Elizabeth Costelloby J. M. Coetzee
Since 1982, J. M. Coetzee has been dazzling the literary world. After eight novels that have won, among other awards, two Booker Prizes, and most recently, the Nobel Prize, Coetzee has once again crafted an unusual and deeply affecting tale. Told through an ingenious series of formal addresses, Elizabeth Costello is, on the surface, the story of a woman's/i>… See more details below
Since 1982, J. M. Coetzee has been dazzling the literary world. After eight novels that have won, among other awards, two Booker Prizes, and most recently, the Nobel Prize, Coetzee has once again crafted an unusual and deeply affecting tale. Told through an ingenious series of formal addresses, Elizabeth Costello is, on the surface, the story of a woman's life as mother, sister, lover, and writer. Yet it is also a profound and haunting meditation on the nature of storytelling.
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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 andcrossed, that we can put it out of our mind. We have left behind the territory in which we were. We are inthe far territory; where we want to be.
Elizabeth Costello is a writer, born in 1928, which makes her sixty-six years old, going on sixty-seven. Shehas written nine novels, two books of poems, a book on bird life, and a body of journalism. By birth she isAustralian. She was born in Melbourne and still lives there, though she spent the years 1951 to 1963abroad, in England and France. She has been married twice. She has two children, one by each marriage.
Elizabeth Costello made her name with her fourth novel, The House on Eccles Street (1969), whose main character is Marion Bloom, wife of Leopold Bloom, principal character of another novel, Ulysses (1922),by James Joyce. In the past decade there has grown up around her a small critical industry; there is even anElizabeth Costello Society, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which puts out a quarterly ElizabethCostello Newsletter.
In the spring of 1995 Elizabeth Costello traveled, or travels (present tense henceforth), to Williamstown,Pennsylvania, to Altona College, to receive the Stowe Award. The award is made biennially to a majorworld writer, selected by a jury of critics and writers. It consists of a purse of $5o,ooo, funded by a bequestfrom the Stowe estate, and a gold medal. It is one of the larger literary prizes in the United States.
On her visit to Pennsylvania Elizabeth Costello (Costello is her maiden name) is accompanied by her sonJohn. John has a job teaching physics and astronomy at a college in Massachusetts, but for reasons of hisown is on leave for the year. Elizabeth has become a little frail: without the help of her son she would notbe under taking this taxing trip across half the world.
We skip. They have reached Williamstown and have been conveyed to their hotel, a surprisingly largebuilding for a small city, a tall hexagon, all dark marble outside and crystal and mirrors inside. In her rooma dialogue takes place.
'Will you be comfortable?' asks the son.
'I am sure I will she replies. The room is on the twelfth floor, with a prospect over a golf course and,beyond that, over wooded hills.
'Then why not have a rest? They are fetching us at six thirty I'll give you a call a few minutes beforehand.'
He is about to leave. She speaks.
'John, what exactly do they want from me?'
'Tonight? Nothing. It's just a dinner with members of the jury. We won't let it turn into a long evening. I'llremind them you are tired.'
'Tomorrow is a different story. You'll have to gird your loins for tomorrow, I am afraid.'
'I have forgotten why I agreed to come. It seems a great ordeal to put oneself through, for no good reason. Ishould have asked them to forget the ceremony and send the checque in the mail.'
After the long flight, she is looking her age. She has never taken care of her appearance; she used to be ableto get away with it; now it shows. Old and tired.'It doesn't work that way, I am afraid, Mother. If you accept the money, you must go through with theshow.'
She shakes her head. She is still wearing the old blue raincoat she wore from the airport. Her hair has agreasy, lifeless look. She has made no move to unpack. If he leaves her now, what will she do? Lie down inher raincoat and shoes?
He is here, with her, out of love. He cannot imagine her getting through this trial without him at her side.He stands by her because he is her son, her loving son. But he is also on the point of becoming - distastefulword - her trainer.
He thinks of her as a seal, an old, tired circus seal. One more time she must heave herself up on to the tub,one more time show that she can balance the ball on her nose. Up to him to coax her, put heart in her, gether through the performance.
'It is the only way they have,' he says as gently as he can. 'They admire you, they want to honour you. It isthe best way they can think of doing that. Giving you money. Broadcasting your name. Using the one to dothe other.'
Standing over the Empire-style writing table, shuffling through the pamphlets that tell her where to shop,where to dine, how to use the telephone, she casts him one of the quick, ironic looks that still have thepower to surprise him, to remind him of who she is. 'The best way?' she murmurs.
At six thirty he knocks. She is ready, waiting, full of doubts but prepared to face the foe. She wears her bluecostume and silk jacket, her lady novelist's uniform, and the white shoes with which there is nothing wrongyet which somehow make her look like Daisy Duck. She has washed her hair and brushed it back. It stilllooks greasy, but honourably greasy, like a navvy's or a mechanic's. Already on her face the passive lookthat, if you saw it in a young girl, you would call withdrawn. A face without personality, the kind thatphotographers have to work on to lend distinction. Like Keats, he thinks, the great advocate of blankreceptiveness.
The blue costume, the greasy hair, are details, signs of a moderate realism. Supply the particulars, allow thesignifications to emerge of themselves. A procedure pioneered by Daniel Defoe. Robinson Crusoe, cast upon the beach, looks around for his shipmates. But there are none. 'I never saw them afterwards, or any signof them says he, 'except three of their hats, one cap, and two shoes that were not fellows.' Two shoes, notfellows: by not being fellows, the shoes have ceased to be footwear and become proofs of death, torn by thefoaming seas off the feet of drowning men and tossed ashore. No large words, no despair, just hats and capsand shoes.
For as far back as he can remember, his mother has secluded herself in the mornings to do her writing. Nointrusions under any circumstances. He used to think of himself as a misfortunate child, lonely andunloved. When they felt particularly sorry for themselves, he and his sister used to slump outside the lockeddoor and make tiny whining sounds. In time the whining would change to humming or singing, and theywould feel better, forgetting their forsakenness.
Now the scene has changed. He has grown up. He is no longer outside the door but inside, observing her asshe sits, back to the window, confronting, day after day, year after year, while her hair slowly goes fromblack to grey, the blank page. What doggedness, he thinks! She deserves the medal, no doubt about that,this medal and many more. For valour beyond the call of duty.
The change came when he was thirty-three. Until then he had not read a word she had written. That was hisreply to her, his revenge on her for locking him out. She denied him, therefore he denied her. Or perhaps herefused to read her in order to protect himself. Perhaps that was the deeper motive: to ward off the lightningstroke. Then one day, without a word to anyone, without even a word to himself, he took one of her booksout of the library. After that he read everything, reading openly, in the train, at the lunch table. 'What areyou reading?' 'One of my mother's books.'He is in her books, or some of them. Other people too he recognizes; and there must be many more he doesnot recognize. About sex, about passion and jealousy and envy, she writes with an insight that shakes him.It is positively indecent.
She shakes him; that is what she presumably does to other readers too. That is presumably why, in thelarger picture, she exists. What a strange reward for a lifetime of shaking people: to be conveyed to thistown in Pennsylvania and given money! For she is by no means a comforting writer. She is even cruel, in away that women can be but men seldom have the heart for. What sort of creature is she, really? Not a seal:not amiable enough for that. But not a shark either. A cat. One of those large cats that pause as theyeviscerate their victim and, across the torn-open belly, give you a cold yellow stare.
There is a woman waiting for them downstairs, the same young woman who fetched them from the airport.Her name is Teresa. She is an instructor at Altona College, but in the business of the Stowe Award afactotum, a dogsbody, and in the wider business a minor character.
He sits in the front of the car beside Teresa, his mother sits at the rear. Teresa is excited, so excited that shepositively chatters. She tells them about the neighbourhoods they are driving through, about Altona Collegeand its history, about the restaurant they are headed for. In the middle of all the chatter she manages to getin two quick, mouselike pounces of her own. 'We had A. S. Byatt here last fall,' she says. 'What do youthink of A. S. Byatt, Ms Costello?' And later: 'What do you think of Doris Lessing, Ms Costello?' She iswriting a book on women writers and politics; she spends her summers in London doing what she callsresearch; he would not be surprised if she had a tape recorder hidden in the car.
His mother has a word for people like this. She calls them the goldfish. One thinks they are small andharmless, she says, because each wants no more than the tiniest nibble of flesh, the meresthemidemimilligram. She gets letters from them every week, care of her publisher. Once upon a time sheused to reply: thank you for your interest, unfortunately I am too busy to respond as fully as your letterdeserves. Then a friend told her what these letters of hers were fetching on the autograph market. After thatshe stopped answering.
Flecks of gold circling the dying whale, waiting their chance to dart in and take a quick mouthful.
They arrive at the restaurant. It is raining lightly. Teresa drops them at the door and goes off to park the car.For a moment they are alone on the pavement. 'We can still abscond,' he says. 'It is not too late. We canget a taxi, drop by the hotel to pick up our things, be at the airport by eight thirty, take the first flight out.We will have vanished from the scene by the time the Mounties arrive.'
He smiles. She smiles. They will go through with the programme, that barely needs to be said. But it is apleasure to toy with at least the idea of escape. Jokes, secrets, complicities; a glance here, a word there: thatis their way of being together, of being apart. He will be her squire, she will be his knight. He will protecther as long as he is able. Then he will help her into her armour, lift her on to her steed, set her buckler onher arm, hand her her lance, and step back.
There is a scene in the restaurant, mainly dialogue, which we will skip. We resume back at the hotel, whereElizabeth Costello asks her son to run through the list of the people they have just met. He obeys, givingeach a name and function, as in life. Their host, William Brautegam, is Dean of Arts at Altona. Theconvenor of the jury, Gordon Wheatley, is a Canadian, a professor at McGill, who has written on Canadianliterature and on Wilson Harris. The one they call Toni, who spoke to her about Henry Handel Richardson,is from Altona College. She is a specialist on Australia and has taught there. Paula Sachs she knows. Thebald man, Kerrigan, is a novelist, Irish by birth, now living in New York. The fifth juror, the one who wasseated next to him, is named Moebius. She teaches in California and edits a journal. She has also publishedsome stories.
'You and she had quite a tête-à-tête says his mother. 'Good- looking, isn't she?'
'I suppose so.'
She reflects. 'But, as a group, don't they strike you as rather…
'Well, they are. The heavyweights don't involve themselves in this kind of show. The heavyweights arewrestling with the heavy weight problems.'
'I am not heavyweight enough for them?'
'No, you're heavyweight all right. Your handicap is that you're not a problem. What you write hasn't yetbeen demonstrated to be a problem. Once you offer yourself as a problem, you might be shifted over intotheir court. But for the present you're not a problem, just an example.'
'An example of what?'
'An example of writing. An example of how someone of your station and your generation and your originswrites. An instance.'
'An instance? Am I allowed a word of protest? After all the effort I put into not writing like anyone else?'
'Mother, there's no point in picking on me to fight with. I am not responsible for the way the academy seesyou. But you must surely concede that at a certain level we speak, and therefore write, like everyone else.Otherwise we would all be speaking and writing private languages. It is not absurd - is it? - to concernoneself with what people have in common rather than with what sets them apart.'
The next morning John finds himself in another literary debate. In the hotel gymnasium he bumps intoGordon Wheatley, chairman of the jury. Side by side on exercise bicycles they have a shoutedconversation. His mother will be disappointed, he tells Wheatley - not entirely seriously - if she learns thatthe Stowe Award is hers only because 1995 has been decreed to be the year of Australasia.
'What does she want it to be?' shouts Wheatley back.
'That she is the best,' he replies. 'In your jury's honest opinion. Not the best Australian, not the bestAustralian woman, just the best.'
'Without infinity we would have no mathematics,' says Wheatley.
'But that doesn't mean that infinity exists. Infinity is just a construct, a human construct. Of course we arefirm that Elizabeth Costello is the best. We just have to be clear in our minds what a statement like thatmeans, in the context of our times.'
The analogy with infinity makes no sense to him, but he does not pursue the issue. He hopes that Wheatleydoes not write as badly as he thinks.
Realism has never been comfortable with ideas. It could not be otherwise: realism is premised on the ideathat ideas have no autonomous existence, can exist only in things. So when it needs to debate ideas, as here,realism is driven to invent situations - walks in the countryside, conversations - in which characters givevoice to contending ideas and thereby in a certain sense embody them. The notion of embodying turns outto be pivotal. In such debates ideas do not and indeed cannot float free: they are tied to the speakers bywhom they are enounced, and generated from the matrix of individual interests out of which their speakersact in the world - for instance, the son's concern that his mother not be treated as a Mickey Mouse post-colonial writer, or Wheatley's concern not to seem an old-fashioned absolutist.
At eleven he taps at the door of her room. She has a long day before her: an interview, a session at thecollege radio station, then, in the evening, the presentation ceremony and the speech that goes with it.
Her strategy with interviewers is to take control of the exchange, presenting them with blocks of dialoguethat have been rehearsed so often he wonders they have not solidified in her mind and become some kind oftruth. A long paragraph on childhood in the suburbs of Melbourne (cockatoos screeching at the bottom ofthe garden) with a sub-paragraph on the danger to the imagination of middle-class security A paragraph onthe death of her father of enteric fever in Malaya, with her mother somewhere in the background playingChopin waltzes on the piano, followed by a sequence of what sound like impromptu ruminations on theinfluence of music on her own prose. A paragraph about her adolescent reading (voracious, unselective),then a jump to Virginia Woolf, whom she first read as a student, and the impact Woolf had on her. Apassage on her spell at art school, another on her year and a half at post—war Cambridge ('What I mainlyremember is the struggle to keep warm'), another on her years in London ('I could have made a living as atranslator, I suppose, but my best language was German, and German wasn't popular in those days, as youcan imagine'). Her first novel, which she modestly disparages, though as a first novel it stood head andshoulders above the competition, then her years in France ('heady times'), with an oblique glance at herfirst marriage. Then her return to Australia with her young son. Him.
All in all, he judges, listening in, a workmanlike performance, if one can still use that word, eating up mostof the hour, as intended, leaving only a few minutes to skirt the questions that begin 'What do you think…?'What does she think about neoliberalism, the woman question, Aboriginal rights, the Australian noveltoday? He has lived around her for nearly four decades, on and off, and is still not sure what she thinksabout the big questions. Not sure and, on the whole, thankful not to have to hear. For her thoughts wouldbe, he suspects, as uninteresting as most people's. A writer, not a thinker. Writers and thinkers: chalk andcheese. No, not chalk and cheese: fish and fowl. But which is she, the fish or the fowl? Which is hermedium: water or air?
This morning's interviewer, who has come up from Boston for the occasion, is young, and his mother isusually indulgent towards the young. But this one is thick-skinned and refuses to be fobbed off. 'Whatwould you say your main message is?' she persists.
'My message? Am I obliged to carry a message?'
Not a strong counter; the interviewer presses her advantage.
'In The House on Eccles Street your lead character, Marion Bloom, refuses to have sex with her husbanduntil he has worked out who he is. Is that what you are saying: that until men have worked out a new, post-patriarchal identity women should hold them selves apart?'
His mother casts him a glance. Help! it is meant to say, in a droll way.
'Intriguing idea,' she murmurs, 'Of course in the case of Marion's husband there would be a particularseverity in demanding that he work out a new identity, since he is a man of - what shall I say? - of infirmidentity, of many shapes.'
Eccles Street is a great novel; it will live, perhaps, as long as Ulysses; it will certainly be around long afterits maker is in the grave. He was only a child when she wrote it. It unsettles and dizzies him to think thatthe same being that engendered Eccles Street engendered him. It is time to step in, save her from aninquisition that promises to become tedious. He rises. 'Mother, I am afraid we are going to have to call ahalt,' he says. 'We're being fetched for the radio session.' To the interviewer: 'Thank you, but that willhave to be all.'
The interviewer pouts with annoyance. Will she find a part for him in the story she files: the novelist offailing powers and her bossy son?
At the radio station the two of them are separated. He is shown into the control booth. The new interviewer,he is surprised to find, is the elegant Moebius woman he had sat beside at dinner. 'This is Susan Moebius,the programme is Writers at Work, and we are speaking today to Elizabeth Costello,' she commences, andproceeds with a crisp introduction. 'Your most recent novel,' she continues, 'called Fire and Ice, set in theAustralia of the 1930s, is the story of a young man struggling to make his way as a painter against theopposition of family and society, Did you have anyone in particular in mind when you wrote it? Does itdraw upon your own early life?'
'No, I was still a child in the 19305. Of course we draw upon our own lives all the time - they are our mainresource, in a sense our only resource. But no, Fire and Ice isn't autobiography. It is a work of fiction. Imade it up.'
'It is a powerful book, I must tell our listeners. But do you find it easy, writing from the position of a man?'
It is a routine question, opening the door to one of her routine paragraphs. To his surprise, she does not takethe opening.
'Easy? No. If it were easy it wouldn't be worth doing. It is the otherness that is the challenge. Making upsomeone other than yourself. Making up a world for him to move in. Making up an Australia.'
'Is that what you are doing in your books, would you say: making up Australia?'
'Yes, I suppose so. But that is not so easy nowadays. There is more resistance, a weight of Australias madeup by many other people, that you have to push against. That is what we mean by tradition, the beginningsof a tradition.'
'I'd like to get on to The House on Eccles Street, which is the book you are best known for in this country,a path-breaking book, and the figure of Molly Bloom. Critics have concentrated on the way you haveclaimed or reclaimed Molly from Joyce, made her your own. I wonder if you would comment on yourintentions in this book, particularly in challenging Joyce, one of the father figures of modern literature, onhis own territory
Another clear opening, and this time she takes it.
'Yes, she is an engaging person, isn't she, Molly Bloom - Joyce's Molly, I mean. She leaves her traceacross the pages of Ulysses as a bitch on heat leaves her smell. Seductive you can't call it: it is cruder thanthat. Men pick up the scent and sniff and circle around and snarl at each other, even when Molly isn't onthe scene.
'No, I don't see myself as challenging Joyce. But certain books are so prodigally inventive that there isplenty of material left over at the end, material that almost invites you to take it over and use it to buildsomething of your own.'
'But, Elizabeth Costello, you have taken Molly out of the house - if I can continue with your metaphor -taken her out of the house on Eccles Street where her husband and her lover and in a certain sense herauthor have confined her, where they have turned her into a kind of queen bee, unable to fly, you havetaken her and turned her loose on the streets of Dublin. Wouldn't you see that as a challenge to Joyce onyour part, a response?'
'Queen bee, bitch…Let's revise the figure and call her a lioness, rather, stalking the streets, smelling thesmells, seeing the sights. Looking for prey, even. Yes, I wanted to liberate her from that house, andparticularly from that bedroom, with the bed with the creaking springs, and turn her loose - as you say - onDublin.'
'If you see Molly - Joyce's Molly - as a prisoner in the house on Eccles Street, do you see women ingeneral as prisoners of marriage and domesticity?'
'You can't mean women today. But yes, to an extent Molly is a prisoner of marriage, the kind of marriagethat was on offer in Ireland in 1904. Her husband Leopold is a prisoner too. If she is shut into the conjugalhome, he is shut out. So we have Odysseus trying to get in and Penelope trying to get out. That is thecomedy, the comic myth, which Joyce and I in our different ways were paying our respects to.'
Because both women are wearing headphones, addressing the microphone rather than each other, it is hardfor him to see how they are getting on together. But he is impressed, as ever, by the persona his mothermanages to project: of genial common sense, lack of malice, yet of sharp-wittedness too.
'I want to tell you,' the interviewer continues (a cool voice, he thinks: a cool woman, capable, not alightweight at all), 'what an impact The House on Eccles Street made on me when I first read it in the1970s. I was a student, I had studied Joyce's book, I had absorbed the famous Molly Bloom chapter and thecritical orthodoxy that came with it, namely that here Joyce had released the authentic voice of thefeminine, the sensual reality of woman, and so forth. And then I read your book and realised that Mollydidn't have to be limited in the way Joyce had made her to be, that she could equally well be an intelligentwoman with an interest in music and a circle of friends of her own and a daughter with whom she sharedconfidences - it was a revelation, as I say. And I began to wonder about other women whom we think of ashaving been given a voice by male writers, in the name of their liberation, yet in the end only to further andto serve a male philosophy. I am thinking of D. H. Lawrence's women in particular, but if you go furtherback they might include Tess of the D' Urbervilles and Anna Karenina, to name only two. It is a hugequestion, but I wonder if you have anything to say about it - not just about Marion Bloom and the othersbut about the project of reclaiming women's lives in general.'
'No, I don't think there is anything I would want to say, I think you've expressed it all very fully. Ofcourse, fair's fair, men will have to set about reclaiming the Heathcliffs and Rochesters from romanticstereotyping too, to say nothing of poor old dusty Casaubon. It will be a grand spectacle. But, seriously, wecan't go on parasitizing the classics forever. I am not excluding myself from the charge. We've got to startdoing some inventing of our own.'
This is not in the script at all. A new departure. Where will it lead? But alas, the Moebius woman (who isnow glancing at the studio clock) does not pick up on it.
'In your more recent novels you have gone back to Australian settings. Could you say something abouthow you see Australia? What does it mean to you to be an Australian writer? Australia is a country thatremains very far away, at least to Americans. Is that part of your consciousness as you write: that you arereporting from the far edges?'
'The far edges. That is an interesting expression. You won't find many Australians nowadays prepared toaccept it. Far from what? they would say. Nevertheless, it has a certain meaning, even if it is a meaningfoisted on us by history. We're not a country of extremes - I'd say we're rather pacific - but we are acountry of extremities. We have lived our extremities because there hasn't been a great deal of resistance inany direction. If you begin to fall, there isn't much to stop you.'
They are back among the commonplaces, on familiar ground. He can stop listening.
We skip to the evening, to the main event, the presentation of the award. As son and companion of thespeaker he finds himself in the first row of the audience, among the special guests. The woman to his leftintroduces herself. 'Our daughter is at Altona,' she says. 'She is writing her honours dissertation on yourmother. She's a great fan. She has made us read everything.' She pats the wrist of the man beside her. Theyhave the look of money, old money. Benefactors, no doubt. 'Your mother is much admired in this country.Particularly by young people. I hope you will tell her that.'
All across America, young women writing dissertations on his mother. Admirers, adherents, disciples.Would it please his mother to be told she has American disciples?
The presentation scene itself we skip. It is not a good idea to interrupt the narrative too often, sincestorytelling works by lulling the reader or listener into a dreamlike state in which the time and space of thereal world fade away, superseded by the time and space of the fiction. Breaking into the dream drawsattention to the constructedness of the story, and plays havoc with the realist illusion. However, unlesscertain scenes are skipped over we will be here all afternoon. The skips are not part of the text, they are partof the performance.
So the award is made, after which his mother is left alone at the rostrum to give her acceptance speech,entitled in the programme 'What is Realism?'. The time has arrived for her to show her paces.
Elizabeth Costello dons her reading glasses. 'Ladies and gentle men,' she says, and begins to read.
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In Elizabeth Costello, we find Coetzee confronting some of the fundamental structures of the society we have known for so long, forcing the reader to think and have an insight into life. This thought-provoking novel which is actually a collection of essays with some having been published before as lectures, is a deep but entertaining book. Coetzee uses Costello Elizabeth as a fictional character to put forward these essays and uses other characters as critics to create a dialectical outlook for the book. It is this approach that I think made this book so unique. A reader is forced to think beyond his beliefs. And in so doing, the reader is forced to evolve.
This book is brillantly written. It's not for the amateur. This work pushes the reader to think beyond what one believes to be his/her limits: when the protagonist discovers what it means to be illimitable, one realizes that Coetzee has brought one there as well.
Elisabeth Costello is a unique novel that presents a new perspective, not only in its format and writing-style, but moreover in the actual content. Elisabeth Costello almost reads more like heavy 'food for thought' than an actual storyline posing many facinating ethical questions. The ending of the novel is especially unique where the novel verges toward fantasy genre.
I think the author is brilliant and I loved 'Disgrace'. This book was boring.