J.M. Coetzee: Elizabeth Costello

J.M. Coetzee: Elizabeth Costello

It may look like a novel and follow the same character from beginning to end, but Elizabeth Costello, J.M. Coetzee's first work of outright fiction since 1999's Disgrace, makes no claims to noveldom. Instead, it's divided into eight "lessons" and a postscript, each of which involves a different topic, and the majority of which center on a lecture delivered or attended by the title character. An Australian novelist at the youthful end of old age, Elizabeth Costello has enjoyed a series of minor successes, as well as one great one–a feminist take on James Joyce's Ulysses. Her reputation has put her in demand as a lecturer, even though, in one of the book's many bits of self-deprecation, she feels she has little talent at lecturing. Whether she's partially, entirely, or not at all right about that, Coetzee leaves up to the reader, along with the truth about every other subject. Over the past few years, Costello has made several appearances in earlier versions of the chapters presented here, and if she didn't have such a distinct life of her own, it would be tempting to suggest that she's a convenient device for the famously shy Nobel-winner to engage in philosophical discussion without drawing conclusions himself. In two chapters devoted to the subject of animal rights, Costello (a late-in-life convert) visits the prestigious American university that employs her son, and delivers a lecture that eloquently draws an unforgivable analogy, comparing the meat industry to the Holocaust. She's greeted with tepid applause and more than a little dissent. Socratic dialogues in short-story form, Elizabeth Costello's individual chapters find their protagonist fighting for pyrrhic victories, or bested with public rhetoric, then admitting a small defeat in private. The ambiguity weakens the value of Coetzee's "lessons" as philosophical treatises, but it also enriches their value in other respects, allowing him to shape Costello into an unforgettable character, whether readers agree with her or not. Up until a self-consciously Kafka-esque finale, that is, when the issue of agreement or disagreement falls away: "At The Gate" takes a ponderous turn that moves beyond the bounds of earthly argument and questions the very project of philosophy as a rational pursuit. It's a final, puzzling lesson before class gets dismissed for good.

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