J.M. Coetzee


(Reviewed by Peggy Lindsey JUL 9, 2002)

Even before his disgrace, Professor David Lurie wasn't exactly a shining success. At age 52, he's been divorced twice and he's been demoted from professor of modern languages to adjunct professor of communications. He's a mediocre teacher specializing in Romantic poets considered obsolete when the Cape Town University College became Cape Technical University. Nevertheless, he's muddling along quite nicely. He has a weekly rendezvous with a high caliber prostitute that satisfies his sexual needs, and at least his new position still allows him to teach one poetry course a year.

But life begins to fall apart when David sees his paramour on the street one day with her two little boys. Fearing exposure, she quits her call girl life, and although he tracks her down, she rejects him. The rapport he'd felt was mere business to her. Subsequent girls sent by the "hostess service" are unsatisfying. One evening while crossing campus, he runs into Melanie Isaacs, an unremarkable young woman in his Byron class. He discovers himself "mildly smitten." They quickly become lovers. Problem is, she already has one: a young biker boy who's none too pleased about David moving in on his territory. Pressured by family and friends, Melanie reports the indiscretion and David, who refuses to apologize for his behavior---he was merely answering the call of Eros---is forced to resign.

Shunned by everyone in his small college town, he heads for his daughter's small holding. Lucy appears to enjoy her life, despite recently losing her lover, Helen. She kennels dogs, sells the flowers and vegetables she grows, and helps her African handyman become a property owner.

But just as this idyllic life begins to bore David, he sees its uglier side. Lucy convinces him to help her friend, Bev, at the local animal clinic. David, no great animal lover, finds himself face to face with the suffering of innocents---too many dogs born into a world that neither wants them nor has the means to support them. Bev's role is more executioner than veterinarian. Then, he and Lucy are attacked by three Africans, and he is helpless to prevent her being raped. Their peaceful co-existence destroyed, David struggles to understand why Lucy insists on remaining on the farm and reconcile himself to the, for him, unbelievable dynamic between her and the neighboring Africans.

Coetzee won the 1999 Booker Prize for this novel, and it's easy to see why. By chronicling the consequences of one man's abuses of and fall from power, Coetzee creates a story of both universal and regional significance. On the one hand, David is a certain type who contemptuous of others, uses his position to take what he wants and to justify the taking. But David's story is also local---he is a white South African male in a world where such men no longer hold the power they once did. He's forced to rethink his entire world at an age when he believes he's too old to change and, in fact, should have a right not to. "How are the mighty fallen!" remarks Melanie's father when he meets David. David's reply highlights the hope he's gained from this struggle: "Perhaps it does us good . . . to have a fall every now and then. As long as we don't break."

True, this story is bleak---Coetzee offers no happy quick fix for this post-apartheid South African where white men who arm themselves and build security fences are expected to get a bullet in the back eventually, and solitary white women are brutalized. And David's rise from disgrace is by no means complete. He has fallen far enough that he can no longer make a life as he did before. But the story offers a slight glimpse of self-redemption, a sense that David is not completely broken. And the tiny bit of dignity David retains implies a slight hope that if one such as David---he of the upper echelons of race and education in the old South Africa---can find meaning in life again, then perhaps the disgrace of apartheid can evolve into something better as well.

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About the Author:

J.M. CoetzeeJ. M. Coetzee was born in South Africa in 1940. His father worked for the government and also as a sheep farmer. When Coetzee was eight, his father lost the government job due to his differing views from the then apartheid government. The family then moved to the provincial town of Worcester.

During his early years, his studies were done in Cape Town where he obtained his B.A. in 1960 and his M.A. in 1963. He then traveled the world working as a systems programmer for International Computers in Bracknell, Berkshire from 1964-1965. He later obtained his P.H.D. in literature from the University of Texas at Austin in 1969. Upon completion of these studies, he returned to his native land of South Africa to join up as a lecturer at the University of Cape Town in 1972 until 1983. In 1984 and 1986 he would again journey overseas to become the Butler Professor of English at the State University of New York in Buffalo. He was then the Hinkley Professor of English at John Hopkins University in 1986 and 1989 and the Visiting Professor of English at Harvard University in 1991.

J.M. Coetzee was married in 1963 and then divorced in 1980. He had one son and one daughter from the marriage. His son was killed in an accident at the age of 23. Coetzee is often labeled a reclusive and private man and thus his separation from his wife and subsequent divorce was widely expected. This label was further evidenced by the fact that he did not journey to London to receive the Booker Prize in 1984 for his novel: The Life and Times of Michael K, nor when he again won the honor for his novel Disgrace in 1999. He is the only author to have ever won the Booker Prize twice.

Several of Coetzee's novels are noted for their eloquent protest against political and social conditions in South Africa, particularly the suffering caused by imperialism, apartheid, and postapartheid violence, as well as for their technical virtuosity. His fiction is often melancholy in tone, treating themes of human isolation and survival.

Coetzee is a Distinguished Professor in the Faculty of Humanties at the University of Cape Town, the highest academic appointment that can be made at UCT. He is also a member of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and writes reviews for The New York Review of Books. He is the winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature.

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