Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

"Elizabeth Costello" by JM Coetzee

An audio book. Several of the chapters have already been published in magazines. A son, late thirties, is accompanying his novelist mother to a prize-giving where she'll give a talk on "What is Realism". The narrator tells us that in Realism one has to embody Ideas, one has to invent situations. The narrator tells us when and why scenes are skipped. I presume this book is an example of how Realism has to be manipulation to embody ideas. We get the text of her talks. The book starts with the beginning of a draft. It's slow - "Realism: There is first of all the problem of the opening, namely how to get us from where we are, which is as yet nowhere, to the far bank. It is a simple bridging problem, a problem of knocking together a bridge. People solve such problems every day. They solve them and having solved them, push on. Let us assume that however it may have been done, it is done. Let us take it that the bridge is built and crossed, that we can put it out of our mind. We have left behind the territory in which we were. We are in the far territory, where we want to be."

Then she talks on a cruise, meets a fellow lecturer, an old friend whose talking about the African novel. Her subject The Future Novel.

She stays with her son and philosopher wife. She gives a talk at the university. Given a free choice of subject she talks about vegetarianism, the Holocaust, empathy. Q+A sessions and talks are 2 different things. The Q+A sessions make her and her son nervous. Her answers tend to be mini-talks. I can't assess the quality of the thoughts. I think my thoughts are best expressed by the first questions she receives, or the first afterthought she has. So I assume that the author wants Costello's thoughts to be easily challenged.

Her nun sister, Blanche, is getting an honorary degree in Jo'burg so Elizabeth goes over. Blanche's talk is about how Humanities have lost vital spirit since branching off from theology. The 2 of them bicker about ideas. Actually, they don't get on. She decides not to tell Blanche how, at 40, she gave an old, dying man oral sex as a favour.

She's invited to Amsterdam to talk about the problem of evil. When she realises that the author whose book she plans to criticise is at the conference, she only has hours to change her talk. She remembers at incident from her past that she's revealed to nobody. In the end she shortens the talk, its message being that not only can reading certain books harm the reader, but they can harm the author too.

There's a knowingly Kafka-esque section, where to cross a border she has a convince a tribunal that she has a belief. She first claims that beliefs are a hindrance to writers. Then she wonders about people, bodies and identities, and how belief might be necessary to connect them up - maybe she believes in something after all. But it's very long-winded.

She speculates on the connection between sex and death, on what it's like to have sex with an immortal, and on the practical problems of sex with a swan or bull.

I don't understand the final chapter.

Other reviews

  • Hermione Lee (In this fragmentary and inconclusive book, more like a collection of propositions about belief, writing and humanity than a novel, it is clear that animal rights is not the only issue. The creature in the zoo is also the novelist herself, and part of the book's driving force is an impatience with the way famous writers are required to perform like rock-stars, or to provide confessions or state their beliefs)
  • Adam Mars-Jones (She has a son who is an assistant professor of physics and astronomy, so as to dramatise the divide between arts and sciences. Her daughter-in-law is an academic philosopher, who defends her patch at the appropriate juncture. Elizabeth's sister, Bridget, is a nun who has devoted herself to looking after Aids patients in Zululand - cue intimate confrontation between humanist and religious positions)
  • Adam Eaker (tantalizing but ultimately frustrating ... The novel’s academic settings give Coetzee the opportunity for some rather cheap shots at feminist and post-colonial criticism, but the novel’s initially intriguing structure soon leaves both Costello and the book mired in pedantry. ... By the time of the novel’s labored conclusion, when Costello finds herself trapped in a sort of Kafkaesque purgatory, the reader has lost all patience with this unpleasant woman and her compulsive lecturing. It’s a pity, because one senses Elizabeth Costello could have been a very powerful character study. )

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