Thursday, July 16, 2009

128. Elizabeth Costello – J.M. Coetzee

History: Published in 2003. Elizabeth Costello is the main character in Coetzee's academic novel, The Lives of Animals (1999). A character named Elizabeth Costello also appears in Coetzee's 2005 novel Slow Man.
Plot: Elizabeth Costello is a aging Australian writer, famous for a book she'd written years ago and now traveling the lecture circuit, although she's a poor public speaker. Through her speeches and interactions with her family members, Elizabeth Costello is more of a series of essays contained within a fictional outline. Coetzee examines themes such as animal rights, the Holocaust, humanism, rationalism, as well as how a writer imparts his beliefs through his fiction. Dragging round the world from one prize-giving or lecture to another, she is haunted by the feeling that we are living witnesses to an animal holocaust, comparable to the Jewish Holocaust. We crunch the corpses of animals, slurp their juices, raise them only to kill them, yet nobody turns a hairThe evil that Costello identifies is based on the triumph of reason and the downgrading of imagination. We have lost real respect for imagination; trivialising and underrating is power. In another "lesson" (as Coetzee wryly calls his chapters), Costello confronts a novelist who has written, with brilliant empathy, about the disgusting executions suffered by the conspirators who tried to kill Hitler.
Review: Based on several previously published articles by Coetzee (and a couple of new ones), Elizabeth Costello is essentially a collection of essays, or lessons, on the nature of writing, and more importantly reading. Linking these themes is Costello, an aging Australian author who seemingly revels in the success of past glories as she reluctantly accepts a series invitations around the world, an irony buried in her reliance on well-worn rhetoric. Yet it is this irony that is most enticing, Costello’s shell cracks, increasingly challenging her contemporaries and ultimately her own beliefs.
This fragmented collection is to be applauded on one level as it is a unique way to present a collection of disparate stories, encased in the fiction of one person’s final years. However, I’m not sure there was enough development of Costello’s personality to carry the novel’s philosophical weight. It is obvious that Coetzee is experimenting with the device of lessons as a bedrock for character development, but for me it was the issues alluded to - the relationships between mother and son, the sparsely mentioned daughter and ex-lovers - rather than the issues addressed - animal rights and eroticism - that carry the reader from chapter to chapter.
Opening Line: 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.”
Closing Line: “Drowning, we write out of our separate fates. Save us.”
Quotes: "It is as if I were to visit friends, and to make some polite remark about the lamp in their living room, and they were to say, `Yes, it's nice, isn't it? Polish-Jewish skin it's made of, we find that the best, the skins of young Polish-Jewish virgins.' And then I go to the bathroom and the soap wrapper says, `Treblinka – 100% human stearate.' Am I dreaming ."
Rating: Mediocre

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