Disgrace by JM Coetzee | Gilbert & George by Daniel Farson | Lillie Langtry by Laura Beatty
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The Independent Culture

Disgrace by JM Coetzee (Vintage, £6.99, 220pp) JM Coetzee usually takes an allegorical approach when writing about South Africa. But his latest Booker Prize-winning novel is a more direct affair. Like Nadine Gordimer's novel, The House Gun, the action springs from a judicial hearing - in Gordimer's case a murder trial, in Coetzee's a charge of sexual harrassment - and deals with the issue of retribution after apartheid.

The "disgrace" of the title is that of David Lurie, a 52-year old professor at Cape Technical University. Twice divorced he thinks he has "solved the problem of sex rather well". Every Thursday afternoon he seeks out the services of an escort called Soraya, and then buries himself in work for another week. When Soraya moves on, he makes the mistake of seducing one of his 20-year-old students instead.

Events get out of hand, and Lurie finds himself accused of abusing the teacher-student relationship. He pleads guilty or, as he puts it, guilty of falling under the spell of Eros.

Banished to the wilderness, Lurie holes up with his daughter Lucy - a serious-minded gay woman who tends flowers, vegetables and stray dogs on a small-holding in the Eastern Cape. Not long into his stay, three black strangers appear on the farm, gang-rape Lucy and douse Lurie in methylated spirits, setting fire to him.

Parallels, and images of violation abound in this slim, stylish volume. At the heart of the novel is Lurie's incredulity at his daughter's decision to keep the child conceived in rape - but there is a lot about the new order that he doesn't understand. The only thing he knows for sure is that by the time his country has reconstructed and purified the old ideas, he will be long dead. EH

Gilbert & George by Daniel Farson (HarperCollins, £7.99, 240pp) Like his addictive life of Francis Bacon, Farson's final book is a triumph of lucid observation. He combines the story of the gruesome twosome with accounts of their exhibitions. Speaking in well-rehearsed antiphony, G&G emerge as charming, creepy, funny, puerile, ruthless and persuasive. "Our works are filled with feeling," insists Gilbert. Hearing that the critic David Sylvester compared their cloacal epics to Masaccio's Expulsion from Eden, George scoffs: "Go and see Piss and Lavatory and find the Masaccio in them."

Lillie Langtry by Laura Beatty (Vintage, £7.99, 336pp) Daughter of a dean, the social ascent of the stunning Jersey Lily climaxed when Edward, Prince of Wales, built a love-nest for her in Bournemouth. Wilde's feelings for her went beyond friendship. But the Prince's interest waned, possibly because she drunkenly dripped a strawberry ice down his neck. Close to bankruptcy after having an illegitimate child, she took up with a seedy string of rich lovers. Though Beatty's prose has purple patches, Lillie's picaresque journey through the Victorian demi-monde is great entertainment.