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Sunday, 17 January 2016

Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons


(Let me add, entirely parenthetically, that I as a person, as a personality, am overwhelmed, that my thinking is thrown into confusion and helplessness, by the fact of suffering in the world, and not only human suffering. These fictional constructions of mine are paltry, ludicrous defences against that being-overwhelmed, and, to me, transparently so.) – J.M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point

For a writer to crouch behind a fictional alter ego is nothing new—Roth has been peeking over Zukerman’s shoulder for decades as has Updike with Bech—but for a man to choose an alter ego—his anima?—who’s a woman is, I suspect, a rarity. That said there’s little doubt that that is the role Elizabeth Costello serves in the writings of J.M. Coetzee. In 2003 Coetzee was asked by Princeton to give the annual Tanner Lecture on Human Values. He chose, and not for the first time, to do so in the voice of a vegetarian, cat-loving, elderly woman, a highly-respected writer and literary critic like himself:

Elizabeth Costello is a writer, born in 1928, which makes her sixty-six years old, going on sixty-seven. She has written nine novels, two books of poems, a book on bird life, and a body of journalism. By birth she is Australian. She was born in Melbourne and still lives there, though she spent the years 1951 to 1963 abroad, in England and France. She has been married twice. She has two children, one by each marriage.
        Elizabeth Costello made her name with her fourth novel, The House on Eccles Street (1969), whose main character is Marion Bloom, wife of Leopold Bloom, principal character of another novel, Ulysses (1922), by James Joyce. In the past decade there has grown up around her a small critical industry; there is even an Elizabeth Costello Society, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which puts out a quarterly Elizabeth Costello Newsletter.

That the author would choose this unique approach should’ve come as no surprise to the organisers; since 1997 Coetzee has used the character of Elizabeth Costello publicly to discuss topics of philosophy, animal rights, literary theory, religion, and to speak of South Africa.

Elizabeth is some twelve years older than Coetzee. She reimagined Molly Bloom; he, Robinson Crusoe (see my review of Foe here) and Dostoevsky in The Master of Petersburg. In some ways, gender aside, they are similar: neither, for example, eats meat; both live in Australia. There are differences, however, and probably the main one is when it comes to precision: Coetzee is habitually precise about linguistic matters; Elizabeth not so much.

When the lecture was later published by Princeton University Press—Vox audita perit, litera scripta manet (the voice once heard perishes, but the letter once written remains)—it was classified as a work of philosophy touching on the biological sciences, religion and anthropology. Odd, then, to see the work appearing sometime later as part of what appears to be a novel. Odder still to find it wasn’t alone.

Elizabeth Costello consists of eight chapters or lessons—mostly consisting of monologues (lectures) and dialogues (debates and conversations)—followed by a postscript in the form of a letter. There really is no story, not in the traditional sense, rather a series of Socratic dialogues:

Lesson 1 Realism: Elizabeth travels to Altona College in Pennsylvania with her son to receive the Stowe Award. It consists of a purse of $50,000 and a gold medal so is not to be sniffed at. Her acceptance speech is entitled ‘What is Realism?’ In November 1996 Coetzee had delivered the Ben Belitt Lecture at Bennington College, under the title ‘What Is Realism?’ As with ‘The Lives of Animals’ this turned out to be a fiction featuring Elizabeth Costello.

Lesson 2 The Novel in Africa: Coetzee delivered the Fall 1998 Una’s Lecture at the Doreen B. Townsend Centre for the Humanities at the University of California, Berkeley, under the title ‘The Novel in Africa’. In the novel Elizabeth has agreed to deliver a series of lectures aboard a cruise ship bound for Antarctica but this particular piece is handed over to a fictional ex-Nigerian ex-novelist, Emmanuel Egudu; “[h]e teaches in colleges in America, telling the youth of the New World about the exotic subject on which he is an expert in the same way that an elephant is an expert on elephants: the African novel”. Her own lecture is on ‘The Future of the Novel’; we don’t get to hear much of that.

COETZEELessons 3 and 4 The Lives of Animals: From the 2003 Tanner Lecture on Human Values (available here) transferred to the annual Gates Lecture at Appleton College in Massachusetts. The second part of the fourth lesson is a debate between Elizabeth and Thomas O'Hearne, professor of philosophy at Appleton.

Lesson 5 The Humanities in Africa: In March 2001 Coetzee read ‘The Humanities in Africa’ at the Carl Friedrich von Siemens Stiftung in Munich. In the novel Elizabeth has been invited to South Africa by her sister Blanche who now has become a nun (Sister Bridget), currently runs a medical mission in Zululand and whom Elizabeth has not seen in twelve years; Blanche has an honorary degree conferred on her by a university in her adopted country.

While there Elizabeth is introduced to a wood-carver with some skill who has, however, been carving the same figure—Christ in agony on the cross—all his life and now, due to rheumatism in his hands, can no longer work. Where Elizabeth sees talent wasted; her sister sees the sacrifice of personality in adoration of the sacrifice of “Our Saviour”.

At the end of this chapter she talks about visiting her daughter in Nice but that’s the last we hear of it. A year after Elizabeth Costello came out Coetzee did publish an account of ­a visit in The New York Review of Books entitled ‘As a Woman Grows Older’ which Coetzee read instead of delivering the Robert B. Silvers Lecture at the New York Public Library; she’s seventy-two at this point in time so it’s probably not the visit although who’s to say over how many years Elizabeth Costello actually covers?

Lesson 6 The Problem of Evil: At a Nexus Conference on Evil in Tilburg, Holland, in June 2002, Coetzee once again offered a fictional account of Elizabeth Costello’s participation in a conference on the question of evil in Holland. Fact and fiction are further mixed in the talk itself, which centres on a real work of fiction, Paul West’s 1980 novel The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg in which he describes in meticulous detail an execution ordered by Hitler (“‘Use thin cord,’ von StauffenbergHitler commanded his man. ‘Strangle them. I want them to feel themselves dying.’”). When Elizabeth arrives at the conference, she’s alarmed to learn that West is among the conference participants and at first struggles to rework her lecture the night before she has to deliver it before she realises it’s pointless; “[o]f the twenty pages of her text, fully half [were] devoted to the von Stauffenberg book.”

West was not, it seems, an attendee at the actual Tilburg lecture. In the book, however, when Elizabeth approaches him he refuses to even acknowledge her—must be something metafictional going on there because I’m sure Coetzee isn’t suggesting West would be quite as discourteous in real life—but the real live West did, finally respond to Coetzee/Costello’s criticisms here.

Lesson 7 Eros: This is a new piece containing no dialogue. This is a meditation on sexual desire between gods and humans. Also this is the only section of the book where Elizabeth is at home in Melbourne.

Lesson 8 At the Gate: This also a new piece. At the end of the fourth lesson, as her son is driving her to the airport, Elizabeth breaks down and so John pulls over the car to comfort her. What he says is interesting: “There, there. It will soon be over.” What will be over soon? Her life? What then?

Or what about her sister’s parting words—remember, they’re old and this will likely be the last time they ever meet in the flesh:

You backed a loser, my dear. If you had put your money on a different Greek you might still have stood a chance. Orpheus instead of Apollo. The ecstatic instead of the rational. Someone who changes form, changes colour, according to his surroundings. Someone who can die but then come back. A chameleon. A phoenix. Someone who appeals to women. Because it is women who live closest to the ground. Someone who moves among the people, whom they can touch—put their hand into the side of, feel the wound, smell the blood. But you didn't, and you lost. You went for the wrong Greeks, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth does appear now to have died and is seeking to pass through the Pearly Gates but to gain access she is first required to write a statement:

'Excuse me,' she says. [The gatekeeper] pays her no attention. 'Excuse me. Can someone open the gate for me?'
        He is filling in some kind of form. Without ceasing to write, he speaks. 'First you must make a statement.'
        'Make a statement? To whom? To you?'
        With his left hand he pushes a sheet of paper across to her. She lets go of the suitcase and picks up the paper. It is blank.
        'Before I can pass through I must make a statement,' she repeats. 'A statement of what?'
        'Belief. What you believe.'
        'Belief. Is that all? Not a statement of faith? What if I do not believe? What if I am not a believer?'
        The man shrugs. For the first time he looks directly at her. 'We all believe. We are not cattle. For each of us there is something we believe. Write it down, what you believe. Put it in the statement.'

What does he want? Her to say, “I believe in life after death”? Now there’s empirical evidence would it still count as belief? Very Kafkaesque—think of the ape and his report—and deliberately so. As to whether we can take this section literally or not, all I can add is that Elizabeth Costello does not ‘die’ in this book but reappears again in 2004’s ‘When a Woman Grows Older’ and in the 2005 novel Slow Man. In 2011, in Milan, Coetzee delivered another “speech” this time revolving around Costello’s expected death.

Postscript: Letter of Elizabeth, Lady Chandos: This is an oddity written in the form of a letter composed by the imaginary wife—Lord Chandos Letteranother Elizabeth C.—of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s imaginary Lord Chandos. Originally delivered, instead of a lecture, at the University of Texas. The Letter of Lord Chandos is a fictional letter written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal in 1902 about a writer named Lord Philip Chandos who is experiencing a crisis of language. The letter is dated August 1603 and addressed to Francis Bacon, with the fictional Lord Chandos as the author. You can read an English translation of the letter here. What Coetzee appends here is a letter written by Lady Chandos after somehow having intercepted her husband’s letter. Her letter is dated 11th September 1603. Some have tried to read into that date but all Coetzee was willing to say on the subject was:

As for September 11, let us not too easily grant the Americans possession of that date on the calendar. Like May 1 or July 14 or December 25, September 11 may seem full of significance to some people, while to other people it is just another day. – ‘An exclusive interview with J M Coetzee’, DN.Kultur

As you might imagine there’s a lot to this little book.

Many actors in real life are quiet and reserved types. To suggest that Elizabeth Costello is John Coetzee in drag is to miss the point. There is a lot of Coetzee in Elizabeth but there’s also a lot of him in her son, John, possibly more. Elizabeth appears to be sure of herself, certainly in public, but no doubt Coetzee has added in John, his wife and Elizabeth’s sister to play Job’s comforters and the fact is her arguments are not always as sound as they first appear. To illustrate: the poet Abraham Stern declines to attend her lecture ‘The Philosophers and the Animals’ but does send a note afterwards:

        Dear Mrs Costello,

        Excuse me for not attending last night's dinner. I have read your books and know you are a serious person, so I do you the credit of taking what you said in your lecture seriously.
        At the kernel of your lecture, it seemed to me, was the question of breaking bread. If we refuse to break bread with the executioners of Auschwitz, can we continue to break bread with the slaughterers of animals?
        You took over for your own purposes the familiar comparison between the murdered Jews of Europe and slaughtered cattle. The Jews died like cattle, therefore cattle die like Jews, you say. That is a trick with words which I will not accept. You misunderstand the nature of likenesses; I would even say you misunderstand wilfully, to the point of blasphemy. Man is made in the likeness of God but God does not have the likeness of man. If Jews were treated like cattle, it does not follow that cattle are treated like Jews. The inversion insults the memory of the dead. It also trades on the horrors of the camps in a cheap way.
        Forgive me if I am forthright. You said you were old enough not to have time to waste on niceties, and I am an old man too.

        Yours sincerely,
        Abraham Stern

Elizabeth’s logic may be flawed from time to time and several times we see her struggle when put under pressure—she really shouldn’t accept questions after her lectures (I doubt Coetzee does)—but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have meaningful and interesting things to say. In her opening talk, for example, she begins by referring to Kafka’s short story ‘Report to an Academy’:

'There is a story by Franz Kafka—perhaps you know it—in which an ape, dressed up for the occasion, makes a speech to a learned society. It is a speech, but a test too, an examination, a viva voce. The ape has to show not only that he can speak his audience's language but that he has mastered their manners and conventions, is fit to enter their society.
        'Why am I reminding you of Kafka's story? Am I going to pretend I am the ape, torn away from my natural surroundings, forced to perform in front of a gathering of critical strangers? I hope not. I am one of you, I am not of a different species.
        'If you know the story, you will remember that it is cast in the form of a monologue, a monologue by the ape. Within this form there is no means for either speaker or audience to be inspected with an outsider's eye. For all we know, the speaker may not "really" be an ape, may be simply a human being like ourselves deluded into thinking himself an ape, or a human being presenting himself, with heavy irony, for rhetorical purposes, as an ape. Equally well, the audience may consist not, as we may imagine, of bewhiskered, red-faced gents who have put aside their bushjackets and topis for evening dress, but of fellow apes, trained, if not to the level of our speaker, who can mouth complicated sentences in German, then at least to sit still and listen; or, if not trained to that pitch, then chained to their seats and trained not to jabber and pick fleas and relieve themselves openly.
        'We don't know. We don't know and will never know, with certainty, what is really going on in this story: whether it is about a man speaking to men or an ape speaking to apes or an ape speaking to men or a man speaking to apes (though the last is, I think, unlikely) or even just a parrot speaking to parrots.’

This, of course, sets up the theme for the whole book. What is a beast? Were the Nazi’s beasts? Are those of us who devour meat beasts?

'You ask me why I refuse to eat flesh. I, for my part, am astonished that you can put in your mouth the corpse of a dead animal, astonished that you do not find it nasty to chew hacked flesh and swallow the juices of death wounds.'

Were the Jews beasts? (That’s certainly one reading of Kafka’s text.) The test put by the Houyhnhnms to Gulliver was a simple enough one: Is he a god or a beast? And what of the gods who transform themselves into beasts to copulate with humans? (Europa was seduced by the god Zeus in the form of a bull; again Zeus, this time in the form of a swan, seduces Leda.) Who are the real beasts? Or maybe this is nothing to do with beasts. Are ideas about the relationship between human and nonhuman others actually secondary? Could the main focus of the novel not be fiction itself? Is the overarching question: What is the value of literature?

Because of the high esteem in which Elizabeth is held—mostly based, it has to be said (and much to her irritation) on a novel written when she was young—she gets to talk to people about pretty much anything she wants. What the schools want is for her to talk about the life of a writer and her books—especially Eccles Street—but she chooses to pontificate about what interests her and, hence, is not always received as well as she might’ve been had she chosen to humour them:

According to Bakhtin, characteristic of a Socratic dialogue is “the combination of the image of Socrates, the central hero of the genre, wearing the popular mask of a bewildered fool [. . .] with the image of a wise man of the most elevated sort” (Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, p.24). He points out that “this combination produces the ambivalent image of wise ignorance” (Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, p.24), an image that fits Costello. Her audience obviously respects her as an accomplished novelist yet finds her discussion of animal rights puzzling or even, for Norma [her son’s wife], confused. – Richard Alan Northover, ‘Elizabeth Costello as a Socratic Figure’, English in Africa 39 No. 1 (May 2012), p.42

Who are these eight lessons for then? Well, for us, the readers, obviously. Or maybe not. The first seven lessons are instances where Elizabeth has been afforded opportunities to say what she believes. Or what she thought she believed. Just after she begins her lecture ‘The Future of the Novel’—an old talk she’s given many times—her mind begins to wander:

She is not sure, as she listens to her own voice, whether she believes any longer in what she is saying. Ideas like these must have had some grip on her when years ago she wrote them down, but after so many repetitions they have taken on a worn, unconvincing air. On the other hand, she no longer believes very strongly in belief. Things can be true, she now thinks, even if one does not believe in them, and conversely. Belief may be no more, in the end, than a source of energy, like a battery which one clips into an idea to make it run. As happens when one writes: believing whatever has to be believed in order to get the job done.

Belief is something I, too, struggle with. If someone was to ask me: Jim, what do you believe in? I’d be stumped. There are things I believe are true—I believe Africa is a dirty great continent nearly twelve million square miles in size—but I’m not sure I believe in Africa. When people ask you what you believe what they mean is what you believe in. And it’s the ‘in’ that’s the bugger. I wrote a poem once:


The thing about beliefs is
they don't need to be true.
That's not their job.

They're there because
so many things aren't true.
Nature abhors a vacuum.

19 December 1996

So if faced with that sheet of blank paper at the end of the book I’d write the above. It’s what I believe beliefs are all about. No one knows what happens when we die. Some find it comforting to believe in an afterlife. Others prefer to believe there’s nothing, we stop and that’s it. If it happens there is an afterlife and it’s like the one Coetzee imagines and I am faced with that blank sheet of paper—we writers fear nothing more than a blank sheet of paper—then, if they weren’t happy with my poem, I might try writing something along the lines of what Elizabeth Costello writes:

'I am a writer,' she says. 'You have probably not heard of me here, but I write, or have written, under the name Elizabeth Costello. It is not my profession to believe, just to write. Not my business. I do imitations, as Aristotle would have said.'
        She pauses, then brings out the next sentence, the sentence that will determine whether this is her judge, the right one to judge her, or, on the contrary, merely the first in a long line leading to who knows what featureless functionary in what chancellery in what castle. 'I can do an imitation of belief, if you like. Will that be enough for your purposes?'
        His response has an air of impatience about it, as though this is an offer he has had many times before. 'Write the statement as required,' he says. 'Bring it back when it is completed.'

Her next go is also rejected so maybe I wouldn’t be as flippant as her elsewise I might end up, as she does, before a heavenly tribunal to be judged.

There are things she appears to believe, that eating meat is wrong—that she’s definite on—and then there are things she’s pretty sure about:

Specifically, she is no longer sure that people are always improved by what they read. Furthermore, she is not sure that writers who venture into the darker territories of the soul always return unscathed. She has begun to wonder whether writing what one desires, any more than reading what one desires, is in itself a good thing.

“Her books are, she believes, better put together than she is.” She believes too that recalling things she regards as “obscene”—case in point, the execution described in West’s book—often do more harm than good. It is sufficient to know these things happened. This is how she puts it:

Obscene. That is the word, a word of contested etymology, that she must hold on to as talisman. She chooses to believe that obscene means off-stage. To save our humanity, certain things that we may want to see (may want to see because we are human!) must remain off-stage. Paul West has written an obscene book, he has shown what ought not to be shown.

I said that the opening lecture sets up the theme for the whole book—the questions revolving around the nature of beastliness—but there’s also the more obvious issue: The nature of reality. What exactly is the nature of Elizabeth Costello in the novel Slow Man? There she presents herself asSlow Man if she is—or intends to become—the author of the book’s main protagonist. Not that dissimilar to the character of the author in Puckoon who interacts with at least one of his characters. Elizabeth Costello is not real. She is a fiction, a character in a book. She serves a function. Mostly, it seems, to speak on behalf of John Coetzee because he doesn’t like to speak for himself. She’s his ventriloquist’s dummy. She doesn’t have beliefs of her own. When she finds herself in fictional purgatory what else can she write?

In Kafka’s short story it is not an ape that’s talking. It is Kafka pretending he’s an ape or perhaps an ape standing in for a Jew. Just like Elizabeth’s son says of his mother:

‘[M]y mother has been a man […] She has also been a dog. She can think her way into other people, into other existences. I have read her; I know. It is within her powers. Isn't that what is most important about fiction: that it takes us out of ourselves, into other lives?’

Elizabeth Costello cannot believe anything. Only real people can believe things.

There’s a lot of ugliness in this book—a woman boasting about her lampshade (“Yes, it's nice, isn't it? Polish-Jewish skin it's made of, we find that's best, the skins of young Polish-Jewish virgins.”); a film about a Hollywood star who ends up in a mental hospital being repeatedly beaten and abused (“orderlies sell tickets for ten minutes a time with her. 'I wanna fuck a movie star!' pants one of their customers, shoving his dollars at them”; the man who assaulted and tried to rape Elizabeth (when she was a young art student)—and it doesn’t provide many (if any) answers. The pointlessness and hopelessness of it all drag Elizabeth down; that plus the fact she finds herself alone at the end of her life and not entirely convinced it’s all been worthwhile. Is this partly why she wanted “to visit Antarctica—not just to see with her own eyes those vast horizons, that barren waste, but to set foot on the seventh and last continent, feel what it is like to be a living, breathing creature in spaces of inhuman cold.”?

This doesn’t mean the book is not without its touching moments but even they’re infused with sadness, her encounter with the albatross and her chick on Macquarie or the letter she writes to Blanche but never sends which ends:

The humanities teach us humanity. After the centuries-long Christian night, the humanities give us back our beauty, our human beauty. That was what you forgot to say. That is what the Greeks teach us, Blanche, the right Greeks. Think about it.

but especially what she leaves out of the letter but allows us, the readers, to discover, what exactly transpired between her and old Mr Phillips as he lay a-dying.

The ending is a puzzler, though. What on earth could this 17th century letter have to do with anything? In his review for The Observer, for example, Adam Mars-Jones writes that, in his opinion, the “postscript … has no connection with Elizabeth Age of IronCostello” but not everyone agrees with him although you have to dig a bit to join the dots. The fact that both women’s initials are E.C. is an obvious place to start (it’s worth noting, too, that Elizabeth Curran was the protagonist in Age of Iron), also the fact that Lady Chandos is speaking for her husband whilst Elizabeth Costello often speaks for—or at least instead of—John Coetzee and what about the fact that her letter is in effect a sequel to her husband’s letter just as The House on Eccles Street was a sequel to Ulysses? In his essay After Disgrace: Lord and Lady Chandos in Cape Town and Adelaide Graham Bradshaw suggests that this postscript “delivers a ninth lesson, and a kind of last word on ‘Realism’: unlike Elizabeth Costello, Elizabeth Chandos is tortured and maddened by her sense that what she says always means ‘something else, always something else.’”

In the book Elizabeth criticises Egudu because he’s “not written a book of substance in ten years.” But is she still a writer? All we see her do here is converse, lecture and challenge the beliefs of others; she has an impeccable talent for rubbing people up the wrong way. But when the time comes the blank sheet of paper defeats her. Yes, of course, she writes something—no writer of her calibre could fail to come up with something—but it’s not what she wants to say or needs to say: words have failed her. And yet they were already in the process of failing her. Look at the letter from Stern where he questions her use of similes and compare it to what Lady Chandos writes here:

Flaming swords I say my Philip presses into me, swords that are not words; but they are neither flaming swords nor are they words. It is like a contagion, saying one thing always for another (like a contagion, I say: barely did I hold myself back from saying, a plague of rats, for rats are everywhere about us these days). Like a wayfarer (hold the figure in mind, I pray you), like a wayfarer I step into a mill, dark and disused, and feel of a sudden the floorboards, rotten with the wetness, give way beneath my feet and plunge me into the racing mill-waters; yet as I am that (a wayfarer in a mill) I am also not that; nor is it a contagion that comes continually upon me or a plague of rats or flaming swords, but something else. Always it is not what I say but something else. Hence the words I write above: We are not meant to live thus. Only for extreme souls may it have been intended to live thus, where words give way beneath your feet like rotting boards (like rotting boards I say again, I cannot help myself, not if I am to bring home to you my distress and my husband's, bring home I say, where is home, where is home?).

Likeness has its limits and yet, perhaps, we forget how often we defer to similes and metaphors to inch that bit closer to the true meaning of things. I could write more (and if I understood more I might) but having read several essays on the subject of the postscript alone—not counting the essays on and reviews of the novel itself—I’m not sure I do, at least not clearly enough to articulate here. Given an opportunity to clarify, like Beckett (his doctoral dissertation was on the style of Samuel Beckett's early fiction) Coetzee politely declines:

I tend to resist invitations to interpret my own fiction. If there were a better, clearer, shorter way of saying what the fiction says, then why not scrap the fiction? Elizabeth, Lady C, claims to be writing at the limits of language. Would it not be insulting to her if I were diligently to follow after her, explaining what she means but is not smart enough to say? – ‘An exclusive interview with J M Coetzee’, DN.Kultur

Ultimately I see this book as being about a woman—coincidentally a writer but being a writer myself I can add unequivocally that being one does propel one further down the road—a woman heading towards, if not already in the process of going through, an existential crisis. What does it all mean?

Meaning can be a bugger. This appears on the surface as a handful of lectures being palmed off as a novel. We might feel cheated even despite the fact it’s unlikely any have attended all the lectures although some may well possess and have read all the subsequently published texts. But, no. We have it wrong. These were always works of fiction presented in place of speeches. Whether Coetzee ever intended to amalgamate them as he has done only he knows although my guess would be that certainly in the beginning he harboured no such plans. Why he chose to do it and how he gets away with it are other matters to consider but it’s clearly a distancing mechanism. As Peter Singer writes (in one of the four reflections by other authors that follow Coetzee’s two pieces in The Lives of Animals):

But are they Coetzee’s arguments? That’s just the point—that’s why I don’t know how to go about responding to this so-called lecture. They are Costello’s arguments. Coetzee’s fictional device enables him to distance himself from them. And he has this character, Norma, Costello’s daughter-in-law, who makes all the obvious objections to what Costello is saying. It’s a marvellous device, really. Costello can blithely criticize the use of reason, or the need to have any clear principles or proscriptions, without Coetzee really committing himself to these claims. Maybe he really shares Norma’s very proper doubts about them. Coetzee doesn’t even have to worry too much about getting the structure of the lecture right. When he notices that it is starting to ramble, he just has Norma say that Costello is rambling! – The Lives of Animals, p.91

In a novel we never have to worry about what Coetzee truly believes. Or perhaps this is what he believes and he’s saved his opponents the trouble of getting to their feet by shooting Elizabeth down for them. That he may share some views with his character is not exactly surprising but would we expect Paul West to have Nazi sympathies simply because once upon a time he chose to write about Nazis? No, that doesn’t make any sense. And what the pieces meant originally and what they mean now has much to do with context. It’s like a poem. Most poems are standalone affairs and yet poets insist on shoving out collections where, because of context, of their relation to and closeness with other poems, the meanings are often subtly changed. As is the case here. The bigger picture becomes clear. Or at least clearer.

The book, and its first lesson, opens as follows:

There is first of all the problem of the opening, namely, how to get us from where we are, which is, as yet, nowhere, to the far bank. It is a simple bridging problem, a problem of knocking together a bridge.

Each separate chapter forms a pontoon taking us all the way back to 1603. Coetzee is describing nothing new here; nothing writers have not struggled with for centuries.

I liked this book. It’s not an easy read, far from it—I mean, it’s book of lectures, for God’s sake, no matter what you call it—and they take time to digest and there’s a lot I’ve not had time to talk about. I, of course, approached the book thinking it was and treating it as a novel—I was looking for connections and to make sense of it as a whole—and that attitude is a good place to start and I wouldn’t concern yourself too much with the origins of the texts.

You can read an excerpt from the book here.

I’ll leave you with a link to a lecture by Professor Dominick LaCapra from Cornell University entitled ‘J.M. Coetzee, The Historical, and The Literary: Elizabeth Costello and Disgrace


jm-coetzee_0J.M. Coetzee was born in South Africa in 1940. His first published book was Dusklands (1974), and this was followed by several further novels including In the Heart of the Country (1977), winner of the Central News Agency (CNA) Literary Award and filmed as Dust in 1985; Life & Times of Michael K (1983) and Disgrace (1999), both winners of the Booker Prize for Fiction; and Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons (2003). More recent novels are Slow Man (2005) and Diary of a Bad Year (2007).

J. M. Coetzee also writes non-fiction. White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (1988) is a collection of essays on South African literature and culture, and Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews (1992) is a collection of essays and interviews with David Attwell. His books Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (1997); Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II (2002); and Summertime (2009) form a trilogy of fictionalised memoirs. Summertime was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize for Fiction and the Commonwealth Writers Prize (South East Asia and South Pacific region, Best Book) and the Australian Prime Minister's Literary Award.

J. M. Coetzee is also a translator of Dutch and Afrikaans literature. He emigrated to Australia in 2002, where he has an honorary position at the University of Adelaide. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003 and knighted in the Order of the Dutch Lion in 2010.

Further Reading

Introduction to J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello

Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello and Its Sources

J. M. Coetzee’s unsettling portrayals of Elizabeth Costello

“A purgatory of clichés”: Elizabeth Costello and the Impossible Paradise for Writers

J.M. Coetzee and Animal Rights: Elizabeth Costello’s Challenge to Philosophy

Coetzee’s Postmodern Animals

Rethinking Human and Nonhuman Animal Relations in J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello (2003)

Refusing to Speak: The Ethics of Animal Silence and Sacrifice in Coetzee and Derrida

Too Much Terror? J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello and the Circulation of Trauma

Timely Meditations: Reflections on the Role of the Humanities in J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello and Diary of a Bad Year

The Place from When I Read: Intertextuality and the Postcolonial Present: Reading Elizabeth Costello (and J. M. Coetzee)

Literature and Salvation in Elizabeth Costello Or How to Refuse to be an Author in Eight or Nine Lessons

The Community of Sentient Beings: J. M. Coetzee’s Ecology in Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello

Authors and Others: The Ethics of Inhabiting in J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello

The ‘hermeneutics of equivocation’: Reading the Postscript in J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello

Metaphor as contagion: Notes on the postscript of JM Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello

Two reviews of Elizabeth Costello that are also worth reading are ‘A Writer’s Life: J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello by Derek Attridge in VQR and ‘A Frog’s Life’ by James Wood in the London Review of Books.


Gwil W said...

Jim, Just skimming, I enjoyed your poem about beliefs. I see no problem with holding two contradictory beliefs in my head simultaneously. No wonder I'm half crazy ;). Will get to Kafka video and rest of it sooner rather than later. Or maybe later rather than sooner. Cheers, Gwilym

Jim Murdoch said...

I don’t think of myself as a wise man, Gwilym, but, occasionally (very occasionally), I get my act together and this is one of those instances. It’s at times like this I think about my legacy—what will the world remember of me?—and I think about those Greek philosophers whose names I could never pronounce as a kid but whose wise words have been preserved down to today in various books of quotations and now, of course, on the Internet. How long did these men live? Seventy years? Eighty? And yet all most of them are known for are two or three, maybe a handful, of quotes. And the case of Archimedes it’s only one word! What else did he say? In my new book I allow Jim one quote in the Collins Dictionary of Quotations. It wasn’t this one but it could’ve been.

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