Saturday, May 31, 2014

Elizabeth CostelloElizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

J.M. Coetzee's "Elizabeth Costello" (my eleventh book of this author) is probably the most uncategorizable book I have ever read and also one of the most enigmatic. It is classified as a novel, yet I would rather call it a literary collage of philosophical essays, meditations on the nature of writing, and short pieces of fiction, all connected by the central character of Elizabeth Costello, a distinguished Australian writer, strongly cerebral and not at all comforting, a writer exactly like Mr. Coetzee himself.

Perhaps the most unusual fact is that six essays included in the book and some additional writing have been published earlier by Mr. Coetzee. The device that allows including them is that Ms. Costello presents them as lectures, mostly at various universities, where she is receiving an award or has been invited to give a talk. I am utterly unqualified to analyze the essays and the meaning of the book (literary critics have written at least a thousand pages about the purported message of "Elizabeth Costello"), so I am focusing on three themes that I have found most captivating.

In Lessons 3 and 4 (the author calls chapters "lessons") Ms. Costello reads her essays that fiercely condemn "the industry of death" - killing animals for food or torturing them for research purposes. Mr. Coetzee paraphrases the famous quote by Plutarch: "I [...] am astonished that you can put in your mouth the corpse of a dead animal, astonished that you do not find it nasty to chew hacked flesh and swallow the juices of death wounds." The author is not one-sided, though; he presents several responses of the audience that offer reasoned arguments against Ms. Costello's position.

In Lesson 6, "The Problem of Evil", Ms. Costello is invited to Amsterdam to talk about censorship. Instead, she decides to speak on whether writers have the right to write about extremely evil things and whether they can remain unscathed by the evil after having written about atrocities. The chapter also includes a twist, where fictitious Ms. Costello talks to an actual, living author. I have found this theme most fascinating from the philosophical point of view (by the way, I strongly disagree with Ms. Costello's position).

Finally, Lesson 8 offers a dreamlike vision of afterlife (with Kafkaesque undertones). Ms. Costello tries to pass through a gate, but in order to do that she is subject to a court hearing, where she must make a statement of what she believes. When she offers sort of a writer's manifesto explaining, in Czeslaw Milosz' words, that she is a "secretary of the invisible", it is not quite good enough. This lesson reminds me a little of a similarly captivating chapter in Haruki Murakami's "Kafka on the Shore".

"Elizabeth Costello" is an extraordinary work of literature - more properly, "metaliterature" - yet to me it is too disjointed to be a masterpiece.

Four stars.

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