A review of Elizabeth Costello by J M Coetzee

Pointless is, unfortunately, the best adjective for this book. There is no coherence between any of the chapters, we have no feeling for any of Costello’s work, and none of the characters, including Costello, are developed. The potential theme, which might be something about belief and conviction, never takes shape, and even the lectures are abstract, and hard to read.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Elizabeth Costello
by J.M. Coetzee
Knopf, hc, ISBN 1740512650, rrp $A35.00

Elizabeth Costello is an odd book. It sets itself up as a fiction, complete with fictional characters, but contains no plot or forward motion. Instead, it presents, in the protagonists’ mouth, a series of lectures, most previously published as non-fiction by the author. How is the reader meant to take this? We can suspend our judgement and forget that the lectures or “lessons” as Coetzee calls them, have already been published as his own work. This would be fine, if the “lessons” illuminated or even fit the character, or had some relevance to the story as a whole, although in this case there is no story. In addition, the protoganist, Elizabeth Costello, is very lightly developed, and aside from her lectures, the reader hardly gets to know her. She has no back story, few presented memories, no emotions beyond confusion and exhaustion, and aside from the impact she has on her audience and her son’s perceptions in the first chapter or “lesson”, we can hardly even picture her.

All we know about Elizabeth Costello is the brief overview that the narrator tells us – that she is an Australian novelist, born in 1928 and achieved fame for her novel, The House on Eccles Street, whose main character is Ulysses’ Marion Bloom. It’s a cute Escher-like image. Coetzee’s novel is about an imaginary author who has written a book about an imaginary character from a real author’s real book. There is even an Elizabeth Costello society with its own industry based on her books. Costello is at the end of her literary life, and her interchanges have become strained, dull. She strives to find some kind of passion, and her speeches reflect that, but they take her into territory where she is uncomfortable and unlearned, and are fairly convoluted and poorly argued. Any drama caused by the speeches is avoided and leaves the reader wondering why the speech was even presented. Costello’s son brings her to the first lecture, where she receives a prestigious literary award. The relationship between Costello and her son does provide a potentially interesting point of tension, with the son functioning as mentor, carer, and shadow. He loves her, resents her, and argues with her:

What is the truth of his mother? He does not know, and at the deepest level does not want to know. He is here to protect her, to bar the way against the relic-hunters and the contumelists and the sentimental pilgrims. He has opinions of his own, but he will not speak them. (30)

Unfortunately, by chapter two the son is gone replaced by another underdeveloped character, Emmanuel Egudu. Egudu is a former lover of Costello, although their “present” relationship doesn’t convey it. Both are lecturers on a luxury cruise – the “entertainment staff”. A “new” relationship between Costello and Egudu doesn’t develop, and he is gone by the end of the chapter. The son returns briefly for chapter three in which he is confusingly with his wife, whom he seemed to have divorced two years prior. There are no other clarifications of the time shift, or links to indicate where each piece or lesson fits in, nor are there any references to the split referenced in chapter one. It hardly matters in any case since the focus of the chapter is Costello’s lecture on the rights of animals, comparing the treatment of modern animals to the treatment of Jews during the Holocaust. Again, Coetzee shies away from writing about the relationships of the characters, or the inevitable dissent that the speech causes, except in the most cursory terms. The speech is given, and we move on to the next chapter, where, in Zululand, Costello listens to a speech given by her older sister Blanche, a nun who is receiving an honorary degree. Costello then goes home to write her sister a letter. Once more, Coetzee presents the thread of tension, a place where character and story could be develop to interest, and then drops it. We learn nothing about Blanche. The letter is written, and forgotten, along with the sister. The sixth chaper has Costello giving a talk at a conference in Amsterdam. Coetzee uses a real book, The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg by Paul West, and we get the full text of Costello’s heated speech against it. Unfortunately West, who is, to Costello’s surprise, present, says nothing, even when she warns him about the impending speech. No one else comments on the talk either, and once again, the reader is left feeling cheated of a story which could have been very interesting.

There is a brief chapter in which Costello muses on a book which retells the Eros and Psyche story, and then we are suddenly at the gates of heaven. This final chapter makes no sense at all, and even Costello herself criticises the silly, Kafkaesque nature of the piece, where she has to submit a case for belief in order to get through the mysterious gates. The postscript – “Letter of Elizabeth, Lady Chandos, to Francis Bacon’” seems to be equally disembodied and unrelated to the overall work, and doesn’t even involve Costello,

The narrative voice is also problematic. The narrator opens the novel, and creates his or her own personality as a kind of literary spectator, mirroring the son’s role. He introduces Costello, and talks about the difficulties of creating a narrative:

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. (1)

The narrator makes his or her own comments and asides, “we skip ahead”, but by the end of the chapter the ironic narration has become the son’s point of view, which, again is gone by chapter two. The narrator and his bridge doesn’t reappear, leaving the strong opening mysterious, and ultimately pointless. Pointless is, unfortunately the best adjective for this book. There is no coherence between any of the chapters, we have no feeling for any of Costello’s work, and none of the characters, including Costello, are developed. The potential theme, which might be something about belief and conviction, never takes shape, and even the lectures are abstract, and hard to read. In the wake of his Nobel Prize, one imagines that there was much pressure on Coetzee to produce a quick novel. Perhaps he should have simply published his gathered non-fiction writings, which would have been interesting enough as the early writings of a learned and very experienced author, or he could have left out the speeches altogether, and focused on his characters and strengthened his theme. Instead this book offers the reader very little, either to ponder, or to entertain.

For more information visit: Elizabeth Costello

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