Thursday, July 29, 2010

On Reading Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello

I have been reading Coetzee again.

Elizabeth Costello this time.

As usual, I have only the faintest idea what the novel is about.  

It takes me a while with Coetzee usually. 

In this case, he introduces the story, such as it is, with an attempt to distance the reader from the story a la the deconstructionist trends of the eighties and nineties.  After doing that, he then presents a massive novel of ideas.   Then he rips a massive shredding rent between the world of literary ideas (as represented by the novel) and the other world of philosophical ideas (as represented by rights) by depicting an elderly Australian novelist -- who achieved fame with her novel of the real 'Marion Bloom' -- midway through her swan song tour of the world.  Dipping in and out of the lecture circuit, she insists on talking about vegetarianism and animal rights instead of literature.

She is accompanied by her increasingly bemused physicist son. (Coetzee is a mathematician by trade).  Who presumably represents the poor reader.

Because it's Coetzee, it's all very readable and spellbinding, but it is also very annoying to be sitting on the Portland Hills 159 commuter bus at seven in the morning, not very awake, having your mind blown apart by a six page atom bomb of a treatise on how chicken farms are the new Holocaust, and wondering what in the jaysus name is this man trying to tell me right now.

I have decided that Coetzee is getting older (he was in his sixties when he wrote this) and thinking about whether or not there was any point in him having been a writer.  I hope I am not wrong, because I will have wasted my time (and more importantly, his) otherwise.

Anyone with an opinion on this novel is invited to share it.  Of course, I will have sent it back to the library at that point so it will probably be moot.

This is what the Telegraph (Andrew Marr) said about it:

"In the end, as his heroine confronts death, he has been able to raise the deepest questions through some fictional safeguards - without settling on answers, or defending all the arguments as his. But this is fine, because the attentive reader will have been badly jolted. It is why Coetzee is famous: Elizabeth Costello is no cheap shock. It is a serious one.

The New York Times says this:

Old age is for Coetzee what nausea was for Sartre: our defining condition, the necessary horror that grants us access to a moral existence....... Coetzee's unflinching exploration of this desolate and strangely beautiful terrain represents the cruelest and best use to which literature can be put. 

So I guess I am on the right track.
But that is just the purpose of his depiction of the writer Elizabeth Costello.  As usual, his protagonist is someone past the height of their powers.  However, the ideas she puts forward in a series of lectures are mostly about animals and man's relationship to them.  And the suffering that ensues.  Usually his books are about the suffering we inflict on one another (humans) through totalitarianism and ideology.

Coetzee is felt by some to be the African Kafka (in a third subsection of the whole compendium of ideas that are not ideas, he has a section in the book which rips the idea of an African writer to shreds, which almost broke my heart... with a final plea to please read Okri who is the only African writer... and throughout the book he gets Costello to talk about Kafka at length).

Is he trying to write the definitive treatise on himself?

At one point, Coetzee tries to put the two completely disparate themes of the novel together in a lecture by having Costello speak at an Ivy League college and tell them that if she can imagine herself dead, then she can imagine what it's like to be a bat.  Or a chimp.  Or a chicken.  Or a beef steer. 

Understanding our own mortality will guide us towards a deeper compassion for life in all its guises kind of thing.

I don't know.  I haven't finished and because it is so fantastic, I will probably slow right down to make the most of his artistry and pleasure in tormenting us with ideas.

I also have the distinct sense that he is taking the piss out of Margaret Atwood the whole way through the novel, there's something about Costello that really reminds me of the worst of her.... 

Whatever.  JM Coetzee is probably the greatest writer to have lived while I did.  If you haven't read this book, you should, but you should read his earlier stuff first, so you understand where he is coming from.  I particularly recommend:

  • The Life and Times of Michael K
  • The Master of Petersburg
  • Disgrace

in that order.

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