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24th September
2009
written by Steph

This book is anything but.

Another double header! We're aiming to make this a regular feature on the old blog. This time we didn't read the feature out loud to each other (though we do have another title slated for that), nor did we read it at the same time. Steph read this and passed it along to me and we decided that we needed to discuss it with each other in order to get the most out of our readings. With out further ado... Steph’s Take Every once in a while, we as readers are lucky enough to have truly magnificent books pass through our lives, books that make us think, and even more importantly, ones that make us feel.  Often times I find that upon finishing a truly great book, I have to take a bit of a breather from reading so that time can cleanse my literary palate.  Finishing a great book results in me spending a few days thinking about what I’ve read, working through all of the emotions it has stirred up within me; in such a state, any book picked up in haste is sure to be a disappointment, my reading of it irrevocably colored by the previous Great Read, looming large in my mind.  And is so often the case with great books, they frustratingly defy description.  Disgrace, is one such book. I could tell you that Disgrace won the Booker Prize in 1999, that Coetzee has won the Nobel Prize.  But is that enough?  Does any of that really matter?  I picked this book up pretty cavalierly, not really knowing much about it, thinking it would tell the relatively superficial story of a lecherous professor’s fall from grace following an affair with one of his students.  Such a summary of this book is woefully lacking and yes, superficial, because while the theme of disgrace flows throughout the entire novel, it is about far more than the loss of one man’s job; the ill-advised affair is really the tip of the iceberg in a book that explores many other ideas in great depth.  To name a few, I would say this book explores post-apartheid South Africa, religion, intellect vs. primal urges (perhaps even free will), sexuality, power and sublimation… truth be told, it probably speaks of far more than those things, but they are what immediately come to mind and what I felt I could grasp on a first reading. Coetzee’s prose is deceptively simple and smooth; it goes down easy like a potent alcoholic beverage, you’re drunk before you even realize it.   Your eyes glide so effortlessly over the words he puts on the page, it’s easy to read and not think about what he’s actually saying, to simply rush through on the basis of the story.  But this is a book that requires careful reading and measured thought.  While reading, the various themes and ideas swirling about in my mind, I kept feeling like I would have dazzling flashes of insight that would sputter out all too soon, and I would scrabble to make sense of the immensity of what Coetzee was depicting for us.   There is a scene where the main character is taking his class through a Wordsworth poem that I felt really encapsulated my experience with this book:
“Yet we cannot live our daily lives in a realm of pure ideas, cocooned from sense-experience. The question is not, How can we keep the imagination pure, protected from the onslaughts of reality? The question has to be, Can we find a way for the two to coexist? Look at line 599. Wordsworth is writing about the limits of sense-perception. It is a theme we have touched on before. As the sense-organs reach the limit of their powers, their light begins to go out. Yet at the moment of expiry that light leaps up one last time like a candle-flame, giving us a glimpse of the invisible. The passage is difficult; perhaps it even contradicts the Mont Blanc moment. Nevertheless, Wordsworth seems to be feeling his way toward a balance: not the pure idea, wreathed in clouds, nor the visual image burned on the retina, overwhelming and disappointing us with its matter-of-fact clarity, but the sense-image, kept as fleeting as possible, as a means toward stirring or activating the idea that lies buried more deeply in the soil of memory."
The overt plot is simple enough to follow, but the ideas often overwhelmed me, so that I was in a state of comprehension and confusion.  But rather than my head hurting, it was my heart that hurt.  A LOT.  Because Disgrace is a book that is so emotionally resonant and evocative that by the end of it, I felt as though my heart had been punched through with holes.  It is sad and it is moving, but it is a book I am immensely glad to have read.  I think it is a great example of what literature, what fiction, can achieve. Disgrace is a book that I know that I will read again, not simply because I want to, but because I need to.  I do not think that a first pass at this novel was sufficient to uncover all that it holds, and there was much that my virgin mind simply could not process without prior foundation.  I want to explore this book over and over again, furrowing its secrets and its truths, tragic and sad as they may be. When I was finished with it, I asked Tony to read it so that we could talk about it, as I had so many thoughts and feelings buzzing about.  I ask you to do the same.  It is not an easy book (though it is not inaccessible or difficult, either), but it is a very good one.  I wrestled with how to rate it, only because I knew that I as a reader had not taken away as much from it as it had to offer, and I think I will only appreciate it more on subsequent readings.  That being said, it is undoubtedly the book that has moved me immensely, perhaps the most thoughtful and emotionally turbulent book I have read this year, and so I think it must be a perfect score (my first of the year!  Doesn’t this tell you something?), whatever my shortcomings. Rating: 5 out of 5 Tony’s Take I read this book at Steph’s behest. I had initial misgivings, not about the quality of the writing or the author, but about the content. Steph told me some of what goes on in this book before I took it up and it disturbed me. I’m generally pretty stoic, and I think Steph will back me up on this, but there are a couple of things that get to me immediately: themes that remind me of my relationship with Steph and themes involving dogs. This book was a big dose of the latter, not so much the former though. Which is good, because if it had been both I think my head would have burst. This is not to say that this is some book just about some South African who sleeps with a student less than half his age and also features some bad things that happen to dogs — that would be insultingly reductive. Throughout the book the dogs are used as a metaphor for various ideas, cruelty, impotence, kindness, the natural world, loyalty, choice — all big themes. But when I say used I mean it, Coetzee does not spare our sensibilities when it comes to how he depicts the actions taken against the dogs (and other animals, to be fair) in the book. The world is a hard, cruel place and in South Africa the animals bear the brunt of it. I have a hard time with any sort of callous behavior towards animals, but dogs especially since our two are near to my heart. It bears strong mention that this book deserves a broader consideration than I have given it thus far, but I felt it would be disingenuous not to highlight the depth to which this aspect of the story affected me. I think it’s fair to say that this book, for me, would have lacked a substantial amount of raw emotional power had it not been for the dogs. Going past the issue of the dogs, this book unflinchingly deals with some large topics and I think the clarity of the prose makes the delivery all the more effective. Reading this book is a little like (or how I imagine it would be) drinking Everclear. It goes down hard at first, because there is no pretense, no fancy flavor to hide the grain alcohol, this is 190 proof, son, so grab your hat. You can feel your neck tightening, your cheeks flushing, you can feel that burning trail as it screams into your blood. Then that dull certainty that there has to be more to it, that’s it? There’s more to the experience than just the burn, so you take another drink. A big drink. This book will make you a drunk. Once you start, the pages turn easily, this is a fast read. The real burn doesn’t hit until about halfway through, then it really grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. Now you have to fight to win, but you have to win. You get to the end, the bottle is empty and there you are. You have to hold on to the ground to keep from falling off the Earth. But. There is this one little drip left in the bottle, and you can see it there, rattling around, giving you the finger while it swims laps in its nice, newly empty bottle-world. You want that drop. You deserve that drop. You bang the bottle on the table, leave it upside down in the tumbler while you go look for that glass cutter you bought on a whim from SkyMall on that business trip to Boulder last year, it’s probably in the garage. Damn, no shoes. Face it. That drop is never coming out. It’s a bubble in the glass! No, it moved! Sit there and stare for a while. Wile E. Coyote after his little, liquid Roadrunner. You know how this ends. Who gets the drop? Coetzee, that’s who. He brings in his two-foot, 220 volt, vacuum-assisted UltraStraw (Hammacher Schlemmer, thankyouverymuch), then sucks it up right there in front of you, leaves and takes the bottle with him. There goes that bitchin‘ bottle-candle you were going to make. There you have the end of this book for me. I almost threw the thing across the room. I didn’t know whether to be furious or heartbroken or depressed or in awe or in shock. I was at a loss. I felt robbed. I cried a little. This is a heavy, heavy book. It will kick your ass, and you deserve it. You’ll let it. Nothing is ever as simple as we see it and this book is powerful medicine for that illness. A glass of Everclear is visually indistinguishable from a glass of water, and as long as you keep your distance you’ll never know the difference. 5 out of 5

27 Comments

  1. Excellent double-header review! I love how you describe completely different reactions to the book and its themes and yet cohesively present the book and both gave it the same rating. Disgrace is an amazing book and I agree wholeheartedly with you both.

    I wrote my thoughts here: http://paperbackreader2.blogspot.com/2009/07/disgrace_17.html

  2. Eva
    09/24/2009

    Um, so there’s bestiality in the book?!?! Or did I misread Tony’s second paragraph?

    I’ve been leery of Coetzee since he seemed to be like Roth and other contemporary male authors I’m not a big fan of. But after reading this, I might give him a shot. Although if there’s bestiality in the book, I’ll probably try a different novel.

  3. 09/24/2009

    Uh oh. No bestiality, that’s my bad. Those were meant to be separate thoughts, I’ve edited it for better coherence. I do recommend the book though.

  4. 09/24/2009

    Wow! Loved your reviews of this book!! I will definitely be adding this one to my TBR list.

  5. I love the fact you have both reviewed the same book. I wish I could do that with my husband.

    I have to admit that I haven’t read your review – I’m planning to read Disgrace soon, so didn’t want to form any opinions before reading it myself. I’ll come back soon and let you know my thoughts. I hope I enjoy it as much as you did.

  6. Eva
    09/24/2009

    Ok-I’m glad that there’s no beastiality. Because I was freaking out in my head and thinking “Why aren’t they making a bigger deal out of that?!?!”

  7. 09/24/2009

    @ Claire: I just read your fabulous review, and of course agree with everything you said 100%! I think that Tony and I largely had similar reactions to the book, although different things did affect each of us to different degrees. For the purposes of the dual reviews, I think we chose to emphasize different things too for the sake of our readers! 😉
     
    @ Eva: The book is certainly dark enough with adding beastiality into the mix! I really don’t think I would have been able to handle that! I haven’t read any Roth (yet), so I can’t compare Coetzee to him, but I think this is a book that is well worth your time, even if the main character espouses certain beliefs that I found objectionable.
     
    @ Nadia: It’s a hard read, but so worth it.
     
    @ Jackie: I really look forward to your thoughts on this novel. It is an interesting blend of philosophy and plot, in my opinion, so I am curious to see how you respond to it!
    Also, I’m so glad that Tony is so amenable to reading books that I suggest so we can discuss them. Sometimes I really need someone with whom I can talk about a book right away!

  8. Lu
    09/24/2009

    I’m not going to lie, I did not like this book one bit. I agree that I think he’s like Philip Roth who I also do not like. You put forth some valid thoughts though, and maybe one day, I’ll give it a try though 😉

    I loved the double review! Maybe I can convince Z that we need to do a review together. Just maybe!

  9. 09/24/2009

    @ Lu: As I haven’t read Philip Roth, I am not sure what element about this book you didn’t like. Can you elaborate more about what it was that didn’t work for you?
    Also, this is probably not what Eva and you had in mind, but I do have a Roth book that is unread at the moment, and now I’m feeling like I need to read it more than ever! Not because I think that I will luuuuurve him, but because I need to know what y’all are talking about! 😉

  10. 09/24/2009

    Okay, a double 5/5 rating is not to be taken lightly! Your opening paragraph about the book, about how it requires measured thought is more than enough to hook me. My previous take on Coetzee hasn’t been the most successful (I read The Master of St. Petersburg). I have heard stellar reviews on this book but owing to the previous experience I have been a bit skeptical. Obviously I have to re-consider. I am an absorber of books that stir up my emotions through simple words.

  11. 09/24/2009

    I would give your reviews a 5 out of 5. I’m ready to get online at Amazon (as I sit here in my office at work) and order this book. I look forward to reading this!

  12. 09/24/2009

    This sounds like a tremendous book, and one I thought I had on my shelves. Sadly, it looks like I don’t, but I am going to be buying and reading this one as soon as I can. I don’t think that I should miss this one based on your joint review. I fully expect to be blown away by it, and I really need to be blown away by a good book right now.

  13. 09/24/2009

    Love the dual review format! A co-worker at the university bookstore in Auburn begged me to read this one when it came out, but I never got around to it. The few pages I read of Elizabeth Costello didn’t thrill me but it sounds like this is an author who requires little getting used to. I’ll have to keep an eye out for Disgrace.

  14. 09/24/2009

    @ Matt: Maybe this is Coetzee’s best book and his other stuff isn’t as good. I don’t know if that is the case, though I think I will want to try more of his stuff in the future as he is a perennial prize winner and this was just so good. Like you said, two perfect scores from us must say something!
     
    @ Kathleen: Thanks for the compliment! I hope this book speaks to you as powerfully as it did to the two of us.
     
    @ zibilee: I borrowed this from the library, but I now have it at the top of my list of books to buy. You know that I normally stake out the used bookstore (where I have never seen this one), but I will likely buy this new because I need to have it on our shelves (so that I can read it again and again). It will absolutely blow you away.
     
    @ Trisha: Trisha! I think my maid of honor picked up Elizabeth Costello and said it wasn’t doing much for her either (though she read and was impressed by Disgrace), so maybe that isn’t the best Coetzee to start with. I did feel I need about 30 pages or so before I could settle into the narrative and Coetzee’s style, so there’s that too.

  15. 09/24/2009

    I’ve never read any Coetzee, but I have a copy of Summertime sitting right in front of me. I’m not very eager to read it!

  16. 09/25/2009

    @ Teresa: I know nothing about Summertime, except that it’s a fictional autobiography/memoir and that it is nominated for a Booker. So I guess I do know something about it! Disgrace was really the one Coetzee I really wanted to read; I’m not sure which of his back catalog I will tackle next.

  17. Amy
    09/25/2009

    Coetzee is an author I’ve wanted to read for a while but one that keeps slipping away. I’ll have to do something about that! Love the double-header and great reviews. My only problem with this might be the bad things done to animals. I have difficulty stomaching and emotionally handling that because of my love for animals. It might sound silly but it is what it is. Otherwise I like the sound of this book.

  18. 09/25/2009

    I enjoyed reading Life and Times of Michael K. It didn’t blow me away. I’ve been meaning to read more Coetzee and this double review has moved this one to the top of the list! Sounds amazing.

  19. 09/25/2009

    @ Amy: I don’t know what finally made me pick this one up, but I’m really glad I did. I did say to Tony at one point that if I knew the book revolved so heavily around dogs I might not have picked it up, mostly because I get really emotionally invested in animal stories and they inevitably upset me, so I certainly understand your reservations. Some of the scenes involving animals were brutal and therefore hard to read, but others were very compassionate as well (which I also find hard to read!). I think the dog scenes were harsh but necessary and helped Coetzee develop many of the themes he explores.
     
    @ Rebecca: It seems that perhaps if one is going to read a single work by Coetzee, this might be it! I will likely try some of his other stuff down the line, but based on others’ feedback, I will lower my expectations! 😉
    @ Rebecca:

  20. 09/27/2009

    Wow a 5-star from you! Okay, yes, I agree with all of what both of you said. I raced through this novel in about 2 hours because I literally couldn’t put it down. Utterly moving and heartbreaking, and I never expected it! I’ll definitely read this again, too.

  21. 09/27/2009

    I was so happy to read this glowing review, as this book has been on my list for a while. Thanks so much.

  22. 09/27/2009

    @ Claire: I know! My first 5-star read of the year (it sure took a while getting here! 😉 ). I didn’t read it quite so quickly as you, but it was certainly a fast read. I borrowed this one from the library, so now I obviously have to get my own copy!
     
    @ diane: I will be really interested to read your review when you get to it. It was a tough read, but really rewarding.

  23. I feel like Cotzee is an author who’s books always warrant more discussion. I read Foe a couple years ago and didn’t get it at all until I talked about it with people. I loved it, but I’ve been avoiding more Cotzee because I’m afraid I won’t love it as much since I don’t have anyone to dig into it with. So I’m glad you guys had that, and I loved reading this review!

  24. […] no need for me to rehash to all of you my feelings about the book, as I did so quite passionately here, but what followed was one of the most illuminating discussions I have ever had.  I learned that […]

  25. […] out that coveted perfect score.  The few books that managed to nab 5 out of 5 from me were: Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, Generation A by Douglas Coupland, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima, and Jane […]

  26. […] contemplating. Perhaps others feel similarly.  So why read this book then? In short: the writing. I remarked on this when I spoke about Disgrace last year (one of my favourite reads in 2009), but Coetzee has this deceptively simple prose style, one that […]

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