J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello is one of the more unlikely books I’ve read in some time. You wouldn’t expect–even in the hands of a master like Coetzee–that a book about an aging, not so likable, writer, a book consisting largely of lectures concerning Kafka and animal rights, to have the chance of spit on a hot griddle of being successful. Yet, of course, it is more than that. It’s stunning (if not particularly entertaining) and, to this reader, baffling.
Margaret Atwood said somewhere that E.C. is a book about the futility of writing. That could be true. I found it less that than a book about the futility of living in self-absorbed isolation. Reading the book is like living under constant overcast with an occasional splash of sunlight just to remind you that there is such a thing as blue sky. It could also be true that the book is about the futility of living a life of the mind to the exclusion of the heart. Unless one counts the protagonist’s concern for humans’ slaughter of animals for food a matter of the heart.
Characters and relationships come and go in Elizabeth’s life without continuity or permanence. That goes for lovers, her husband, even her children and grandchildren. The latter she meets as a peripheral visitor passing through their lives on her way around the lecture circuit. The lecture offers fall into Costello’s lap mainly, it seems, on the strength of a novel about Molly Bloom published some years earlier in her career. She’s written nothing memorable lately, and her lectures stir up so much antagonism and indifference among her audiences that one wonders why she gets invited anywhere. So the reader follows her around, listens to her ideas, wonders if she will ever do anything interesting, have a substantial relationship. And that somehow kept the book moving for me, albeit slowly. That and the pure, distilled, clarity of the writing. These words from the mind of her son:
His mother does not have a good delivery. Even as a reader of her own stories she lacks animation. It always puzzled him, when he was a child, that a woman who wrote books for a living should be so bad at telling bedtime stories.
And it puzzles this reader that one could build a book around such a woman. How does Coetzee do it? By keeping the reader wondering how he does it, I suppose.
There’s a great deal more to this book, though, than the creation of an interesting novel around a seemingly weak protagonist. To truly enter the world of Elizabeth Costello, you need a solid background in philosophy and theology. I suspect a solid knowledge of Ulysses would help, too. Perhaps a bit of Dante wouldn’t hurt. Coetzee does not choose Molly Bloom, the subject of Elizabeth’s most successful claim to writing fame, at random, and he mentions the book often. Since I am weak in both subjects, I am certain that I simply didn’t understand a great deal of what Elizabeth Costello is about. And then there’s the last section, a spinabout of enormous proportions verging on science fiction. The more I read it, the less I understood it. I admire this book and think it’s probably a major piece of literature. But don’t ask me to prove it. ‘Tis too hard a knot for me to untie.
Sitting up

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