Elizabeth Costello is a strange novel. In fact, some might argue that it is not really a novel at all; there were certainly times when I thought so. It is probably as far from a conventional narrative as one can get, taking the form instead of a series of essays, linked in many ways only by the recurring eponymous Elizabeth Costello figure. Through Elizabeth, Coetzee is able to examine various different philosophical quandaries, such as animal rights, consciousness, goal of literature, censorship, culture as a formative factor in identity, and sexuality, just to name a few. Needless to say, it’s an ambitious work, one that requires an inordinately skilled author in order to carry it off successfully.
In my mind, Coetzee is such an author. Perhaps the only author who could take the conceit of this novel and make it work as well as it does. That’s not to say it’s without its flaws, or that I didn’t struggle with it. Just that I felt the wrangling I had to do was worthwhile, and that overall the book was an enriching – if challenging – experience. Elizabeth Costello demanded my utmost concentration and it made me think about questions and ideas to which there are no easy answers.
This isn’t a book you read for plot, so for some, this may not be a book you read at all. It’s extremely philosophical in nature, and having done some subsequent research, it looks like each portion of the book was written separately as a means for Coetzee to discuss and explore different moral and philosophical issues. Perhaps this is why, as compelling the character of Elizabeth is, she sometimes feels like a cipher – an easy mouthpiece to debate and consider Coetzee’s dilemmas. Much of the novel involves Elizabeth giving talks at conferences and the likes, in which she pontificates on various philosophical issues, even though she herself is an author and should perhaps stick to discussing her own novels. That said, Elizabeth is more than a shadowy, ill-conceived figure meant only to spout rhetoric. Coetzee has taken the time to develop her and imbue her with the complexities of humanity. Still, as interesting as the insights into her character are, it still feels like this book is less about Elizabeth’s story and more a piece of writing that just barely skirts the distinction between fiction and non-fiction.
One thing I wondered when reading this novel, was the extent to which Elizabeth was a manifestation of Coetzee himself. In his most recent novel, Summerland, I know that Coetzee has written a memoir of sorts, and to some extent that is what Elizabeth Costello also feels like, but one that focuses on the ideas one wrestles with over a lifetime rather than the experiences one lives through. Like Elizabeth, Coetzee is a novelist, and he is also a vegetarian. I’m not sure I can provide any great insight into Coetzee as Elizabeth, but I find the idea of a writer creating himself a fictional form, especially one of the opposite sex, rather fascinating.
Generally I’m not one to spend my time poring over philosophical tracts, but there were issues that Coetzee brought up in this book that I did find really interesting. In particular I liked his discussions on consciousness and perception, but given my research interests as a graduate student in Psychology, that is perhaps not all that surprising. However, many of the topics Coetzee tackles, despite their inherent incendiary nature, are not ones I necessarily wish to spend hours contemplating. Perhaps others feel similarly. So why read this book then? In short: the writing. I remarked on this when I spoke about Disgrace last year (one of my favourite reads in 2009), but Coetzee has this deceptively simple prose style, one that is incredibly fluid and easy to read. I call it deceptive because the ease of his writing often masks the depth of the ideas behind it all, such that as a reader, I find myself taking in these huge ideas, almost without realizing it. To me, there is something about Coetzee’s writing that is magical – every sentence seems perfectly crafted, not a single word out of place or superfluous. Even his simplest sentences leave me reeling because there is always such a clarity and a thoughtfulness behind each and every one of them. His writing is like the smoothest whiskey you’ll ever drink – it slides down your throat with ease, only to bring a flush to your cheeks and intoxicate your brain.
As I said, I am not fully convinced that what Coetzee has produced here is a work of fiction in its purest sense, but I think that perhaps the end result is the same. Early on in this book, Elizabeth’s son declares:
“But my mother has been a man… She has also been a dog. She can think her way into other people, into other existences. I have read her; I know. It is within her powers. Isn’t that what is most important about fiction: that it takes us out of ourselves, into other lives?”
And if that is indeed the most important thing about fiction, then I think Coetzee has achieved that here. Because as I read Elizbaeth Costello, I was walking alongside her, breathing her air, seeing her world. Sometimes like a parent and a child in a crowd, we were pulled in different directions, our fingers splayed, trying to maintain contact. At times the bond was broken, but always I returned.
A difficult book at times, but one that pays dividends to those interested in a slow, careful read. I will be re-reading it again in the future (which seems to be my lot when it comes to Coetzee!).
Rating: 4 out of 5