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.

Although Disgrace was not the most artistically finished of his novels, it had an air of finality to it, the sense of an author ready to abandon the struggle with the intractabilities of the novel form, of a man tormented by and disgusted with the moral ambiguousness of fiction. After Disgrace he published a collection of essays and a second volume of a sort of autobiography, Youth. In Elizabeth Costello, the novelist’s disgust and torment have subsided into irritation. Here is the opening paragraph of Lesson 1, titled, ominously, “Realism”:

There is first of all the problem of the opening, namely, how to get us from where we are, which is, as yet, nowhere, to the far bank. It is a simple bridging problem, a problem of knocking together a bridge. People solve such problems every day. They solve them, and having solved them push on.

It is as if this fabulously successful author–successful in the eyes of the world, at least–had in his 60s regressed to his earliest apprentice days, when simply getting a character into a room smoothly and convincingly was a major problem of linguistic logistics. The suggestion of a lip curled at those “People” who merely “solve such problems,” however, bespeaks a writer not at the beginning, but the end.

The particular room into which Elizabeth Costello is maneuvered is in a hotel in Williamstown, Pennsylvania, where she has come to receive the Stowe Award, “made biennially to a major world writer” by Altona College. It is a curious mark of both The Lives of Animals and Elizabeth Costello that despite, or perhaps because of, the author’s seeming disdain for the trappings of fiction, they have a highly burnished patina of realism–or “Realism.” Elizabeth is accompanied by her son John, whom we also met in The Lives of Animals; he is a teacher of physics and astronomy, and as such a sort of foil to his artist mother, toward whom he maintains an attitude of somewhat skeptical admiration. In his previous outing he was mired in marriage and parenthood; this time he is footloose if not exactly fancy-free, although he does manage to get a beautiful young woman, with the enigmatically suggestive name of Moebius, one of the Stowe Award jurors, into bed. He has accompanied his mother to Pennsylvania “out of love. He cannot imagine her getting through this trial without him at her side,” yet he is uncomfortably aware that he is becoming something like her trainer. “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. Up to him to coax her, put heart in her, get her through the performance.”

On this occasion, Elizabeth’s performance is her acceptance speech after the presentation of the Stowe Award. The subject she has chosen is “What is Realism?” She begins by adducing Kafka’s story “Report to an Academy,” in which an ape in evening dress delivers an address to a board of scholars. In one of her lectures in The Lives of Animals she used the same story to bolster her charges against mankind for its treatment of other creatures, but here she is addressing a purely artistic aspect of Kafka’s fable, which is that since it is a monologue, we have no way of knowing whether Red Peter “really” is an ape, “or a human being presenting himself, with heavy irony, for rhetorical purposes, as an ape.” In fact, “we don’t know and will never know, with certainty, what is really going on in this story…. There used to be a time when we knew,” when what happened in fiction seemed to us as real as what happened in life.

But all that has ended. The word-mirror is broken, irreparably, it seems…. The words on the page will no longer stand up and be counted, each proclaiming “I mean what I mean!” The dictionary that used to stand beside the Bible and the works of Shakespeare above the fireplace, where in pious Roman homes the household gods were kept, has become just one code book among many.

At the end of Elizabeth’s speech, a young woman, an Altona student, tries to ask a question–a hostile one, surely–but she is silenced by the dean. We naturally expect that this young woman will at some point get to issue her challenge to Elizabeth, but in one of a number of puzzlingly untied loose ends in the book, she is not heard from again. Is this missed, or ducked, opportunity the result of an authorial lapse of interest, or is Coetzee ironically supporting Elizabeth’s contention that “we don’t know and will never know”? We will never know.

For a woman who purports to hate travel, Elizabeth Costello does get about. In Lesson 2, “The Novel in Africa,” she is on a luxury cruise from New Zealand to Cape Town via Antarctica. She has been hired by the cruise line to be a sort of writer-in-residence on the trip, delivering to the leisured passengers a short and undemanding course on the contemporary novel. Her fellow lecturer is a Nigerian novelist, Emmanuel Egudu, whose voice fills the bulk of the chapter. Egudu’s lesson is that the African novel, being primarily an oral form, is “a critique of the Western novel, which has gone so far down the road of disembodiment–think of Henry James, think of Marcel Proust–that the appropriate way and indeed the only way in which to absorb it is in silence and in solitude.” Once again, it is hard to know where Coetzee’s sympathies, if he has sympathies, lie, whether with the cheerfully dismissive Egudu, or the resentfully disagreeing Elizabeth–“If we were alone, she thinks, I would slap him“–and our difficulties in deciding are only added to by the O. Henryish twist in the tail of the encounter, one of the very few nods the book makes in the direction of traditional storytelling.

The two longish Lessons from The Lives of Animals that make up the heart of the book separate the largely literary themes of the opening sections from the moral and eschatological concerns of the closing ones. The bleakness of the central passages–they end with Elizabeth weeping for the fate of the animals and her son taking the old woman in his arms and offering her the only consolation he can: “There, there,” he whispers. “It will soon be over”–is not lightened by Lesson 5, “The Humanities in Africa,” in which Elizabeth visits her sister Blanche, now a nun known as Sister Brigid, who is not only administrator of a hospital in rural Zululand but the bestselling author of Living for Hope, a book about the work she has been doing among children born infected with AIDS. The sisters argue about religion, and the failure, as Blanche/Brigid sees it, of the efforts of the likes of Winckelmann, Goethe and Nietzsche to reinstitute the values of classical Greece as an antidote to Christianity. At the end of their reunion Elizabeth is seemingly vanquished by her sister’s vehement fundamentalism, but on her return home to Melbourne she writes a letter to Blanche recounting how when she was younger she had comforted a dying old man by displaying herself to him naked, and more; it is an affirmation of the pagan worship of the body and, by extension, of our humanness. The humanities, which Sister Brigid despises, “teach us humanity,” Elizabeth writes. “After the centuries-long Christian night, the humanities give us back our beauty, our human beauty.”

Lesson 6, “The Problem of Evil,” is the oddest thing in the book. This time Elizabeth is speaking at a conference in Amsterdam. Having been accused of anti-Semitism because of her comparison between abattoirs and the gas ovens of the Holocaust, she is naturally touchy on the subject of evil. She has been reading a novel based on the July Plot to assassinate Hitler, in which the author, Paul West, has written a lengthy description of the execution of the plotters that is so vivid and so horrifying that she is convinced the author would necessarily have become infected by the very evil he was writing about. She makes this the basis of her address to the conference, only to find to her dismay that Paul West is to be a fellow speaker. Before delivering her talk, she approaches West and tells him what she is about to do. West, however, bafflingly, gives no response, does not even look at her. Is Coetzee writing direct from experience here? West exists, as does his novel, The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stuaffenberg; perhaps the two writers did have an encounter at a literary conference somewhere? Coetzee ends the Lesson in a typically gnomic and teasing fashion:

There ought to be…some way of rounding off the morning and giving it shape and meaning: some confrontation leading to some final word. There ought to be an arrangement such that she bumps into someone in the corridor, perhaps Paul West himself; something should pass between them, sudden as lightning, that will illuminate the landscape for her, even if afterwards it returns to its native darkness. But the corridor, it seems, is empty.

Lesson 7, “Eros,” the shortest of the eight, is also the most beautiful, a luminous meditation on the world, the flesh and the gods. In the final Lesson, “At the Gate,” Elizabeth is becalmed in a mysterious place halfway between life and death, where she is required to account for herself as a woman and as an artist. Here Coetzee, through a surprisingly clumsy and even banal conceit, subjects his chosen profession–if art is a profession–to the most unsparing scrutiny, asking in essence if a novelist can claim a special position outside the run of “ordinary” life, “ordinary” emotions, “ordinary” beliefs. A partial answer comes when the judges hearing Elizabeth’s case “abandon all dignity and howl with laughter.”

This is a curious, and curiously unsatisfactory, book that nevertheless, and despite its faults, resonates in the mind long after it has been put aside. Coetzee is addressing the predicament of the artist in the post-Modern–not the postmodern–age, when all certainties seem to have gone, when the word-mirror is in pieces. That predicament was addressed a full century ago, succinctly and brilliantly, in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Ein Brief (The Letter of Lord Chandos), one of the key Modernist documents, in which Chandos addresses his friend Francis Bacon, telling him of the crisis of language that he has undergone–“My case, in short, is this: I have utterly lost my ability to think or speak coherently about anything at all”–and that henceforth he will write nothing more, but will give himself up entirely to the wordless life of nature. Coetzee closes his book with another fictional letter to Francis Bacon, this one from Lady Chandos, who begs Bacon to save her and her husband from Chandos’s crippling obsession with the numinous as manifest in the world of mute objects. “Tell him the time is not yet come, the time of the giants, the time of the angels. Tell him we are still in the time of fleas.” Despite the passion of Lady Chandos’s plea, it is a cold and bitter ending to a singularly comfortless book. Having finished it, one wants to turn back in hopes of an encounter that will give shape and meaning to the journey we have made. But the corridor, it seems, is empty.