I have read some of his fiction before so was looking forward to Elizabeth Costello, the story of a distinguished Australian writer who travels the world delivering a series of lectures.
Unfortunately for the first time since my university days, I felt I was reading lecture notes and soon realised my expectations of escaping into a novel were not to be met. Perhaps I need to revisit Elizabeth Costello down the track when I have mustered the energy to sit up and take notes.
Elizabeth Costello by Nobel Laureate JM Coetzee is the story of a distinguished Australian writer who travels the world delivering a series of lectures. The premise of the novel is an interesting one but the series of lectures, broken down into life lessons and delivered by a somewhat poor public speaker, may not be what some readers seek in a work of fiction.
Readers can be forgiven for feeling like they are reading a work of non-fiction or lecture notes, as part of the novel was written and used by Coetzee for a lecture series at Princeton University between 1997 and 1998.
The character Elizabeth Costello is regarded for an early novel and masterpiece entitled The House of Eccles Street, in which she gives the character Molly Bloom from Ulysses her own voice.
The work is held in high esteem and it is because of this she is invited to attend and deliver her lectures around the world. Her speeches tackle such themes as animal rights (she is a strict vegetarian), the Holocaust, the problem of evil, death of the humanities and the imparting of ones beliefs. It is only through these lectures that we are allowed to form our connection with the character.
Unfortunately, Costello fails to thrill and often leaves her audience, her family and the organisers of her visits, confused and disappointed. I count myself amongst this group. I am not sure if it is because Costello does not talk about what they want to hear, what she does tell them makes them squirm in their seats or that she lacks any real passion in the delivery of her message. She does not really let us in.
Costello is not an endearing character by any means. She is weary of the world travel, yet continues to take on the lecture circuit; not particularly motherly to her two children from different marriages (the daughter is only mentioned briefly and then never raised in the story again); has no real friendship with her sister, a nun living amongst the AIDS sufferers in Africa; and finds it hard to make any connection with most of her fellow writers.
The Problem of Evil
Lesson 6, The Problem of Evil raises an interesting dilemma for Elizabeth Costello and brings real empathy for the character for the first time. She travels to Amsterdam to deliver a lecture but finds out the day before that the author of the book she is using as the main example in her lecture will be present at the conference.
The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg by Paul West is an indepth account of the atrocities that took place under Hitler, and Costello argues that by retelling the story, the executioners are give undue attention where they should be buried and forgotten.
Out of courtesy to West, Costello tries to rewrite the lecture without mentioning his name or the title of the book but when she realises it just won’t work, she decides to talk to him instead (not apologise) and warn him about her use of his work in her lecture. The confrontation between the two is disappointing as she stumbles through her reasoning and he fails to utter a single word in response.
It is these snippets around the lecture series that offer a way in to Coetzee’s world of fiction, which is at times beautiful and thought-provoking. If you are new to Coetzee, I would start with another work, perhaps the Booker Prize-winning Disgrace.
About JM Coetzee
JM Coetzee was born in South Africa in 1940 but is now an Australian citizen. His literary awards are many and include the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Man Booker award twice.
Elizabeth Costello (Knopf, 2003, ISBN: 1740512650, 230 pages.)
Reference: The New York Review of Books: Disturbing the Peace by David Lodge.
My rating: ★★