A motion picture adaptation starring John Malkovich as David Lurie had its world premier at the Toronto Film Festival in 2008, where it won the International Critics' Award.
Disgrace is the story of a South African professor of English who loses everything: his reputation, his job, his peace of mind, his good looks, his dreams of artistic success, and finally even his ability to protect his cherished daughter.
The novel tells the story of David Lurie, twice-divorced and dissatisfied with his job as a professor of Communication, teaching one specialized class in Romantic literature at a technical university in Cape Town in post-apartheid South Africa. His "disgrace" comes when he seduces one of his students and he does nothing to protect himself from its consequences. Lurie was working on Lord Byron at the time of his disgrace, and the irony is that he comes to grief from an escapade that Byron would have thought distinctly timid. He is dismissed from his teaching position, after which he takes refuge on his daughter's farm in the Eastern Cape. For a time, his daughter's influence and natural rhythms of the farm promise to harmonise his discordant life. But the balance of power in the country is shifting. Shortly after becoming comfortable with rural life, he is forced to come to terms with the aftermath of an attack on the farm in which his daughter is raped and impregnated and he is brutally assaulted. In Disgrace, those who feel disgraced are also those who are punished.
As in all of his mature novels, Coetzee here deals with the theme of exploitation. His favorite approach has been to explore the innocuous-seeming use of another person to fill one's gentler emotional needs. This is a story of both regional and universal significance. The central character is a confusing person, at once an intellectual snob who is contemptuous of others and also a person who commits outrageous mistakes. His 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 is forced to rethink his entire world at an age when he believes he is too old to change and, in fact, should have a right not to.
This theme, about the challenges of aging both on an individual and societal level, leads to a line, "No country, this, for old men," an ironic reference to the opening line of the W.B. Yeats poem, "Sailing to Byzantium."
This is the second book by this author (after Life and Times of Michael K) where man is broken down almost to nothing before he finds some tiny measure of redemption in his forced acceptance of the realities of life and death. Coetzee has always situated his characters in extreme situations that compel them to explore what it means to be human. There are many comparisons of human and animal existence in the novel. Though the novel is sparse in style, it covers a number of topics: personal shame, changing country, animal rights, romantic poetry and its symbolism.