Saturday, November 26

Considering J.M. Coetzee's "Elizabeth Costello"

I'm curious what it would be like to be J.M. Coetzee. The man has won the Booker Prize twice and the Nobel Prize for Literature. He has won literary prizes worthy of note in his one-paragraph biography from South Africa, Israel, Ireland and France. A disparate and not inconsiderable part of the world has named him a great and important writer, and he's only 71 and sounds to be in good health. What's left for the man?

Experimentation and personal challenges would seem to be the answer considering Elizabeth Costello. I like to imagine Coetzee saying to himself, "J.M.? You're objectively an excellent writer if all these awards mean anything. But can you write a compelling story about an aging woman where she is only revealed through a series of lectures delivered by her and those she knows?"

Yes, he can. Though the novel is named for its protagonist, it seems to me that it's not really about the traditional characters, the professors and students, the Africans and Australians, the believers and atheists, the humans. It's about their beliefs and ideas. Beside Ms. Costello and her son, no character appears, is even referenced, in more than one chapter, and the lives they demonstrate in that little space have little depth outside of the ideas immediately presented on orality in African literature, on the relation of the Greek and Roman classics to Africa, on the ethics of imagining a Nazi execution, on animal rights, on Kafka.

But these ideas have life. The discussions are not simply whether they are right or wrong. That matters, yes, but there is so much more. Ms. Costello contends with her past relationship with the man speaking on a cruise ship to Antarctica. She systematically destroys her relationship with her daughter-in-law over her belief in the ethics of eating meat. She considers how she can speak the truth to evil when the man who wrote the passage she to which she is replying is in her audience. Elizabeth Costello takes the debates and ideas from the pages of specialty journals and gives them vitality, shows how they matter, not just for themselves but to the people who support and defy them.

And then it is all drawn together in the two final, amazing chapters as Ms. Costello tries and fails and tries again to deliver her final statement on all that matters. It's heady stuff. I haven't read enough of Coetzee to say if this is a step off his game which lead to all the awards, but if it is, I can't imagine what his work in its prime was like.

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