Elizabeth Costello , by J.M Coetzee, Viking Press, 224 pages, $24.95
J.M. Coetzee’s latest work of fiction, Elizabeth Costello , is subtitled “Eight Lessons,” as if the author were giving his readers fair warning not to expect a novel in the traditional sense. Elizabeth Costello is anything but: It’s the literary equivalent of an experimental film in which the characters have no screen role to play other than presenting the director’s strong views on the history and meaning of cinema. Even with a star cast and brilliant script, such a movie would only appeal to a handful of dedicated enthusiasts; most of the audience would feel cheated and head for the doors. Mr. Coetzee’s novel is equally difficult to “sit through”-not because it deals with a harsh and depressing reality like Disgrace (1999), but because it seems to deal with no reality at all, except a writer’s abstract reflections on the art of writing. This early impression of rootlessness and unrestrained literary roaming is not entirely accurate, but it remains an important leitmotif and is often highly entertaining. I myself became a dedicated enthusiast-in love with Mr. Coetzee’s ambitious narrative free-styling-within the first few pages, when he showed his hand by openly admitting that “unless certain scenes are skipped over we will be here all afternoon.”
Elizabeth Costello, our eponymous heroine, is an eminent Australian novelist in her mid-60’s, and aging fast. Her main claim to fame is an early novel called The House on Eccles Street , in which she reinvented Molly Bloom from Joyce’s Ulysses as an independent character in her own right; in television terms, this would be the equivalent of a successful spin-off, à la Frasier . Her work is much analyzed and discussed, particularly by specialists in women’s fiction.
Over the years, Costello has become a venerated figure on the literary circuit, traveling around the world to give lectures and receive prizes. And herein lies this book’s peculiar dichotomy: These complex talks and lectures, while clearly constituting the main thrust of the novel’s raison d’être , are as lifeless as Elizabeth’s delivery is purported to be. And yet-unexpectedly, and as if by accident-her own character and life story begin to emerge, drawn with a gentle but masterful hand. Almost imperceptibly, the abstract ideas she talks about fade into the background, and one is left with the palpable sense of having had an extended glimpse into the life of a real human being. A second and third reading then begins to reveal the deeper connection between the two levels: Already in the first “Lesson” (“Realism”), Elizabeth Costello’s words are unmistakably self-referential: “There used to be a time, we believe, when we could say who we were. Now we are just performers speaking our parts.”
As a protagonist, Elizabeth Costello is somewhere between annoying and objectionable. She has two grown children, a son and daughter, by two different fathers; we’re never told much about these husbands (Costello is her maiden name), and nothing about the daughter. Only her son, John, who appears in two of the chapters, provides some link to his mother’s past. He has painfully bitter memories of being shut out of her life while she was writing and, although he is devoted to her and looks after her at a number of lectures and social events, their relationship is quite distant. “What is the truth of his mother?” he wonders. In fact, the thought of her having given birth to him fills him with horror: “[W]hat he cannot see he can imagine: the gullet, pink and ugly, contracting as it swallows, like a python, drawing things down to the pear-shaped belly-sac …. No, he tells himself, that is not where I come from, that is not it.”
With one of her lectures, Elizabeth Costello manages to scandalize her audience-and later the press-when she expounds her passionate views on animal rights: She compares the modern treatment of animals in slaughterhouses and abattoirs with the Nazi Holocaust. She’s a militant vegetarian and believes there are deep philosophical and moral implications in the human treatment of animals. Mr. Coetzee devotes two full chapters to this theme (both had been published before-as was, in fact, the rest of Elizabeth Costello -in a number of small literary periodicals and academic publications), allowing for astute dismissal of some of Elizabeth’s weakly argued views by her daughter-in-law and other critics. However, in another chapter entitled “The Novel in Africa,” Elizabeth faces an albatross on a remote island and freezes in fear; her love of animals does not seem to translate into an ability to commune with them. And for all of her learning and endless attempts to place vegetarianism in a moral historical framework, it escapes her notice (and Mr. Coetzee’s) that Hitler was a devoted vegetarian and dog-lover.
As an old woman, Elizabeth is cantankerous, difficult, too tired to reach out to people. There’s no love or affection in her life, and she’s very much alone. But there are intriguing glimpses of her younger self: exciting lovemaking with a Nigerian writer whom she finds merely irritating when they meet again, many decades later; her brush with evil, a horrible near-rape as a student that she keeps secret all her life, never even writing about it; and, most poignantly, a tender moment when she generously poses nude just to give a final pleasure to a dying old man. (When that doesn’t seem enough, she will take his penis “in her mouth and mumble it until it stirs faintly with life”). Another secret, this, and another Elizabeth Costello, far more attractive than the one who worries about animals more than she worries about people-or, as she would put it, about the human soul.
At the end of her life, she believes in the power of writing so much that she becomes afraid of letting it out into the open, like a genie. No more storytelling for Elizabeth Costello: “[T]he world would be better off if the genie remained imprisoned.” We hope that J.M. Coetzee will ignore this sentiment and let us have another difficult masterpiece, soon.
Elena Lappin is a writer and editor living in London.