Required Reading: Disgrace

the cover of Disgrace, which is plain white with small blue type

Making friends at a new job is a lot like divining for treasure at the beach—the search starts out enjoyable and a little adventuresome, but odds are you'll finish by digging up nothing more satisfying than someone's sodden, abandoned Speedo.

I started digging a few weeks ago, when one of my many Bosses invited me to dinner. "Dinner!" I thought, "we do have similar interests." But even warm wafts of asparagus risotto couldn't obscure the Speedo of the evening, which was positioned prominently on a coffee table, spine creased and soft: J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace.

What a miserable book. Disgrace is hundreds of pages of pure whining from the point of view of David Lurie, a white, middle-aged South African professor who feels martyred by the world. We meet Dr. Lurie at a moment of transition: he has just moved onto his daughter's farm after being asked to leave the university where he teaches. Why? University authorities have discovered that the tortured hero rapes and stalks his students. 

Coetzee takes this moment of familial reunion to explore just how sad an ageing professor might feel about having one of those un-sympathetic, unattractive lesbian types for a daughter. Luckily, this deranged macho cosmos is set back in order when burglars rape the daughter, conveniently allowing Dr. Lurie to find redemption by fulfilling his fatherly role and tending to the needs of a now broken, compliant and dependent offspring. Family values are thus restored, but the whole episode sparks a fit of moroseness about life's profound injustice. Dr. Lurie goes on to contemplatively kill dogs and buy prostitutes.

Human nature is dark, old white men have it hard—you get the gist. Of course, Disgrace won the Booker Prize, and this fellow Coetzee won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. He's a Serious Author, to which others attest: "A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word."

The dinner conversation with my Boss was similarly strained. My point is: What do you say when it turns out that a friend or close coworker really likes Disgrace, Lolita, or other rape-y works of "art" ?

Previously: Aya de Yopougon, The House on Mango Street

Comments

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That book was one of the most

That book was one of the most awful books I have ever read. It's whiny, self-indulgent, and just terrible. But then a lot of the Booker winners are awful (sometimes misogynistic) books written by old white men. When people ask me, "why are most of the books that you read written by women?" my response is often "Coetzee's _Disgrace_." I happily read all of the Orange Prize winners and nominees instead.

Hey Bunnyhug!

Go suck an egg!

But seriously, all y'all stay the hell away from literature because your giving us a bad name putting up reviews this trivial.

That Boss of yours is presumably a feminist too (like Coetzee and his entire body of literature), and you just essentialized the crap out of (him?).

Bad "feminist". Very bad "feminist".

It's been over a decade since

It's been over a decade since I read Lolita, but I have to say I adored it. It was disturbing and complicated, but the language.... oh the language. I think what captivated me the most was that Nabokov captured what it felt like to be a 12 yr old girl. The scene where she is lounging in the sun caused highly visceral flashbacks to my own time at a 12 yr old girl. I know the book is problematic and icky, but I can't help but say it is beautifully written. All of that said, it is not a book I have on my shelves.

Lolita?

This is interesting. I wouldn't read this book based on the description, but to classify Lolita alongside of it seems vulgar. My interpretation of Lolita is that she was in charge. Having spent time as a sex-obsessed 13 year-old girl, I found her more powerful than the older man who falls in love with her. When people treat Lolita as though she was no better off than the poor kid Roman Polanski drugged and raped, it really annoys me. She wanted to have sex with her stepfather. Later their relationship changes, but my impression was always that she was his puppet master. Not to mention, how beautifully written that book is. It's one of the few about something sensational that doesn't rely on shock value.

Lolita

I can see where you are coming from, and I have not read Lolita in years, but I remember the forward by Nabokov. He says that he was inspired by a news story of a gorilla that was taught to use a pencil to draw and that all he drew was the cage bars. I think that the young woman in Lolita is the victim but cannot see through her situation. That is what is beautiful about Nabokov, the complexity of the situation despite how terrible it is.

You are not the only one who

You are not the only one who was offended. Lolita was not about justifying rape in any way. But it does require a level of empathy with someone society considers so base and vile that society considers them not worth empathizing with. Books ask us for compassion, and most people can't handle Lolita because they can't fathom giving compassion to a character like Humbert Humbert.

But anyone with above-average critical reading and thinking skills can see that it is also very much about how manipulative children can be, and how like children people like Humbert Humbert are.

Sorry author, this is an oversimplification if I ever saw one.

typically i distance myself.

i may ask them about the book purely from a brain picking perspective... "it looks like this is a well-loved copy...what about the book moves you?"

 cause it COULD be from a used bookstore and somebody in the home has been required to read it for a class.

if it turns out that this type of nonsense is stimulating reading for them...then i know that they're not people to have long conversations with.

Like Disgrace? Not exactly, but I can appreciate it.

I don't think you're supposed to really LIKE Disgrace. It's supposed to make you uncomfortable and disgusted. Coetzee isn't trying to make us feel any sympathy for David Lurie at all. Rather, the reader is asked to align herself with a despicable character who behaves in reprehensible ways in order to understand just how damaging the legacies of colonization are for EVERYONE involved. The privileges afforded to Lurie as a white male under a racist political regime have turned him into a monster, and that is something that he discovers throughout the course of the novel. In that way, Disgrace is a success, but it is in no way enjoyable!

Also, David's daughter, Lucy, rejects her father's attempts to parent her during her crisis, and (rightly) sees him as part of the problem.

Novels with rape themes

Why not read about rape, if even written from a male perspective? I enjoyed both books, not because of the rape scenes, which did not dominate the book but overlaid a perspective about male and female interaction after such a horrific event, referencing Disgrace more so than Lolita. These books do not idolize rape. They are not pornographic material meant to help someone get off. They are thought provoking insights into a society, a culture, a phenomenon we may not have experienced.

This isn’t really Books

This isn’t really Books coverage. You’re well within your rights to choose not to engage with any reading that deals with the concept of rape, but I think that you’re missing the point of literature by slamming a book because you have a strong reaction to it. Everyone would agree with you that David Lurie is a monster and pretty unsympathetic, and he’s aware he’s miserable – so think about what the terrible problems of the country that created him might be. This is mainly a book about South Africa. His daughter is definitely not compliant and dependent – she fights him throughout the story and refuses to allow him any illusion of protecting her from the rape or saving her from the country where this is endemic. There is a lot to think about there, and I was so frustrated that she wouldn’t leave – I couldn’t figure that out. You’re right, he didn’t like having a lesbian daughter, further adding to what a nightmare he is, but lots of people don’t, especially in South Africa – so do we pretend they don’t exist, or examine their wretched stories?

There is a lot to respond to in this book. It gives people strong reactions because it deals with extreme misogyny and racism in a country that can only progress by acknowledging these realities.

What Booksy said . . .

Just because a book contains something like this does not mean that the author is trying to get us to approve. More often than not, a book with this kind of material is trying to get us to question the culture that allows it to happen. Make sure that you're reading critically before you criticize people who own these books--superficial readings lead to superficial impressions that really don't bear out through a more careful reading. (This is the kind of thing that I have to fight with my (college-level) lit students about ALL THE TIME, so it tends to drive me a bit bonkers. You should see the weird stuff they come up with in reference to just about anything by Kate Chopin.)

Not Lolita!

I have to agree that Lolita is in a different class. I read that as a 13 year old feminist and enjoyed it immensely. I re-read it years later with the same impression.

Lolita--the problem

That's exactly the problem with Lolita. In real life NO 12 year old is in a position of power over an adult. NONE. That's a lie that predatory sex offenders tell themselves to excuse their behavior. In fact, correcting that thinking is one of the main goals of sex offender treatment.

There's a reason children are not allowed legally to consent to sex. I find the suggestion that a middle aged man is helpless in the face of a seductive 13 year old so disturbing I don't even have words to express it.

And if a 13 year old is acting out sexually in a way that seems beyond her years, my money is on her being sexually abused, too. That's what happens to some people when they are sexually abused. It's a sign of distress, not of them being "in control."

When I first read Lolita last

When I first read Lolita last year I nearly stopped halfway through because of how uncomfortable I was reading Nabokov/Humbert's descriptions of Lolita and the overtly sexual way she responded to him. After pushing past those chapters, the erotic tones nearly disappear and Lolita seems much more like a young girl who hates Humbert for the way he treats her. The shift in tone prevents the work from turning into a totally erotic one, or one that glorifies the sexual relationship between a young girl and an older man. I finally decided that the very creepy first half that leads up to their sexual relationship is Humbert's attempt at excusing his own behavior - the lie sex offenders tell themselves that you described. 'Lolita' is written as if Humbert was writing his own confession from jail, trying to explain in his own words how he ended up there. I think any sexual power that Nabokov gives to Lolita is questionable because it comes from the perspective of the man who abused her; it's his own interpretation of events and therefore unreliable.

Most people don't get it.

Lolita is about a rapist obliterating the very identity of a young girl (her name is *not* Lolita; that's the name Humbert forces upon her). Yet, in the end, she escapes and enters into a consensual relationship with a decent young man. Dolores has some abusive relationships after being imprisoned by Humbert, but eventually she builds a satisfying life for herself. As a young girl, I admired her tenacity and mourned her losses. But who ever calls Dolores by her real name? We all participate in the theft of her personhood when we call her Lolita. Time and time again, we thrust our culture's ideas of sexualized youth upon one of the most well-known rape victims in literature.

Nabokov buries the truth, as he often does, beneath distractingly beautiful prose and the intensely manipulative rhetoric of his unreliable narrator. Did the author mean for readers to interpret Lolita as a love story, instead of seeing through Humbert? Did Nabokov delight in tricking Americans into fetishizing a twelve-year-old? What does that say about him?

Lolita has got to be the most depressingly misunderstood novel

...ever. You are not supposed to think Humbert Humbert is a reliable narrator giving you an accurate retelling of events.

Lolita is a book about a child molestor that assumes its reader is smart enough to remember that it is a book about a child molestor.

Lolita is a book about a

Lolita is a book about a child molestor that assumes its reader is smart enough to remember that it is a book about a child molestor.

And I think that sums it up (emphasis added). I don't think our education system encourages the kind of critical thinking to recognize that aspect. In addition, our culture does not value empathy or the understanding of the Other. So many readers may come to the material ill-equipped for such self-awareness and analysis.

There are people who think The Handmaid's Tale is a how-to book, not a commentary on social and gender oppression. Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA got completely misinterpreted and turned into a pro-America anthem.

For me the problem with complex and dicey material like this is how damaging it can be in the wrong hands. Not that such material shouldn't be published, just that art of any kind allows the viewer to project themselves into the work. And sometimes that projection turns the material into something other than what was intended. Something quite creepy. Other times the material gets away from the author and what comes out on page is not crafted well enough for the intended message to be conveyed.

"damaging in the wrong hands"?

I am pretty sure people who read Nabokov or Atwood to validate their desire to rape 13-year-olds or create theocracies would have gotten there without the authors' help.

I wasn't suggesting

I wasn't suggesting otherwise. :) And I certainly wasn't suggesting that books like Lolita cause people to rape young girls.

I was saying that we end up with regular people kind of half-ass reading a complex story presentation, then (perhaps unwittingly) perpetuating their misunderstanding in culturally damaging ways -- such as the objectifying sexualization of underage girls, or the excusing-away of rape. And each time someone uses such a story to justify those views, it spreads the misunderstanding of both the book and the issues it addresses. In other words, the material gets distorted and used as a tool by others who pick up these damaging views and run with it. It's a difficult issue where I don't feel censorship is the answer, but I also can't ignore the effects that a misrepresentation of the material in popular culture has on us.

I think the comments above here, here and here explain how easily the material is misunderstood. And by extension how individuals who misunderstand the material go on to push misconceptions about healthy sexuality.

"I was saying that we end up

"I was saying that we end up with regular people kind of half-ass reading a complex story presentation, then (perhaps unwittingly) perpetuating their misunderstanding in culturally damaging ways -- such as the objectifying sexualization of underage girls, or the excusing-away of rape. "

I would submit that anyone who reads Lolita as promoting the sexualization of underage girls or Handmaid's Tale as promoting the theocratic sexual subjugation of women is a seriously dumb motherfucker who, again, I would not bet an Australian Dollar against having had gross opinions long before getting their hands on these books. There are certainly books out there that promote these things;* Lolita and Handmaid's Tale specifically are pretty far-removed from being those books. I have not read Disgrace; I suppose it's possible that the message of this particular book is gross but I would not trust the opinion of somebody who thinks Lolita is apologism for pedophilia on the matter.

*Piers Anthony, you suck and I bet you have never been invited to a cool party in your life

If you meet someone who likes

If you meet someone who likes one of those books, then I think you should take the time not to make gross assumptions about their character. I'm a feminist and I read and liked Disgrace. I think you completely over-simplified the book and you took away completely different things from it than I did. Never once did I sympathize with Lurie. Never once did I even LIKE him. But I don't think you're supposed to.

That's my opinion and all and I totally understand hating the book because you hate the main character (in this case, he's absolutely detestable and disgusting!), but the fact that you seem to be saying that because a book was about a misogynist character and you personally didn't like it, it automatically makes the book terrible and misogynist, as well as anyone who enjoyed it, well, that's really unfair.

Agree to disagree. Sure, some people might not have taken the right message from the book, but that happens with every book. Instead of thinking about what you're supposed to SAY to a person with a copy of Disgrace on their coffee table, why not just ask them about it and have a conversation?

I never read "Disgrace" but

I never read "Disgrace" but "Lolita" is one of my favorite books. I am a feminist and also a lover of language; "Lolita" is one of the most beautifully-written pieces I have ever come into contact with. Whoever responded above and said that young girls who are sexual have always been abused is making an unfair, over-arching statement, because it is just simply not true. Some young women sexualize themselves after abuse and some young girls are just feeling sexual, and have never been abused. To link sexuality with being inherently abused is actually a really shaming way to approach a situation where people are uncomfortable with a young woman's sexuality.

Literature is meant to be read and discussed, it is meant to raise questions and bring forth discussion. Seems like this book did that. It is not meant to be taken at face value, and yes, when people do that they tend to completely miss the point.

To judge someone and assume that they do not have similar views on things because they own a book is a really close-minded way to approach this situation.

I also, as a survivor of sexual abuse, just find the word "rapey" insulting. It sounds too inconquesentional. We have enough issues defining and dealing with rape, if it is rape, call it what it is, if it is not rape, do not call it "rapey"- just trivializes all of our experiences.

This review completely misses

This review completely misses the point. Disgrace is an extremely uncomfortable book. It doesn't take "sides", the professor is not meant to be the one we are supposed to sympathize with. And yes, he rapes a student but it is not sexualized nor is the author trying to "restore family values" at the end. I wonder if the reviewer actually read the book at all from that sentence? The book is marked by the emotional closing off of the daughter from the father all throughout and the ending is marked by an overwhelming sense of loss. There are several passages in the book which shows Lurie to be an over-indulged man on the brink of delusion (the way he writes about lesbians for example). He's the remnant of a racist-patriarchal system and by viewing the world that this very system has wrecked through his eyes the reader understands a position of the apartheid which has not often been talked about and the fact that he still refuses to understand his complicity in it can be read as a clear disavowal of those politics. It implicates the reader if she/he in feeling the position of a person of privilege and how decades of white patriarchy has written the history of South Africa and how horrid its results are.
I've read the book twice and both times it was a difficult read. The first time around I felt that it's incredibly misogynistic. The book challenged me to read it again and the second time around I was asking a lot more questions about power and privilege. Lurie's voice is not Coetzee's voice.
And where is the discussion of the racial politics in the review? Again, was the book even read? His exploitation of power against the student is in two ways; the race and class aspects of it are unavoidable. And the the whole incident, the way it is hushed over and the silences of the victim, implicates the reader in the patriarchal society as well. And the narratorial voice is "whiny" as the reviewer remarks. It takes the author with some kind of awareness of privilege to write a book which is as violent as this and if you think that it is Lurie who we are made to sympathize with then that's the reader's prejudice.
Perhaps a book with as much potential to offend and enlighten as Disgrace deserved a less flippant review. Still baffled that it refuses to say the word "race" in the review.
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This was my comment on Facebook. I only have to add that if you like someone and the person does not espouse bigoted politics but happens to like a book/media that you find objectionable, one can always sit down (if one cares enough for the person) and actually seek that person's responses to the book and engage in a discussion that might be friutful to both parties. I'm not saying we should go over to Two and Half Men fans and "convert" them but if you feel a person is worth it, I believe there is much to be gained by opening the conversation up as opposed to shunning them.
I've also felt an inherent privilege in doing this kind of shunning. For example a lot of my friends (and most of my friends are female) like movies that I really find misogynistic. But I also have the privilege of being able to think about it, talk about it and express my views in a language that many have not had the opportunity to access. The class factor cannot be ignored here. Why is the review not touching upon these issues??

dead horse

I just have to echo the many commenters who have noted that the author of this post completely misses the point not only of the novel (on my reading of it, although others are free to disagree) but of literature in general. I'm actually kind of disappointed that a Bitch writer would be so off the mark on the nature of cultural production.

Disgrace

I read this book a couple of years ago. To simply regard this novel as a rape story is missing the whole point. To really understand this book is to look through the history of South Africa since the apartheid regime. And how this had and still has a profound impact on the relationship between blacks and whites in this country. I felt that by not wanted to press charges against her rapists, Lucy still bears the guilt of this monstrous regime. And this is what, I think, the author wanted to point out. That even if South Africa had a truth reconciliation commission to allow discussion between blacks and whites, you still feel resentment and frustration from the black community which allows them (unfortunately) to act violently. From the perspectives of the white community, the burden of culpability that will suppress their quest for justice in case of a brutal act from the members or the black community. And this is a major problem in South Africa. The novel is not a confortable novel to read because it describes the sexual relation, not quite rape, of a white man over a black women and the rape of a white women by a group of black men. And through history, novels and movies, sex between black men and white women and vice versa, prove to be awkward. For this I would suggest the movie "Chocolat" by the French filmmaker Claire Denis or the novel by Ferdinand Oyono "Houseboy". Enjoy!

Debate about the particular

Debate about the particular books mentioned aside, I think this post nicely piggybacks on an earlier Bitch Media post, School's Out: Family Matters: Lessons from Reconciling Radical Politics with Not-So-Radical Loved Ones. That post (and its comments) also tries to tackle the idea of how to reconcile our own beliefs in a way that's neither hypocritical nor unproductively combative when dealing with friends/family/co-workers who are sketchy or outright backwards in their views on gender, race, sexuality, etc.

I think in these cases the why is often more important than the what. Asking why the individual likes that book or film can offer more insight, and possibly alleviate the tension we feel. Sometimes the person's privilege means they aren't even aware of the subtext or social issues, as glaringly obvious as they may be to us. From their perspective they're not reading a rape-y book, they're reading a book about some guy… and oh, there was rape in there somewhere. However, it never really registered and they don't recognize the character as what he is -- a rapist -- so they aren't aware they are identifying with a rapist. In other words, it may be a case of ignorance and not necessarily a sign of a misogynist.

I can't tell you the number of people I've talked to about Game of Thrones who totally missed all the creepy rape-rape-rape packed into nearly every chapter/episode. Like, they saw it, but it didn't register because as white privileged men they are completely unaware of the existence of rape culture or the common sexual threats women deal with. So it is very easy for them to dismiss all the unnecessary rape as simply "a realistic" sexual dynamic for the "historical setting." For them, all the rape got overshadowed by swords and wolves and fantasy tropes.

For the most part these aren't bad people who are pro-rape and pro-oppression of women, these are just regular folks who lack the insight or education to recognize the problematic themes.

An afterthought -- after

An afterthought -- after seeing the truly, mind-bendingly, wtfkittenbbq gross Maxim piece on curing feminism, I have to admit that I'd be even more suspicious of someone if I came across a copy in their bathroom or office. It is very hard to reconcile that kind of content with the person who accepts it or continues to purchase it. And because it's so blatant (there is no subtext there, just text) I'd have a very hard time not judging the person or assuming sexism on their part.

I blame this book for the

I blame this book for the sheer number of books written with a white, middle aged, bored academic who destroys his family because he thinks he deserves better. Somehow this has become the image some men aspire too. Not only is it frustrating, I am so bored by this cliche!

However. I think a reader of any sort is still a more hopeful dinner companion than a non reader. Perhaps they need to be inspired to move beyond the books that the middle aged male critics are giving awards to... Maybe it is a cry for help!

Garbage

This book review is garbage.

Illiterate, raging responses to complex cultural works damage public perceptions of feminism. Sorry to say I have "unliked" this magazine on fb because of this article.

Next time run your book review by an editor whose, you know, literate? Maybe somebody whose taken at least one literature class since highschool?

Apparently you can only enjoy works that have a sympathetic focal character. Bizzaro opinions for a "feminist book review" to say the least.

I wouldn't dismiss an entire

I wouldn't dismiss an entire feminist publication just because I disagreed with one blog post. I find many sites (as well as books, TV shows, movies, and public figures) problematic, but I still give them my attention so I can thoughtfully evaluate/critique them.

who's literate?

tollity troll troll troll. If you don't agree with an article you can politely offer your criticism without resorting to personal attacks. Who's raging, pray tell? Remember, the trolls can smell your anger...

I don't think you should take

I don't think you should take this book at face value; it is not a sympathetic portrayal of a "whiney old white man". It is the opposite, questioning how such people can exist. How can he commit rape and then his daughter is raped and he does not have the capacity to connect the two? He is also racist, and this book plays out the racial tensions of S. Africa brilliantly. There is also his rigid adherence to "western law" (reason, logic) which does not fit into the messiness of everyday life when his daughter refuses to charge her rapists. He is lost and misled by his society that tells him he is great as a white man in S. Africa, he believes that he can do whatever he wants and for this reason redemption and happiness will always evade him. This book complicates a variety of issues; I think you missed the entire point of the book, which is a shame because it is one of my favorites.

I haven't read Disgrace, but

I haven't read Disgrace, but I read Elizabeth Costello by JM Coetzee (excellent, I highly recommend it), and there is an interesting chapter in which the main character, Elizabeth Costello, is faced with the dilemma of facing a fellow author who wrote a book about violence in the holocaust, and her impression of the book is that it is just TOO TOO horrible for the world and that authors should not even try to get into the heads of evil-doers because reading about it is just awful, so I am curious as to whether Disgrace is Coetzee's take on something he thinks is really horrible. Ideally... the reader wouldn't identify with the character, but it's interesting to see horror from that point of view. So I think the issue would be less of whether your co-workers liked Disgrace, but more if he actually identified with the character.

I thought about this when I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, because it's so super violent, and while I was enjoying the book and also spending large portions of reading it squirming or with a dropped jaw, I was kind of disturbed with myself for wanting to read a book with so much rape in it. I didn't feel like it was romanticized in any way, and the message of the book is definitely against sexual violence, but the entertainment factor in something like that I don't think is supposed to be cut and dry. It disturbed me, but I still liked the book.

simplistic, un-considered review

I'm sorry but I think that this piece has a bad case of missing the point. There are people who still "get" the point who still don't like Coetzee, but that's not it.

I know Coetzee is controversial. But to totally dismiss that book? To me, it positions different kinds of tragedies, different kinds of crimes back to back and asks "does one every make up for the other?"In light of the Truth and Reconciliation committees happening in SA at the time, this is a very palpable question. Shall we live with the people who commit crimes against humanity, or shall we not? If we don't kill them, what kind of reparation can they make that does not degrade the magnitude of the crime? How much agency do we have in light of the common history that we suffer under? Can white people make gestures of sorrow that will alleviate the pain caused by their personal crimes? And if not, what does that mean for crimes that happen on the historical scale? Massive crimes, genocides? Can we cut "deals" with history? Can these deals be signed with our sexes, with our blood, our bodies? Or should white people just cease---to speak at all? And the end of the book--it feels almost like pure cessation. Silence.

All of these questions, and more, are contained in that slim book.

Of course, all of this is complicated by the fact that JM Coetzee wrote the prize-winning book about humility (which accounts for, I read somewhere, 40% of academic papers written on any African at all: sometimes I think there should just be a general moratorium on writing about Coetzee).

But a review which doesn't touch on any of it? You're all answers, but no questions.

Don't even get me started on Nabokov.