Disturbing the Peace

J. M. Coetzee
J. M. Coetzee; drawing by David Levine

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…

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