| J.M. Coetzee
Elizabeth Costello By J.M. Coetzee, Secker and Warburg, £9
“One can be a perfectly good writer without having a theory of writing,” remarked J.M. Coetzee in his essay, “Gordimer and Turgenev”, published in the collection, Stranger Shores (2001). Nevertheless, in the writer’s new novel, his protagonist, the ageing novelist, Elizabeth Costello, muses awhile on this act of writing: “I am a writer, 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.” Whose dictation does she take, we wonder, whose are the voices that she hears'
The title of Coetzee’s new novel is actually Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons. Coetzee is South African, now settled in Australia. Elizabeth Costello, too, is a novelist, born in 1928 and settled in Australia. “You have to realize how vast Australia is. We are only fleas on Australia’s backside, we late settlers,” she says in a television interview. Her best-known work is The House on Eccles Street (1969), which tells the story of Joyce’s Molly Bloom, in Molly’s voice. Although Costello doesn’t care to be reminded about this novel, which was written a long time ago, this is the work that continues to get her invitations to literary conferences and aboard cruise ships, where she provides rich travellers the intellectual component of their cruise.
The only problem is that Costello doesn’t deliver quite those talks that people expect from her. Her lectures are different, awkward, and rather inconclusive. And this is not merely because she isn’t very good as a public speaker. We learn about her positions, rather her thoughts and her doubts, on various matters — from reason, nature and evil, to the animal world, humanism, and the humanities — through her lectures and her conversations with her family members. Her son, John, who is concerned and vaguely embarrassed by his mother’s preoccupations, is a physicist and an astronomer, while his wife Norma is a philosopher. Elizabeth’s sister is a Roman Catholic nun working in Africa with the terminally ill, while her daughter, whom we never meet, lives in Nice. Costello plans to meet her during her visit to Amsterdam.
John is affectionately concerned about his ageing mother: “He thinks of her as a seal, an old, tired circus seal. One more time she must heave herself onto the tub, one more time show that she can balance the ball on her nose.” And yet he is also vaguely embarrassed by her no-frills, no-concessions statements. But Costello herself, facing all of them — John’s rationalism, her daughter-in-law’s aggressive philosophy, her African writer-friend and former lover Emmanuel’s postcolonial preoccupations, and her sister’s religious belief — comes across as rather unsure of what she believes in. And that is the strength, rather than the weakness, of this contemporary novel of ideas.
For it is of note that this is Coetzee’s first novel since the powerful, Booker-winning Disgrace. In that electrifying novel and Coetzee’s best, a South African professor, disgraced after his affair with a young student, goes to his daughter’s farm where she is raped by three black men. If Disgrace painted a bleak view of present-day South Africa, Elizabeth Costello paints a bleaker view of the world.
Let us listen to Costello on one of her subjects — the treatment of animals. Talking about Red Peter, the talking ape in Kafka’s story, “Report to an Academy”, as “a branded, marked, wounded animal presenting himself as speaking testimony to a gathering of scholars”, she talks of the violence with which humankind has enslaved the animal world: “In the olden days the voice of man, raised in reason, was confronted by the roar of the lion, the bellow of the bull. Man went to war with the lion and the bull, and after many generations, won that war definitively. Today, these creatures have no more power. Animals have only their silence left with which to confront us. Generation after generation, heroically, our captives refuse to speak to us.”
Coetzee has addressed this issue before. One recalls David Lurie in Disgrace, musing about this when he sees two sheep tied up, waiting to be slaughtered: “When did a sheep last die of old age' Sheep do not own themselves, do not own their lives. They exist to be used, every last ounce of them, their flesh to be eaten, their bones to be crushed and fed to poultry.”
And when Costello is asked by her audience “to clarify” what she means: does she mean that factory farms should be closed, that people should stop eating meat, that experiments on animals should be stopped, that animals should be killed more humanely' All she says, unfashionably but with awkward grace, is this: “I was hoping not to have to enunciate principles. If principles are what you want to take away from this talk, I would have to respond: open your heart and listen to what your heart says.” That, of course, is the hardest thing, in an age that believes blindly in reason alone. The relentless chatter of humankind has almost drowned out the sound of its own throbbing heart, its feeling, its instinct.
Coetzee uses the fictional form to present disturbing questions about the violence that exists in our everyday lives. In meat processing factories, in animal experiments, in efforts to push one model of “development” down the throat of a poorer continent. In books that go into the very heart of evil and take us there to tell us about it, tainting their writers in the process, and tainting us, the readers, with the experience.
Fictionalizing these troubling questions allows him to ask them without trying to present any one set answer, or any single point of view; indeed, within the novel itself, we see Costello fumbling for answers to some of the questions that her audience raises. And yet, this turns out to be a far more powerful device than the philosophical essay, because in fiction, a rugged form which permits so much more, the grey areas are so much greyer, the darkness around is so much darker, and the questions are so much more piercing as they try to cut through, further and further, into the heart of the darkness.