Since its initial publication in 2000, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace has become one of the most widely-discussed texts to come out of South Africa, in addition to one of the most widely-taught of Coetzee’s novels to date. For some critics, the novel is a searing indictment of the politics of post-apartheid South Africa. To others, it is a complicated engagement with the problem of confession during South Africa’s time of transition. But despite the many differences among the novel’s critics, much of the extant work on the novel remains focused around the ethics of alterity and the problem of the “other.” Indeed, invocations of Derrida and Levinas abound in the reception of this and many other Coetzee texts, so much so that many other questions relevant to Disgrace —Coetzee’s interest in the pastoral, his fascination with the Russian novel, and his dialogue with the English 18th century, to name just a few—remain largely unexplored.

This seminar responds to Michael Chapman’s call to “go beyond Disgrace” and its existing critical paradigms by way of a thorough re-examination of the text of Disgrace itself. Most of the seminar therefore explores new terrain in the novel and its reception by exploring aspects of Disgrace about which relatively little has been said. How does the novel’s representation of rape and sexual violence open a window onto the politics of sex in post-apartheid South Africa, and the place of rape in international law as well? How should we grasp the complicated relationship between the novel and the film that followed from it? How can attention to the relationship between David Lurie and his daughter, Lucy, open new understandings of subjectivity, autonomy and compulsion as they pertain to Disgrace ? And how can we think about the relevance of Russian novelists like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky to the concerns of Disgrace , a novel that is not, on its surface, nearly as engaged with these authors as some of Coetzee’s other texts?

The seminar also examines issues that have been important to the novel’s reception, but in ways that try to put pressure on a great deal of the work that has been produced to this point. Much has been said, for instance, about Disgrace and its treatment of animal lives. But how is Coetzee’s interest in animals related to his interest in the English 18th century? Much has also been written about Coetzee and the South African pastoral—that Disgrace is part campus novel and part farm novel is almost universally acknowledged. But in what way can we think about Disgrace as revising many of the conventions of the South African pastoral for its post-apartheid milieu?

Disgrace is, by now, an important part of both the South African and the postcolonial canon. Yet its very popularity among teachers and critics has in some respects made the novel difficult to approach anew. The varied approaches at work in the seminar thus seek, in the end, to revisit this powerful novel and our means of approaching it in order to make it new for readers approaching it today.


Speakers will include David Bunn (English-University of Johannesburg), James Chandler (English), Sonali Thakkar (English), Heather Keenleyside (English), Jane Taylor (English-University of Johannesburg) and Robert Bird (Slavic Languages and Literatures).

Pre-readings

  • Rita Barnard, “Coetzee’s Country Ways,” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 4.3 (2002): 384-394. [Download]
    • An examination of Disgrace in the context of the South African pastoral tradition.
  • Michael Chapman, "The Case of Coetzee: South African Literary Criticism, 1990 to Today," Journal of Literary Studies 26.2 (June 2010): 103-119. [Download]
    • On the critical reception of Coetzee from Age of Iron onward, with particular attention given both to Disgrace and to the question of alterity in the criticism on Coetzee’s work.
  • J.M. Coetzee, "Confession and Double Thoughts: Tolstoy, Rousseau, Dostoevsky," Comparative Literature 37.3 (Summer, 1985): 193-232. [Download]
    • An analysis of confession and its complexities in the work of three writers whose work is essential to Coetzee's own.
  • Lucy Valerie Graham, "Reading the Unspeakable: Rape in J.M Coetzee's Disgrace," Journal of Southern African Studies 29.2 (June 2003): 433-444. [Download]
    • A reading of Coetzee's (non) representation of rape in light of the history of its representation in South Africa and beyond.
  • Tom Herron, “The Dog Man: Becoming Animal in Coetzee's Disgrace," Twentieth Century Literature. Vol. 51, No. 4 (Winter, 2005), pp. 467-490. [Download]
    • An account of Disgrace from a scholar working in the field of animal studies.

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