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J M Coetzee: Elizabeth Costello

I don’t think I have read for a long time a book that manages both to give a complex portrait of a character while, at the same time, discusses a whole range of key ideas that have preoccupied humans for hundreds of years and which have been the themes of many different works of literature. If there is any doubt that Coetzee is one of
the preeminent writers of our time, this book should dispel that doubt.

The book is nominally about, of course, Elizabeth Costello, an elderly Australian writer. To her chagrin, she is mainly remembered for a novel that she wrote giving Molly Bloom‘s point of view, though she has written other novels and poetry. This novel is divided into eight chapters, called lessons, plus a postscript. In the first six chapters, we see Costello not on her home turf but at various conferences and related events. We get to hear her point of view as well as the points of view of others, often at odds with her. The seventh chapter is about the Eros and Psyche legend and musings on it in relation to literature. The final chapter has her undergoing a sort of sub-Kafkaesque exam for entrance to the afterworld.

Coetzee first of all uses these various visits to give us a portrait of Elizabeth Costello, not only as a writer but as a mother (we meet her son), sister (we meet her sister), animal lover (she is bitterly opposed to any ill treatment of animals, including meat-eating) and human being. But, while the portrait of Costello is certainly interesting and very well-done, particularly, seeing her away from her home turf and learning much about her from her speeches, it is Coetzee’s clever use of this technique to raise a host of wide-ranging ideas that makes this novel so interesting. Firstly, there is the gods-men-beasts theme. Is the division between them immutable? Is it changing? Should it change? Costello, as an animal lover, is very clear on where she stands as regards the men/animal relation but she gets opposition, not least from her daughter-in-law, a philosopher, whose brilliant summary of what a squirrel thinks (or doesn’t think), is well worth reading. Other ideas that she is involved in, include racism (and, particularly, how we see black Africans and how they see themselves); whether we should devote ourselves to humans or to God and what this means; what is evil (a perennial favourite) and that even more perennial favourite, sex.

Coetzee’s skill is both in giving opposing views – writers don’t have beliefs, Costello tells her judges in her hearing to see whether she can be admitted to the afterworld, though she has shown us that they definitely do – as well as raising aspects of standard issues from a somewhat different perspective. Whether you have beliefs or not and whatever your beliefs may be on these topics, you will find yourself thinking about more than you are ever likely to do in all but a small handful of other contemporary novels.

Publishing history

First published 2003 by Viking