by J.M. Coetzee
Viking, 233 pp., $21.95
This novel (as one must call it for want of a better word) requires, and rewards, at least a second reading, but even then its import remains ambiguous, partly because of the way it mixes and transgresses generic conventions. Elizabeth Costello consists of eight chapters and a postscript, though the chapters are called “Lessons” (whether they are lessons for the central character or for the reader is not made clear—perhaps both). Six of the Lessons have appeared in print before, which is not in itself remarkable, but two of them have been published previously as an independent work, which is unusual. These were the Tanner Lectures, a series dedicated to the discussion of ethical and philosophical topics, which Coetzee gave at Princeton University in 1997–1998, under the title “The Lives of Animals.”
Instead of delivering conventional lectures, however, he read to his audience a work of fiction, about a distinguished Australian novelist called Elizabeth Costello who is invited to Appleton College, a fictitious institution in Massachusetts, to give the annual “Gates Lecture” and disconcerts her hosts, who expected her to choose a literary topic, by delivering a root-and-branch polemic against the treatment of animals, in zoos, scientific research, and above all in the production of food. This lecture, “The Philosophers and the Animals,” and a talk to the English Department, entitled “The Poets and the Animals,” are followed by debates with members of the faculty, informally over dinner, and formally in a seminar.
The effect of the fictional narrative is to generate sympathy for the main character, and to imply that she is articulating the views of the “real author,” Coetzee—but not unambiguously. The whole sequence of events is seen mainly through the eyes of Elizabeth’s son, John (Coetzee’s own first name, it is worth noting), who hap-pens to be a teacher of physics and astronomy at Appleton College but has previously concealed his rela-tionship to his famous mother, and who is throughout her visit divided between filial loyalty and discomfort at the way her extreme opinions get up the noses of his colleagues and his wife.
What gives most offense is the analogy she draws between the industrial production of meat and the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis. “We are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it, in that ours is an enterprise without end…,” she asserts. A senior member of the faculty, a poet called Abraham Stern, absents himself from the dinner in protest and writes a dignified note of dissent. “If Jews were treated like cattle, it does not follow that cattle are treated like Jews. The inversion insults the memory of the dead. It also trades on the horrors of the camps in a cheap way.”
The Tanner Lectures were published by Princeton University Press in 1999, with an introduction by a political philosopher and responses from four other distinguished members of the Princeton faculty. Not surprisingly most of the commentators felt somewhat stymied by Coetzee’s meta-lectures, by the veils of fiction behind which he had concealed his own position from scrutiny. There was a feeling, shared by some reviewers of the book, that he was putting forward an extreme, intolerant, and accusatory argument without taking full intellectual responsibility for it.
Encountered in its new context, as Lessons Three and Four of Elizabeth Costello, “The Lives of Animals” no longer seems vulnerable to such criticism. The character of Elizabeth in the novel is a much more rounded figure, with a much more complex history, and is preoccupied with more than one ethical or philosophical issue. But the question of how far we are meant to identify with her and her opinions persists, partly because of the teasing similarities and differences between her and her creator. She is Australian-Irish-Catholic by birth and upbringing. Coetzee is South African, from an Afrikaner background, but now lives in Australia and in the US, where he teaches at the University of Chicago; he relates in his memoir Youth that as a schoolboy he pretended to be a Catholic to be excused from religious instruction classes. Elizabeth is “a major world writer” around whom “a small critical industry” has grown up, and the recipient of numerous prizes and awards. So is Coetzee, who also received the Nobel Prize for literature last month. She “is by no means a comforting writer”; neither is Coetzee (Disgrace must be one of the least comforting novels ever written). Elizabeth’s most celebrated work is The House on Eccles Street (1969), an imaginative recension of James Joyce’s Ulysses from Molly Bloom’s point of view; Coetzee has engaged in similar intertextual games with Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Like Coetzee, Elizabeth frequently travels around the world to give lectures and to attend international conferences. All the first six episodes or “Lessons” are in fact concerned with discourses delivered and/or heard by Elizabeth on some such occasion.
The main difference between author and character, apart from gender, is that Elizabeth Costello is twelve years older than Coetzee—”sixty-six…going on sixty-seven” in 1995, when the first episode is set. She increasingly feels her age as the novel progresses—both physically, in the weariness of flesh and bone, and metaphysically, in her troubled meditations on life and death and the art to which she has dedicated herself. Coetzee is only sixty-four this year, but he has succeeded remarkably in creating the character of a woman undergoing the transition from middle age to old age, coming to the end of sexuality, to the end of fulfilling personal relationships, even perhaps to the end of writing, and finding a new urgency in the big, perennial questions: Why are we here? What should we do? What is it all about? It is a book which begins like a cross between a campus novel and a Platonic dialogue, segues into introspective memoir and fanciful musing, and ends with a Kafkaesque bad dream of the afterlife. It is progressively permeated by the language of religion, by a dread of evil, and by a desire for personal salvation. Its key words are “belief” and “soul.”
The First Lesson is called “Realism,” the topic on which Elizabeth has chosen to speak when accepting the “Stowe Award” ($50,000 in cash and a gold medal) from the fictitious Altona College in Williamstown, Pennsylvania. Her son John is in attendance (as he will be two years later in Massachusetts), being on leave from Appleton College for unspecified “reasons of his own.” Elizabeth has flown all the way from Australia to receive the award. That is usually a condition of getting this kind of loot—you have to be there in person, give a speech, submit to press interviews, meet people who are writing scholarly books about you, field questions about your peers (“What do you think of A.S. Byatt, Ms Costello?… What do you think of Doris Lessing?”), sign copies of your novels, attend receptions and formal meals—and John feels his increasingly frail-looking mother needs his support to get her through the exhausting routine. “He thinks of her as a seal, an old, tired circus seal. One more time she must heave herself up on to the tub, one more time show that she can balance the ball on her nose.” The story of the visit is told mainly through John’s eyes and ears, with laconic metafictional interpolations by the implied author, drawing attention to the conventions of realism that are employed, and occasionally flouted, in the narrative itself:
The blue costume, the greasy hair [of Elizabeth], are details, signs of a moderate realism. Supply the particulars, allow the sig-nifications to emerge of themselves…. There is a scene in the restaurant, mainly dialogue, which we will skip…. When it needs to debate ideas, as here, realism is driven to invent situations—walks in the countryside, conversations—in which characters give voice to contending ideas…. The presentation scene itself we skip. It is not a good idea to interrupt the narrative too often, since storytelling works by lulling the reader or listener into a dreamlike state….
Elizabeth’s address is a kind of obsequy over, or elegy for, realism. She reminds her audience of Kafka’s “An Academic Address,” in which an ape who has been captured and civilized gives a brief account of his experiences to a learned audience. The story mimics her own situation (and also anticipates Coetzee’s use of a lecture as fictional discourse) but its meaning, Elizabeth says, is utterly obscure:
There used to be a time when we knew. We used to believe that when the text said, “On the table stood a glass of water,” there was indeed a table, and a glass of water on it, and we had only to look in the word-mirror of the text to see them.
But all that has ended. The word-mirror is broken, irreparably it seems. About what is really going on in the lecture hall your guess is as good as mine.
It is not clear whether Elizabeth is referring here to the deconstructionist theory of the late twentieth century which undermined the assumption that texts have intentional, recuperable meanings—in which case Kafka is a bad example, because his texts were recognized as being radically indeterminate in meaning well before the advent of poststructuralism—or whether she is saying that Kafka was a kind of prophet of deconstruction. It is the first of several moments in the book where the reader is not quite sure whether he is intended to spot some confusion or contradiction or non sequitur in Elizabeth’s arguments.
Elizabeth’s audience is not much interested in realism or its obsolescence. John senses that they are disappointed by her address, which contains nothing about feminism or postcolonialism—the isms with which she is publicly associated—and he suspects her hosts are already hoping that the Stowe Award jury will come up with a livelier recipient next time. He puts his tired mother to bed and goes down to the hotel bar where he recognizes the attractive female professor Susan Moebius, a specialist in women’s writing who interviewed his mother for the radio earlier that day. The attraction is mutual, and before long they are in Susan Moebius’s bed together. John is aware that he is being seduced into satisfying her professional curiosity about his mother, but doesn’t put up much resistance. He is both proud and admiring of Elizabeth and irritated and embarrassed by her, as the children of famous writers often are.
In Lesson Two, entitled “The Novel in Africa,” Elizabeth accepts a free cruise on a ship going to Antarctica in exchange for diverting the passengers with an undemanding course of lectures. She finds herself paired with an African novelist, Emmanuel Egudu, whom she met many years ago at a PEN conference in Kuala Lumpur, and regarded as something of a poseur. But she is no longer confident of making such judgments. “Which of us is what he seems to be, she seems to be?” She listens to herself giving her opening talk, “The Future of the Novel,” and is not sure that she believes in what she is saying. Indeed “she no longer believes very strongly in belief…. Belief may be no more…than a…battery which one clips into an idea to make it run.”