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It's All in Her Head

J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello

After a long Nobel-award-winning career spent exploring the dark crevices of human emotion, what's left for J.M. Coetzee to write about? How about an old novelist who at the end of an illustrious career searches desperately for meaning in her life's work? If that sounds a trifle self-absorbed, then call it enlightened self-absorption.

In Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello, the absorbing title character is an aging writer who strains to find meaning as she looks back upon her body of work. As the book opens, Costello is facing down an uncommon dilemma: whether or not to accept a prestigious award. Acceptance means a $50,000 check but requires a trip halfway around the world from her native Australia, and, even more ominously for Costello, who fears public appearances, requires that she deliver a lecture.

Costello makes the speech and gathers her prize money, but only with the accompaniment and protection of her son, who shields her from the public. Costello follows up this appearance with a lecture as part of the erudite entertainment on an expensive ocean liner (for guests "of discriminating tastes who take their leisure seriously"). She also lectures at various symposia and delivers a speech before the gates of heaven.

The text of Coetzee's novel, like helium-filled head floating through space and time, is in fact dominated by Costello's delivery of these lectures. Other than her lectures and the events just before and after, there is little: The rest of her life is barely hinted at, as if the only expression of her physical being is when she is channeling her thoughts before a public gathering. Even Costello's death is dealt with indirectly, deduced from her speeches before God in the final chapter.

This is nothing new for Coetzee. His novels are typically driven more by the philosophical undertones of his narratives than by the narratives themselves. Yet Elizabeth Costello is more than thinly-veiled philosophy. As we read her progress from lecture to lecture, Costello becomes more deeply nuanced, and we get a true sense of the issues she is grappling with at this, the dusk of her literary career.

Costello is most famous for -- is practically defined by -- her flagship work The House on Eccles Street, a novel in which she explores the life of Leopold Bloom's ignored housewife, Molly Bloom, in James Joyce's Ulysses. Just as Costello speaks for Bloom in Eccles Street, she feels that something, most likely divine influence, is speaking for her through her writing. This upsets her. Although in her heyday Costello didn't give much thought to what part of her was in her work, as she now reflects back on her oeuvre she increasingly tries to grasp something, anything, to believe in: "She is not sure, as she listens to her own voice, whether she believes any longer in what she is saying. Ideas like these must have had some grip on her when years ago she wrote them down, but after so many repetitions they have taken on a worn, unconvincing air."

This terror is reflected in Costello's lectures. The first one, in acceptance of her award, is trite, more in spite of the audience than for it. The second is a regurgitation of a well-worn, decades-old speech from her past. But then something happens with the lectures. Costello begins to raise issues beyond the pale of her work, issues she has become passionate about, such as animal rights and the role of the writer in society, and she desperately wants her lectures to make a tangible impact on the world.

As Costello injects passion into her lectures, they become rifled with confusion. She frantically re-writes one lecture the night before giving it, her convictions torn asunder by an unanticipated audience member. After another lecture, Costello is humiliatingly criticized at a banquet for having no idea what she's talking about. As Costello increasingly scrambles around the lecture circuit, she more desperately searches for something, anything, she can say is truly hers. She doesn't find it, which only propels her on to more lectures and more chimeras.

As Costello gropes through this series of speeches, we begin to see her turmoil of coming to terms with her life's work. Costello's lectures make us privy to her personal thoughts and although the lectures certainly ring with multiple philosophical meanings, they also resonate with the humanism that makes Elizabeth Costello a concentrated character portrait.

That Coetzee can paint a human portrait without basic details about Costello's home, day-to-day life and close friends, and with only oblique references to her difficult relationships with her son and sister, is a testament to the South African's eye for detail. (In his previous novel, Disgrace, we find out only the most rudimentary details about the protagonist, the sex-obsessed professor Curie.)

Instead of stuffing his books with facts that supposedly describe his characters, Coetzee lets us discover his characters for ourselves by presenting us with meaningful scenes from their lives. In Disgrace, the graphic scene where Curie's daughter is raped directly transports into our hearts the rage and humiliation Curie felt as he helplessly stood by, locked in the bathroom and half burned to death. Elizabeth Costello has no scene that matches the graphic realism of Disgrace's rape scene, but Coetzee economical use of detail makes Costello tight and explosive nonetheless. It also puts Coetzee and his readers on a level playing field. Where other books subordinate the reader to the role of listener, Elizabeth Costello compels the reader to actively participate. It's a challenge, when issued by a Nobel laureate, one should readily accept.

Elizabeth Costello
By J.M. Coetzee
Viking Press; ISBN: 0670031305
Hardcover; 230 pages; October 2003