John Coetzee’s new book reads like a suicide note. His alter ego, Elizabeth Costello, is a writer at the end of her tether–indeed, at the end of her life, if we are to take a closing fantasy sequence, uncomfortably, even embarrassingly Kafkaesque, as a record of her transition to “the far bank,” as the book’s opening sentence has it. She is an Australian, aged 66, and has produced “nine novels, two books of poems, a book on bird life, and a body of journalism.” She lived in Europe for some years in the 1950s and ’60s, has been married twice and has two children, one from each marriage. Her reputation rests on her novel The House on Eccles Street, published in 1969, which has Marion Bloom, née Tweedy, the Molly Bloom of Ulysses, as its heroine.
We have met Elizabeth Costello before, in Coetzee’s odd little book The Lives of Animals, based on the Tanner Lectures delivered by the author at Princeton University in 1997-98. Coetzee’s two brief fictions in that book–as is apparent, it is hard to know how exactly to designate these late works; they are certainly not novels in any recognizable sense–revolve around two lectures, set in scant fictional frames, given by Elizabeth Costello at Appleton College in New England, an academic occasion that Amy Gutmann, founding director of the University Center for Human Values at Princeton, notes in her introduction to the book is “disconcertingly like the Tanner Lectures.” The message Elizabeth has brought to the school is that our treatment of animals is analogous to, indeed, is as bad as, the murder by the Nazis of millions of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and the mentally retarded in what is commonly called the Holocaust. Coetzee’s/Elizabeth’s lectures/essays/fictions are followed by a series of responses, labeled “Reflections,” from four distinguished academics, including Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation.
The lectures from The Lives of Animals–“The Philosophers and the Animals” and “The Poets and the Animals”–are incorporated into Elizabeth Costello, where they are the third and fourth of the eight “Lessons” that together with a brief postscript make up the new book. Yes, I know this is confusing; confusion would seem to be Coetzee’s aim.
Despite their didactic cast, one assumes these “Lessons” are to be received not as in a schoolroom but as in a religious service. Their topics are various, including “The Novel in Africa,” “Eros” and “The Problem of Evil”–Coetzee has never been one to shy away from the great questions. The tone throughout is of barely contained desperation, not to say despair. Elizabeth Costello is in trouble, and her troubles are not to be talked, or lectured, away.
John Coetzee, who now lives in Australia, was born in Cape Town in 1940, and spent some years in the United States working as an academic computer scientist and linguist; he did groundbreaking studies of the writings of Samuel Beckett, and it shows. As a writer he is a remarkable phenomenon, an austere, misanthropic and uncompromising intellectual whose books are international bestsellers. He has received pretty well every literary award going, including the Jerusalem Prize, the Prix Étranger Femina, the Booker, twice, and the South African CNA Prize, thrice; and this year’s Nobel Prize. Like Elizabeth Costello, he has written nine novels, if one allows The Lives of Animals to be called a novel, and is best known for the dreamlike fable Waiting for the Barbarians, and Life & Times of Michael K. His fictional masterpiece is Age of Iron, a Beckettian study of a woman coming to the end of her life in South Africa before the collapse of apartheid. His most recent novel, Disgrace, which won him that second Booker Prize, is a fierce, bleak study of an academic and teacher whose life collapses under a charge of sexual harassment; the book deals with many, too many, large themes such as race relations, feminism, the decay of the university and, again, humankind’s treatment of animals.