Reflections on Elizabeth Costello by J M Coetzee

Elizabeth Costello is a contrived, even lazy, novel, but it contains much that is fascinating and exquisitely written. It’s contrived and lazy because it simply stitches together a series of lectures that Coetzee has given over the years. He creates an alter ego, an Australian female writer of the same age as him who lives in Australia (as he does) and like him is a colonial (her Australian, him South African) of a particular time, somebody brought up in a hot country distant from Britain but force fed the literature and culture of Britain. We don’t believe in her; we know we are listening to him. And all the other characters in the book are simply devices for continuing the debate around his lectures. There is no story, simply the lectures. And tacked onto the lectures is an examination of himself before the gates of Heaven. Does he believe in anything? Will he be admitted.

I finished the book several days ago, and when I look back two scenes stay with me. One is when Elizabeth is lecturing on our ingrained cruelty to animals. We all know about the cruelty—the factory farming, zoos, the dreadful experiments—but most of us do nothing. Are we, she asks, a modern equivalent of the Germans who did nothing while Jews and others were murdered on an industrial scale? This can, of course, be interpreted as an anti-semitic comment (and that’s what is reported in the Australian media), but something deeper was intended. That thought plus other material on not eating meat (see the Plutarch quote below) brought me close to becoming a vegetarian.

The other scene I remember is mostly a cliché. Elizabeth has an older sister who is a nun in Africa. Their relationship has never been easy, but Elizabeth travels to Africa as her sister is being given an honorary degree. The sister makes a speech in which she attacks the humanities, arguing that they should return to their roots of scholarly attention to the Bible. Elizabeth sees this as an attack on her, which leads her to remember something that removes her far from her sister and yet puts her into direct competition. She remembers an old man, a friend of her mother’s whom she helped care for when she was 40. He’d been a womaniser but now was dying. He wanted to paint Elizabeth–and did so. Eventually he confessed that he’d like to paint her naked. She reflected and then, almost without thought, took off her blouse and bra. She did this several times and eventually gave the old man a blow job, describing his small, smelly, and very uninviting penis. She was doing something that her sister would never do, but she was also competing with her sister in “doing good.” And she may have won in that her sister ran a highly clinical service while she had done good in “small particulars” that were distasteful.

I wondered if the theme of the book was a criticism even a rejection of rationality. I could write a whole long essay, even a PhD, on that idea, but I want to get on with reading another book rather than do so—but here’s a quote to at least illustrate the idea: “I often wonder what thinking is, what understanding is. Do we really understand the universe better than animals do?”


And hear are the quotes I culled from the novel:

She is by no mean a comforting writer. She is even cruel in a way 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 they eviscerate their victim and, across the torn-open belly, give you a cold yellow stare.

The presentation scene itself we skip. It is not a good idea to interrupt the narrative too often, since storytelling works by lulling the reader or listener into a dreamlike space in which the time and space of the real world fade away, superseded by the time and space of the fiction. Breaking into the dream draws attention to the constructedness of the story, and plays havoc with the realist illusion however, unless certain scenes are skipped over we will be here all afternoon.

There must be some limit to the burden of remembering that we impose on our children and grandchildren. They will have a world of their own, of which we should be less and less part.

“What is the future, after all, but a structure of hopes and expectations? Its residence is in the mind; it has no reality…the past is likewise a fiction. The past is history, and what is history but a story made of air that we tell ourselves? Nevertheless, there is something miraculous about the past that the future lacks. What is miraculous about the past is that we have succeeded—God knows how—in making thousands and millions of individual fictions, fictions created by individual human beings, lock well enough into one another to give us what looks like a common past, a shared story. The future is different. We do not possess a shared story of the future.”

Women are good at mimicry, better at it than men. At parody, even. Our touch is lighter.

In Africa writing itself, to say nothing of novel-writing, is a recent affair.

Reading is not a typically African recreation. Music, yes; dancing, yes; eating, yes; talking, yes—lots of talking. But reading, no, and particularly not reading fat novels. Reading has always struck us Africans as a strangely solitary business. That makes us uneasy.

There is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another.

“You ask me why I refuse to eat flesh. I, for my part, am astonished that you can put in your mouth the corpse of a dead animal, astonished that you do not find it nasty to chew hacked flesh and swallow the juices of death wounds.” Plutarch

Poetic invention mingles breath and sense in a way that no one has explained and no one ever will.

The function of death is perpetuation of the species.

We understand by immersing ourselves and our intelligence in complexity.

There is, in the human mind, a collapse of the imagination before death, and that collapse of the imagination is the basis of our fear of death.

There is nothing more humanly beautiful than a woman’s breasts. Nothing more humanly beautiful, nothing more mysterious than why men want to caress, over and over again, with paintbrush or chisel or hand, these oddly carved fatty sacs, and nothing more humanly endearing than our complicity ( I mean the complicity of women) in their obsession.

I am a writer, and what I write I what I hear. I am a secretary of the invisible, one of many secretaries over the ages. This is my calling: dictation secretary. It is not for me to interrogate, to judge what is given me. I merely write down the words and then test them, test their soundness, to make sure I have heard right.

Beliefs are not the only ethical supports we have. We can rely on our hearts as well.

Her books are, she believes, better put together than she is.

Unbelief—entertaining all possibilities, rotating between opposites—is the mark of a leisurely existence, a leisured existence.



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