David Lurie and the ‘Disease of Romanticism’: The Transnational and Transcultural Afterlives of Goethe and Kleist in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace

  • Debayudh Chatterjee


My paper studies J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999) to understand the transnational, transcultural mutations of two key figures of German Romanticism: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Heinrich von Kleist. Coetzee’s novels are reflections and reproductions of his extensive reading of politics and literature; these texts grant the lives and works of old masters a renewal, a re-introspection, and most importantly, a resurrection into contemporaneity. Set in post-apartheid South Africa, Disgrace operates as a site of racial and sexual contentions. Through the character of David Lurie, Coetzee initiates a dialogue between the 'visions' of the former colonizer and the ‘revisions’ of the newly emancipated colonized. While the scholarship on the Romantic element in Disgrace (Beard 2007; Easton 2007; Hawkins 2009; and Cass 2013) is predominantly centred on the afterlife of British Romanticism, more particularly, on the roles Byron and Wordsworth play in shaping plot and action, I attempt to read the novel in the light of Coetzee’s critical prose to understand how he draws upon the German Romantic tradition. If Wordsworth and Byron are evoked to characterize the outer, more conspicuous texture of the novel, then the inner, hidden threads that stitch the form and content together are borrowed from Goethe and Kleist. I argue that Coetzee’s romantic sensibility is as much German as British. These two traditions are brought together in Disgrace to re-enact four major leitmotifs of Romantic literature—desire, transgression, punishment, and finally, salvation—in a transformed political dispensation.

Transfiction & Translation