Elizabeth Costello is a distinguished and aging Australian novelist whose life is revealed through a series of eight formal addresses. From an award-acceptance speech at a New England liberal arts college to a lecture on evil in Amsterdam and a sexually charged reading by the poet Robert Duncan, the author draws the reader toward its astonishing conclusion. The novel is, on its 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.
The author speaks through his alter ego- a fellow writer, Elizabeth Costello, and comments in Eight Lessons on issues relevant to him and centering around writing. The tortures of a writer are all there: from feeling different, irrelevant, ridiculous and ambiguous, through not knowing what one’s beliefs are anymore (because one has repeated them so often they have lost meaning), to being unable to express them anymore altogether. The book goes full circle from the author giving a lecture on Kafka’s Ape to the author him/herself finding him/herself in the same situation as the Ape.
It is a very interesting book, very beautifully written, full of interesting ideas and literary references. It is a real feast for anybody who likes literary meanderings with many literary references, a tortured main character, and an unusual form: fiction, non-fiction, meta-fiction- all in one. Delicious!
I felt vaguely disappointed and vaguely cheated at first when I realized that the majority of the lectures in the book had been published before as separate pieces, but then realized that by providing personal commentary to them, Coetze achieved a different level of commentary on writing. The torture of producing them is all there and feels real. The fear of ridicule and the fear that they are clichés is palpable.
Let me add that this form is also very safe- the author can always deny everything the book says and say it is a piece of fiction. Or, maybe through Costello, Coetze delivers what he is too shy to deliver himself- his thoughts out loud to live audiences. And maybe he is afraid to do it precisely because he is afraid that if he is going to speak frankly, they may be disasters, just like most Costello’s lectures were.
The end passage is all about belief. Elisabeth resides in a small town, trying to persuade a jury (of her peers?) to let her through the gate to the next world. She is in an after-life; but I don’t think Coetzee believes in an after-life at all and this is just another tease.
I feel his aim was to set up an eternal dilemma: what, finally, can we say we believe in? Elisabeth at first says, “Nothing.”, or that belief is not important – and that belief can only be a matter of personal interpretation. As a writer, she is a kind of secretary waiting to be called to write the next chapter that the world dictates to her. That’s not enough for the jury, so she has to go away and rewrite her submission. She then says she believes in the world as a natural phenomenon and cites the tiny frogs of her homeland who burrow beneath the earth each autumn and come alive again joyously each spring. But that’s not enough – she’s sent away again, another rewrite called for. There we leave her (which suggests that Coetzee thinks there’s no better answer, no greater revelation than for us to believe in our senses, in the world as it exists for us?). Is the jury waiting for Elisabeth to cite faith in God? If so, Coetzee seems to refuse this as, perhaps, the final betrayal of his humanist beliefs. Perhaps he also wants to suggest that the ‘jury’ is part of the ultimate failure of human endeavour? That there will always be judgement made at the end of life and it will always be found wanting?
Thinking about it now, nine months after reading the book, I’m inclined to think I missed the meaning of the closing epiphanical passage – that we human beings may not be equal to the blazing revalations of the world, that all our great brains have given us is the ability to know that we have lost our way. The simplicity, beauty and joy of existence is something that we no longer recognise in our overwhelming materiality. We have lost the capacity for revelation through experience and have ended up searching for it within ourselves - the very place where it cannot reside.
I would call it an experiment, and you know what? Sometimes, in fact, usually, experiments fail. As essays or short stories the chapters 'Realism' and 'The Humanities in Africa' are pretty decent, and worth reading. It's probably no coincidence that they're the chapters with the most interesting characters and the better arguments (none of the arguments being much good, which I'm sure is the point and so on...) Putting them in with the other stuff is a disservice to those two chapters.
No, not even pretty disappointed. In fact, I'm infuriated that this got printed and put on the Booker long list. Oh well.
I think "Realism" was the best lesson easily! And "The Lives of Animals" was very compulsive too.
The dilemna Elizabeth Costello's life is with her tastes, her regrets and her surroundings is very compelling. The literary criticism offered is also engaging though I wish he(/she)'d touch more on AS Byatt and Chinua Achebe.
For most of the part, I can't seem to distinguish between Coetzee himself and Costello, though I understand that Coetzee is much more "upright" and "uptight" in his personal life. This book has definitely been amongst the best books I've ever read.
And I love the "Venus de Milo" cover!
Can we mate with Gods? Is it possible to understand animals? How to bridge the gap between self & other? 'Elizabeth Costello' is very modernist in its take on the limits of language, and our human capacities to comprehend our existence.
The opening of the book is easily read as a reference to the role of the discourse itself, like in postmodern fiction: "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."
Yet, that has deep philosophical roots to the modernist thoughts of Hofmannsthaler, Wittgenstein, and Joyce.
The core question of 'Elizabeth Costello' is whether it is possible to bridge the gap between ‘self’ and ‘other’. Elizabeth, the protagonist-author, tries to achieve that mentally with words, wanting to get a glimpse of the world according to animals, and according to Gods. Emmanuel, the fictitious "oral poet", tries to get connected bodily, but settles for a more modest aim: to be connected with other people.
It seems that we can’t reach any creature outside the human species. Any attempt to reach beyond the human reason, "our" point of view is futile. We can neither mate with Gods, nor talk with animals. Sister Bridget (sic!) cannot promise the heavenly life after death, only help for the poor Africans to bear their cross. The primate researcher Wolfgang Köhler sets his experiments in a way that forces any chimpanzee to the simplest mechanic thinking, no matter what that animal might have pondered otherwise.
Elizabeth is an interesting liminal character: as Saint Mary she is god/woman, virgin/birth-giver; as Molly Bloom she is negotiating with the extra-lingual, experiential spheres of life.
There are lots of nice intertextual clues for a comparative literature, or cultural / feminist studies student to dig up. So English teachers might welcome this novel as his/her course reading.
The writing is stunning, but I felt I would get more from the book on a second reading. That's highly personal. The philosophical rambling can be hard to follow or read. I always feel as though this author's writing is just over my head and I need to work harder to grasp it well. The latter bits of the book are easier and more interesting, and this is a good story with plenty of tender moments and sadness too. End of life issues.
What happens to a sharp mind as it ages? Younger people never really understand and even if they could, it isn't easy. The last part of this book is utterly unforgettable. This author seems extremely good at that sort of writing. The author is a Nobel Prize winner in Literature -- brilliant but a bit hard to read.
Unfortunately, Elizabeth Costello is very much a writer's book, a novel written for writers or lit-crit majors. I suppose that there's plenty here for non-specialists to enjoy, but I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone who isn't at least mildly interested in an academic or theoretical approach to writing. Coetzee lost me towards the end, I must admit. While I do have some background in literary studies (limited though that may be), and I was able to hang in there for the most part, the final chapter and the post-script letter I just didn't get. I had to look those up to understand what Coetzee was trying to get at. Which might not be a bad thing in and of itself, but it did make this a non-self-contained reading experience for me. But perhaps that was the point.
Still, despite the obscure allusions, I found myself looking forward to reading this book. Approached as a set of essays or lectures, this book worked for me. As a novel, much less.