Monday, February 27, 2012

Elizabeth Costello by JM Coetzee


JM Coetzee’s latter works have stretched the definition of fiction, often melding non-fiction and fiction into a single narrative where truth in a literal sense is difficult to discern and becomes blurred with truth in a metaphorical or metaphysical sense. It forces the reader to think beyond the narrative, to confront the difference between high truth and mere facts.

The start of this process can be seen as long ago as 1998, with the start of his “autobiographical” trilogy, and can also be seen clearly in his 2003 publication, Elizabeth Costello. The eponymous character is an ageing Australian writer, largely reclusive through her life but, in later years, persuaded to give a series of overseas lectures. These lectures, philosophical excursions into literary censorship, animal rights, the essence and banality of evil, form major sections of the narrative. In so doing the reader is forced to consider, simultaneously, not only those issues themselves but also the emotional impact such lectures, draining and emotional, have on the increasingly world-weary and disappointed Costello. But there is yet another element of meta-narrative: Costello’s lectures, or lessons as they are titled, are, in fact, edited versions of non-fiction articles previously published by Coetzee himself. And so we have the fictional story of Elizabeth Costello, a fictionalised account of her philosophical discussions, plus the non-fictional genesis of those discussions. The reader is invited to consider each of these elements in the narrative: it is, therefore, not an easy read. No matter how one approaches it, how carefully one reads it, it remains ambiguous and frustratingly opaque. That is not suggested as a criticism, because fiction which resolves itself into a neatly packaged product is unlikely to satisfy for long. But frustrating the novel remains.

Elizabeth Costello is a world-famous writer, notable especially for her early work The House on Eccles Street, which is a retelling of Ulysses from Molly Bloom’s perspective. She is ageing, and is not finding solace in age. The series of lectures she agrees to give, which form the core of the novel, force her to confront difficult metaphysical questions. A prickly woman, she endures strained relationships with her son and her sister, a nun working in Africa. She is confronting mortality, and with it is forced to question the value of her own life, her body of work, her relationships, her ideals. The ageing process is not easy, the realisation that mental powers are diminishing, that opportunities will never re-emerge, that the best has already passed, they make for a melancholy passage into old age, and Elizabeth Costello, an austere and overly-serious woman, is finding the transition traumatic. By the final lesson, she is imprisoned in some Kafkaesque overworld, a purgatory or court or waiting place for the dead where she must state her beliefs to a panel of inquisitors before being allowed passage beyond. Even now, at the last, she must argue, and her arguments suggest a spiritual core which is deep and sophisticated but, again, ambiguous. There is a strong core of humanism, but it is a humanism tempered by an apparently unshakeable irritation with humanity. Odi et amo, as Catullus puts it.

There is, perhaps, an element of intellectual sophistry to Coetzee’s use of Costello and her lectures to propound on these philosophical matters. A severe critic might even suggest cowardice. Coetzee presents radical arguments – animal rights, the existence of evil – arguments which could isolate their champion in an extreme wing of any debate. But, by creating a fictional character to present those views, Coetzee usefully distances himself from them: he can project them but simultaneously, if the going gets rough, deny everything and blame it on his literary creation.

But perhaps that is what writers always do, and perhaps that is the role of characters in fiction from Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe onwards. It is, in any case, an unfair criticism.

Rather, what Coetzee is doing is finding a new way to engage in dialogue. Rather than characters debating issues through Socratic questioning or a Hegelian process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, which probably accounts for the majority of such debate in fiction, Coetzee allows his character to debate with herself, and himself to debate with his character, and his reader to debate with him, all through the fictionalisation of these non-fiction debates. Thomas Mann’s master interlocutor Herr Settembrini – fundamentally opposed to the obnoxious Naphta but drawn inescapably to him in the dialectic – would approve this new model of discourse.

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