J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello

Structurally this novel resembles Milan Kundera’s Immortality. It’s a book with huge spaces left in it, that make it feel more spacious. Instead of a linear plot, there’s an array of scenes, views of a woman from various perspectives – including a view from an afterlife — a woman who has both ideas and a sexual history. Elizabeth Costello’s sexual history appears only in brief flashbacks, but these are enough to enrich our understanding of her ideas.

It’s a drier book than Immortality. Aldous Huxley wrote in Point Counter Point, “The chief defect of the novel of ideas is that you must write about people who have ideas to express — which excludes all but about .01 per cent of the human race. Hence the real, the congenital novelists don’t write such books.” Elizabeth Costello proves this principle wrong — it’s exhilarating to find a novel in which such incommensurate world-views as Afrocentrism, veganism, and Catholicism are debated intelligently. But there’s also a lurking weariness: the reader experiences the tiresomeness of the lives of officially sanctioned authors, those who jet-set around, anatomizing the world below them, while remaining at a certain remove from it. It’s as if winning a Nobel condemns one to remain permanently ten thousand feet above the ground, an elevation from which everything is tinged with abstraction.

James Wood wrote, “Against all likelihood, the book is more affecting than anything else he has written,” and I think I agree. For me, the unusual novelistic techniques Coetzee uses here are justified by the emotional payoff. Even so, I would not in the least like to read the novel from the viewpoint of Molly Bloom that Elizabeth Costello has supposedly written…

One minor plausibility issue: the novelist Paul West appears as a character, is harangued about his novel The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, and throughout this harangue remains calm and silent – in my experience this would be unlikely behavior for a novelist…

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