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'Elizabeth Costello' by J.M. Coetzee

Title character finds voice only in J.M. Coetzee's essays

Sunday, November 09, 2003

By Diana Nelson Jones, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In his latest novel, Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee resurrects several of his previously published essays through the voice of his title character.

 
 
"Elizabeth Costello"

By J.M. Coetzee

Viking ($21.95)

   
 

Elizabeth Costello is an elderly Australian writer who is best known for one of her earliest novels. These days, it seems, she is writing less and talking more. When we meet her, we also meet her son, who shepherds her to and from speaking engagements, where she is always the guest of honor.

With her best work far behind her, she is like an oldies band on tour. She is extremely articulate, but she struggles sometimes for cohesion and her audiences are increasingly disturbed by her messages.

The themes of the novel, and of her speeches, weigh good and evil, the parallels between literature and life and religion and belief.

The overriding subject of her talks is that mankind destroys its soul when it kills animals. When we lack the empathy to put ourselves in the place of an animal, we become more accepting of our role in its demise. Her conscience has brought her to this cause, a perfectly good cause if a little broad-brushed. But, at the denouement of the book, when she cannot say what she believes in, this cause would seem the obvious answer and she doesn't give it. This is by design, but one wonders what Coetzee expects us to infer --that she is a hypocrite?

In her speeches, Costello compares the evil of Hitler to the evil of the feed lot and slaughterhouse. Although parallels can be drawn, the outrage that her audience feels at this assertion, and the assertion itself, do not have an obvious purpose in the advancement of this story.

But here lies the problem.

As Costello is a storyteller who has lost her knack for story, Coetzee himself seems to have eschewed the art of his own storytelling in this highly dissatisfying work. Costello gives speeches from auditorium to banquet hall, from cruise ship to forum, and at no time as you read along does your mind hit the "ah-ha!" point.

A smarter reader than I may get connections that are otherwise obscure, but it is safe to say that the weave is loose. The points Costello is making are strong points but not strong threads.

For pure intellectual exercise, her speeches -- Coetzee's essays -- are marvelous fodder for thought and discussion, the stuff of a highly original mind. But when you read a novel, you are looking for a compelling story with compelling characters, and Costello is neither fully enough a character nor a very sympathetic one.

The purpose of the roles of her son and his philosopher wife, who can barely conceal her disdain for Costello, are not clear, and there seems to be no particular significance to their relationships with Costello.

Her passion, whether in discussion or at the lecturn, is compelling, but you don't really know who she is.

When speeches in a novel are more compelling than the person who is making them, it would hardly seem a novel at all.

Coetzee's novel is more of a puzzle, one with some pieces missing.


Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.

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