Sunday, November 30, 2003

Mrs Costello gives an insight into Coetzee’s mind
Manju Jaidka

Elizabeth Costello
by J.M. Coetzee. Viking London, 2003. Pages. 230. $ 21.95.

In 1997, Princeton University invited J.M. Coetzee to deliver the Tanner Lectures on Human Values. Instead of giving a formal address he read a novella about another novelist invited to lecture. This other novelist, Elizabeth Costello, instead of speaking about literature, surprises her audience by delivering a lecture on animal rights and ethical vegetarianism.

This is how Coetzee, using the metafictional device, presented his ideas on human values at Princeton. The Tanner lectures were subsequently published as The Lives of Animals in 1999. Now, four years later, Coetzee resurrects its protagonist in his latest book, Elizabeth Costello, published immediately after the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature to him. Mrs Costello, a frail, ageing Australian, travels from place to place, delivers lectures, is uncompromising in her views, remains forever locked in debates on ethical and moral issues, has difficult relationships with people, and does not mince her words while arguing a point. Sound familiar, does she?

Coetzee, with two Bookers and several other prizes in hand, has been on the literary scene for the last two decades and more. While first-time readers who begin with his Disgrace are overwhelmed by the quiet force of the narrative, those who pick the newest Coetzee offering off the shelf are left somewhat confused. For Elizabeth Costello, at first glance, seems to be a novel about a quixotic female character. Yet it is different from the traditional novel. There are frequent comparisons between Mrs Costello’s world and Kafka’s. Equally strong is a parallel with the universe of Godot. As in Beckett’s masterpiece, in Elizabeth Costello, too, one gets the impression that nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes. Characters appear, say their bit and then retreat. The action remains at the intellectual, cerebral level, confined to the deep recesses of the mind. The overall impression is an all-pervading silence, a stillness before and after insignificant ripples caused by the protagonist’s interaction with other human beings, a protagonist forever engaged in private ethical dilemmas.

To be more specific, the book comprises eight chapters or “Lessons” and a postcript. Several of these chapters are familiar: two, for example, were earlier published as The Lives of Animals. Four others have appeared in different journals over the last few years. So the present volume adds only two fresh pieces to earlier publications. What they have in common is the protagonist, Elizabeth Costello, and her philosophical explorations on what makes human existence meaningful. What is life, after all? Does it comprise the well-demarcated certitudes of a black and white existence? Or does it exist somewhere in the interstices, in the in-between spaces, seen intermittently through the light and shade, in fleeting moments of revelation?

There is little doubt that Elizabeth Costello is a mask for her creator, a camouflage, an alter-ego, a surrogate voice for his deepest beliefs. Judging from his earlier Boyhood and Youth, we know that Coetzee is capable of writing a searingly honest autobiography in the third person. Here he uses the same technique, distancing himself from the reader, hiding behind a persona who speaks for him on subjects ranging from animal rights to literary realism, from good and evil to truth and beauty, from the human to the sublime, the physical to the spiritual. The persona is female but gender does not seem to be of much consequence. Mrs Costello is the author in a woman’s guise. Coetzee is about the same age as his protagonist; he too lives in Australia now, travels the world giving lectures, and has similar views. Like Mrs Costello, J.M. Coetzee avoids publicity and hates attending public functions, even to receive coveted awards. Like Coetzee, Mrs Costello ''shakes [the reader] …. She is by no means a comforting writer.''

The book revolves around ideas, not action. And yet it holds our interest as the ideas are presented through changing dramatic situations. Elizabeth Costello is not common fare for one seeking to while away a few idle hours. It is serious reading that gives us an insight into the mind of the Nobel laureate, telling us in an allegorical mode what makes him tick and what turns him off. It has the power to disturb, to make us think, ponder; it takes the dirt out from under the carpet and asks us to look at it again, analyse it and decide whether it is indeed to be swept away or whether there is some good in it to be preserved. At the same time, through the narrative, the author plays an elaborate game — a puzzle of sorts in which he throws a number of clues that the reader must piece together into a coherent whole to decode the message being conveyed through this story-within-a-story-within-a-story.

What is disturbing about Elizabeth Costello is the feeling that Coetzee seems to have become more and more ruthless in his search for a perfect world. No doubt, Browning once said that man’s reach should exceed his grasp — or what’s Heaven for? But an uncompromising search for perfection can bring its own sorrows. Is Coetzee, then, too much of an idealist? Is he seeking a world that is nowhere to be found in reality? Is he heading the Tolstoy way — a way that can only lead to greater and greater depths of gloom? These are just some of the doubts that nag the mind on reading Elizabeth Costello.

One may wish to ask John Coetzee if Mrs Costello is modelled on his mother for she, too, has a son called John. But, in all probability, the writer would not give a straightforward answer. Instead, he would come up with another story, another fictional character in yet another book, leaving us with a hundred other unanswered questions.

One could conclude with a quotation from the book:

“I am a writer… . it is not my profession to believe, just to write. Not my business. I do imitations, as Aristotle would have said….”

“I am a writer, a trader in fictions…. and what I write is what I hear. I am a secretary of the invisible, one of many secretaries over the ages. That is my calling: dictation secretary. It is not for me to interrogate, to judge what is given me. I merely write down the words and then test them, test their soundness, to make sure I have heard right.”

Who, one may ask, is the speaker here? A frail, drab Australian woman called Elizabeth Costello? Or a frail, gaunt novelist from Australia called J.M. Coetzee? Any guesses?