ELIZABETH COSTELLO is an episodic literary novel that Coetzee writes in the form of eight "lessons" and a postscript. In the first six of these lessons, Elizabeth Costello, an elderly novelist acclaimed mostly for the work of her youth, is presenting a paper, making a speech on a cruise ship, or listening to her sister speak at a conference. In each of these lessons, there's lots of literate back-and-forth between professors while the themes of its academic presentations bleed in surprising ways across the lessons.
In lesson one, for example, an old and exhausted Elizabeth discusses her métier, which is liberating secondary characters from great novels written by men. And as she presents her paper on this subject, she works to maintain her old-lady novelist's image while her son, her acolyte at the conference, gets a little sex on the side. In contrast, lesson two features an African writer who challenges the realism of Western masterpieces while he turns academic presentations into mere shtick. There is sex, once again exploitive. But this time, it elicits resentment.
Anyway, this is the technique. Sometimes, the connection between lessons is Elizabeth, a dull and slightly eccentric presenter, while the conference subject shifts from literature to animal rights and the holocaust. Other times, themes, such as literary history or the brutality of existence, make the primary connection between lessons while Elizabeth slips to the periphery. Altogether, this technique generates a subtle and involving literary machine, written with Coetzee's usual diamond-hard prose. And in this way, Coetzee is able to backtrack and reexamine his issues, adding nuance and depth to his concerns with sex, brutality, moral blindness, responsibility, and making a living.
In his last two lessons and postscript, Coetzee then turns matters inside out. Through lesson six, sex is basically a physical experience with partners fighting for the upper hand. But in lesson seven and the postscript, Coetzee makes sex paramount and either ethereal or mystical. Meanwhile, the scholarly presentations, which are told in realistic fashion in the first six lessons, become Kafkaesque in lesson eight, where Elizabeth explores what she believes. These last chapters are a stylistic twist and add depth to the book.
I've read several novels by Coetzee. IMHO, his best novels place imperfect people in situations where their pathetic existence represents a moral failure in their culture (Life and Times of Michael K: A Novel). Or his imperfect characters make painful moral choices that they know will have zero worldly consequence (Waiting for the Barbarians: A Novel (Penguin Ink) (The Penguin Ink Series), (Age of Iron). But in ELIZABETH COSTELLO, Coetzee turns down the heat, since Elizabeth, aware of moral issues, is, well, sort of coasting to acclaim in a privileged academic world.
ELIZABETH COSTELLO is an intriguing puzzle and the work of a master stylist. And I found the character Elizabeth to be highly sympathetic, even though she can be inconstant, obsessive, and apocalyptic. Regardless, presentations by Elizabeth and her peers, which are both grand and subtle, are probably most appreciated by those who enjoy hair-splitting distinctions across a banquet table.
- Paperback: 240 pages
- Publisher: ADULT LOCAL VINTAGE - MASS MKT; 1 edition (1 June 2004)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1740512758
- ISBN-13: 978-1740512756
- Product Dimensions: 13.1 x 1.7 x 19.9 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 40.8 g
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Amazon Bestsellers Rank:
100,423 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- #14180 in Contemporary Literature & Fiction