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Beyond belief
J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello
Elizabeth Costello
By J.M. Coetzee. Viking, 240 pages, $21.95.

Since his literary debut, in 1974, J.M. Coetzee has avoided the press, refused to discuss works in progress, even skipped award ceremonies. So when Princeton University asked the reclusive South African writer to deliver a series of essays on censorship, it was hardly a surprise that he took the lectern and delivered not his own thoughts but those of Elizabeth Costello, a fictional novelist giving lectures on animal rights at a fictional American university called Appleton College.

Five years later, Coetzee — now a Nobel laureate — delivers the story of this eccentric woman’s life in a third-person narrative that I’d hesitate to call a novel but that would be difficult to label as anything else. Elaborated from eight "talks" ranging in subjects from literature to a defense of her life before the pearly gates, Elizabeth Costello occasionally feels as if Coetzee had taken the content of "The Lives of Animals," the academic monograph he gleaned from his Princeton essays, plopped it between quotes, and called it dialogue. There’s no plot and only secondary character development or atmosphere, save for a few tidy brushstrokes to flesh out Elizabeth’s essay-like ruminations and the leafy academic environments where the action takes place.

What Elizabeth Costello does provide is a circuitous intellectual biography of a brilliant but muddled woman. Don’t come to the novel expecting a riveting story; expect academic filibuster. Think discourse and debate on questions like the existence of humanity and the souls of animals. Following Elizabeth from town to town on this scholarly journey requires work. Keeping up with her as she meanders from Aquinas to Descartes to Wittgenstein can be exhausting.

All this talk, however, is just talk. Elizabeth has avoided belief as if it were an obstruction to fiction. Almost 70 and with nothing to lose, she uses a half-dozen public appearances to stand up and figure out what she does believe. People ask her to talk about literature? She gives a long, turgid address on the ethics of our relationship to animals. A cruise line asks her to digress on the future of the novel? She responds with a terse lecture that begins, "The future of the novel is not a subject I am much interested in."

Elizabeth is a difficult character to warm up to. Coetzee dispenses with her biographical details straightaway, as if challenging you to connect with her entirely through her moral compass. This feels like a message to readers sniffing around the life of a novelist who prefers to be known by his work rather than by his personal life. Note what information comes first:

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.

Most people have a clear division between heart and mind; Elizabeth’s mind is her heart. She loves her children because they are her offspring, but they’re footnotes to the real story. Moreoever, "Her books teach nothing, preach nothing; they merely spell out, as clearly as they can, how people lived in a certain time and place." She has funneled all her energy into work: "Her books are, she believes, better put together than she is."

It makes sense that Coetzee created Costello to talk about censorship: many of her opinions are so far afield that even defenders of free speech might respond by shouting, "You cannot say that." She shocks audiences when she compares the slaughter of cattle to the Holocaust.

Although Elizabeth Costello is in style and tone totally different from any of Coetzee’s other fictions, its preoccupation with the unutterable truth links it to predecessors. His 1999 novel, Disgrace, concerned a white South African professor who is fired by his university after having an affair with a student. He returns home to the bush and finds his daughter participating in the new sexual and social realities of South Africa. By daring to raise — in the mind of a white, liberal character, no less — the fear of miscegenation, Coetzee revealed how deep and terrible is the gash of apartheid.

Elizabeth Costello is similarly unflinching in facing the problem of being a novelist in our day. Having staked her soul on fiction, Elizabeth is finally, it seems, staring down the barrel of a life’s gun. And she must confront the horrible thought that throughout her life, for the sake of her career, she has believed in nothing.

Issue Date: October 24 - 30, 2003
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