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J.M. Coetzee: Elizabeth Costello

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Two names: J.M. Coetzee and Elizabeth Costello. This could therefore be a book by J.M. Coetzee with the title Elizabeth Costello and vice versa. The order of both names, which one appears first or on top of the book’s cover, offers little clue as to who is the author and what is the title. A quick glance at my bookshelves reveals that publishers vary as to what they put first. Knowing that J.M. Coetzee is an author does not help either, since Elizabeth Costello could have written a book about the writer J.M Coetzee, just as J.M. Coetzee may have written about Elizabeth Costello. Unless you have prior knowledge, it is only upon opening the book or reading the back cover that you learn that J.M. Coetzee is the author and Elizabeth Costello the book’s title.

The book consists of eight chapters, that are called “Lessons”, and a postscript, a fictional letter by another Elizabeth C., wife of Philip Lord Chandos, to Francis Bacon, the philosopher, not the painter. The book’s main character is Elizabeth Costello, an Australian novelist of some renown, recipient of various awards and the subject of a “small critical industry”. At the age of 66, much to her own annoyance, she is still primarily known for her fourth novel, “The House on Eccles Street”, a book she wrote more than 25 years ago. This is the fate that befalls many authors who write an exceptional book such as Catch 22, The Sheltering Sky and perhaps Disgrace. “The House on Eccles Street” tells the story of Marion Bloom, the wife of Leopold Bloom, the principal character of James Joyce’s Ulysses and as such is not unlike Foe, a novel by J.M. Coetzee, which retells the story of Robinson Crusoe.

Being the famous writer that she is, Elizabeth Costello is frequently invited to lecture around the world, again much like J.M. Coetzee. It is in fact on such occasions that Coetzee delivers a story about a writer, Elizabeth Costello, who is invited to give a lecture and it is these stories or lectures, which form the thrust of Elizabeth Costello. Thus, lessons 3 and 4, “The Lives of Animals”, in which Elizabeth Costello is invited to give the annual Gates Lectures at Appleton College, a fictional university in the U.S. where her son John is assistant professor of physics and astronomy, were in fact read in their entirety by J.M. Coetzee in 1997-98 during the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Princeton University.

It was during the Gates lectures that Elizabeth Costello shocked her audience by comparing the meat industry to the Holocaust. Her son John, who accompanies her on some of her lectures in the U.S., is right that her talk is “ill-gauged” and “ill-argued” and that she shouldn’t be doing this. His wife Norma, who holds a PhD in philosophy, is right too, when she points out to him during the first lecture that she is rambling. She is. The logic of her account is wanting in many respects. This is what the poet Abraham Stern, a faculty member who was also in the audience during her lecture, thinks as well. As he writes in a note to Elizabeth Costello, explaining why he didn’t attend the dinner in her honour: "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."

Some commentators felt awkward after Coetzee’s lecture. Was he hiding behind a fictional character to present his views? I myself wonder how it must have sounded when Coetzee read his text, especially the dialogues, which are always difficult to render without constantly adding “he said” or “she said”. Elizabeth Costello does not have a good delivery, or so we learn from her son John. I think it is a clever rhetorical device by Coetzee to let Elizabeth Costello border on and sometimes cross the irrational and have other characters question and expose it.

In Elizabeth Costello Coetzee occasionally engages in some playful meta-fiction, when he makes it clear that Elizabeth Costello is a fictional character. The first 6 lessons have another “meta” level in that, at their moment of delivery, they reveal to the audience the nature of the event in which both the speaker and they as audience are engaged. There is a subtle irony in the point raised by Elizabeth Costello’s son John. Why do universities and conferences invite novelists to speak about abstract topics such as human values, the problem of evil or the idea of Europe? (And why not also painters, architects or choreographers?) By presenting his audiences with fictional stories Coetzee does what Elizabeth Costello doesn’t. He remains close to his profession, which is writing fiction, inventing characters, making up situations and exploring their fabric.

In the meantime in “The Lives of Animals” Elizabeth Costello, for which at this point we can read J.M. Coetzee, offers some poignant observations about the kind of experiments used to test animal intelligence. What if the animals are far more intelligent than we suspect?

"Sultan [the name of the monkey] is alone in his pen. He is hungry: the food that used to arrive regularly has unaccountably ceased coming. The man who used to feed him and has now stopped feeding him stretches a wire over the pen three meters above ground level, and hangs a bunch of bananas from it. Into the pen he drags three wooden crates. Then he disappears, closing the gate behind him, though he is still somewhere in the vicinity, since one can smell him. Sultan knows: Now one is supposed to think. That is what the bananas up there are about. The bananas are there to make one think, to spur one to the limits of one’s thinking. But what must one think? One thinks: Why is he starving me? One thinks: What have I done? Why has he stopped liking me? One thinks: Why does he not want these crates any more? But none of these is the right thought. Even a more complicated thought – for instance: What is wrong with him, what misconception does he have of me, that leads him to believe it is easier for me to reach a banana hanging from a wire than to pick up a banana from the floor? – is wrong. The right thought to think is: How does one use the crates to reach the bananas?"

Coetzee writes with much love and affection about his principal character, Elizabeth Costello. She is growing old. She realizes that the better part of her life may be over. She is afraid of loosing it, sometimes she does. She gets tired quickly and can no longer stand the travelling and the heat as well as she used to. On a visit to Africa she faints during a Mass in the chapel of the hospital run by her elder sister, who after finishing university followed her vocation and became a nun.

In lesson 6 a year has passed since the Gates lectures, which at the time caused a minor row. Elizabeth Costello has accepted the invitation to speak at a conference in Amsterdam on the problem of evil. She wonders why. When she received the invitation she was reading a novel about the plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944. What shocked her about this book and made her accept the invitation was the vivid depiction by its author of the executioner, who takes pleasure in tormenting the conspirators before putting them to death. According to Elizabeth Costello, when writing these passages, evil must have entered its author, something from which one does not return unscathed.

When she arrives in Amsterdam she discovers that the author of this book, Paul West, is also on the list of speakers. She is embarrassed. How can she possibly deliver her lecture when the author of the book she denounces is in the audience? People might think that it is something personal. She tries to rewrite her lecture, but finds herself getting deeper and deeper in the mire until she falls asleep at her desk. When she awakes the next morning she decides to inform Paul West in advance of what she is about to say in her lecture, but when she does, he just listens to her without giving any sign of response. After her lecture, which she doesn’t finish, she flees to the bathroom, where she sits until a child knocks at the door. Once outside she hopes that something happens, feels that something should happen to round off the event. But of course nothing happens.

J.M. Coetzee did in fact deliver this lesson as a lecture at a conference in Amsterdam in 2002 organized by the Dutch Nexus Institute. To complicate things, Paul West is the real author of the novel “The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg”, to which Costello/Coetzee refers, as I found out after a quick search at amazon.com. By the time it must have been known, at least to the small group of people who speak at conferences such as these, that if you invite J.M. Coetzee you get Elizabeth Costello. But isn’t this taking the joke a little too far? Is the attack on Paul West real or fictional?

I like it when a novel gives you something to think about. In Elizabeth Costello there is much to think about. Why did Paul West remain silent? What to make of Elizabeth Costello's attack? Isn't it rather hypocritical of her to get upset when she discovers that Paul West will be in the audience during her lecture?

In the final lesson Elizabeth Costello finds herself in front of a gate. To enter she has to make a statement about what she believes. Elsewhere in lesson 2, hearing herself talk about "The Future of the Novel", unsure whether she still believes in what she is saying, she felt that “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 she herself remarks the whole scene is a bit Kafkaesque, even though she doesn’t like the word, the wall, the gate, the board that judges her statement.

After having read the previous chapters it may surprise that Elizabeth Costello tries to talk herself out of having to make a statement about her beliefs by saying that as a writer she has no beliefs, when to me at least it is obvious what she has believed in throughout her career as a writer. Her first statement is rejected and she has to prepare a second one. This time she tells a story about her childhood, about the frogs, which during the dry season hide underneath the soil to come out again when the rains begin to fall. One of the judges asks whether she believes in life then, but she dismisses the idea. Again her statement is rejected.

Once outside the court she suddenly realizes that she herself is a creature of belief, that “she lives by belief, she works by belief”. All along she has believed in writing and in its power, even when she dismisses Paul West, she must admit that he did manage to get on her nerves in writing. And even though she says that at her age, looking back upon her career, she no longer has faith in art, this is only her first inclination. “Her books are, she believes, better put together than she is.” But who has put those books together? She has.

Elizabeth Costello is not just a brilliant, moving book, full of ideas. It is also an important book. It questions the power of writing and answers it, in writing. Why write novels, make paintings, dance performances or films when you can also help the poor, as Elizabeth Costello’s sister does?

The answer, and this is my answer after reading Elizabeth Costello, is to imagine that you have lost someone dear to you, but have no one to talk to. Or imagine that you are in a hospital and that there are only nurses to take care of you. There is no music to listen to, no novels or poems to read, no films to watch, no paintings or photos to look at. There is nothing to dream of either, nothing to aspire to, no beauty to admire, nothing to dwell in except the reality of your pain or your loss. This is why I believe in art.

Art gives us something to contemplate both intellectually and with our senses. It can give us joy and make us forget ourselves. There’s even a place for “bad” art and things to quickly pass over, because they bring into focus what we like and care about. This is not to say that the arts are in any way higher or nobler than other activities. It is more of a defence against the charge that the arts are a waste. To put a smile on someone's face, to offer a novel perspective on what it means to live, to raise the intensity with which one looks or listens, if only for a moment, that too is worth wile.

J.M. Coetzee: The Lives of Animals, The Tanner Lectures on Human Values 1997.

J.M. Coetzee: The Novel in Africa. Una Lecture, The Townsend Center for the Humanities, 1998. Early version of "Lesson 1".

Mario Vargas LLosa: ¡Cuidado con Elizabeth Costello! El País, 23 June 2002. A reply to Coetzee's "Lesson 6" on "The Problem of Evil" by the distinguished South-American writer. In Spanish.

James Wood, A Frog's Life. Review of J.M. Coetzee: Elizabeth Costello, in: London Review of Books, Vol. 25 No. 20, 23 October 2003.

The Tanner Lectures on Human Values. Check out some of the other lectures by Salman Rushdie, Michel Foucault, Umberto Eco, Octavio Paz, Roger Penrose, Amartya Sen, Jared Diamond and countless others.