’s work before – although when I have been tempted to give him a go this is the book I have thought of. Sounds like I should give it a go.

I haven’t read any of this author’s works, but I have one on my shelf – Foe. My husband read it in college. I should ask him what he thought of it. I’ve been meaning to read it for years, but other books have taken precedence.

I’ve always thought of Coetzee that same way, as very difficult to read – I don’t know why! Yours is the second review of Disgrace that’s said it’s perfectly readable, so I should really get around to reading it soon.

Jenny, It is strange that we form these opinions of books we haven’t read. I hope I’ve changed your thoughts about this book and that you enjoy reading it.

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