Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Morality Tale with No Easy Answers ; with 'Disgrace,' J.M. Coetzee Wins England's Booker Prize - Again

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Morality Tale with No Easy Answers ; with 'Disgrace,' J.M. Coetzee Wins England's Booker Prize - Again

Article excerpt

Leading J.M. Coetzee's "Disgrace" is like being kicked in the back. You feel the impact before you know what it means.

The only author to win England's prestigious Booker Prize twice, Coetzee is a white South African whose novels manage to capture the peculiar tensions of his own country and the universal territory of the human heart.

"Disgrace" opens with the ironic dissection of David Lurie, a slick middle-aged professor of Romantic literature. Reduced to the ignominy of teaching "communication skills" and twice divorced, Lurie clings to his aesthetic superiority as a way of weathering the mounting evidence of his personal failure.

Though he prides himself on living a careful, orderly life, signs of moral disarray are showing like cracks in the tile. First, he falls in love with a prostitute, disrupting the code of their sordid arrangement. Then, he seduces a shy student and pursues her despite her frightened objections.

In a scene as unsettling as David Mamet's "Oleanna," this young woman files a sexual harassment charge against him and ignites a public campaign to drive him from the university.

For an expert in communication skills, Lurie proves particularly inept at defusing this scandal. He badly misjudges the young woman's determination and the new political climate that empowers women to fight back against such unwanted advances.

In the first of several subtle twists of sympathy, Coetzee explores the tragic misconceptions that allow Lurie to feel so wronged even while acknowledging his guilt. The Romantic ideals of sexual conquest that he appeals to have no more currency in the new political climate than the dismantled system of apartheid.

Hauled before the faculty disciplinary committee, Lurie rejects the rhetoric of official repentance in a move that's simultaneously noble, self-righteous, and fatalistic. When pressed to detail his inappropriate behavior, Lurie sneers, "Our paths crossed. Words passed between us, and at that moment something happened which, not being a poet, I will not try to describe. …

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