Elizabeth Costello

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

“Realism has never been comfortable with ideas,” J. M. Coetzee declares in the first section ldquo;Realism.” Yet, Coetzee’s method here is to set ideas in a realistic context.

The novel depicts several speeches that Elizabeth Costello has been invited to give on topics about which she is never less than conflicted. Her speech is imbedded in the story (which Coetzee was reading instead of the speech he was invited to give), and usually elicits confused or negative responses from the audience. Language cannot give the answers to life’s questions, whether they are about religion or the treatment of animals or the morality of depicting Nazi atrocities. Coetzee does not want to be categorical in either his speeches or his stories, putting the burden of deciding on the reader instead.

Human emotions and character are imperfect, none more so than Elizabeth Costello’s. An Australian writer, she is identified with an early success that has defined her public image too much. A slightly testy woman, she is very uncomfortable with herself, but struggles as honestly as possible with her various dilemmas. This has not endeared her deeply with her son and daughter from different marriages or her sister, a nun, whose deep religious sense contrasts sharply with Elizabeth’s humanism. The reader, on the other hand, will find her appealing because she has no certainty or great vanity, which casts her predicament in an empathetic light.

In the last story, the most realistically challenged, she is trying to get past the heavenly gates. To do so, she must give a statement of her beliefs, but insists writers have no beliefs. After reading this book, you might think a writer has too many beliefs if any thing, but in the end, perhaps, it amounts to the same thing.

Review Sources

Booklist 100, no. 2 (September 15, 2003): 180.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 17 (September 1, 2003): 1087-1088.

Library Journal 128, no. 16 (October 1, 2003): 114.

Los Angeles Times, November 2, 2003, p. R16.

The Nation 277, no. 14 (November 3, 2003): 30-33.

New Statesman 132, no. 4655 (September 15, 2003): 50-51.

The New York Review of Books 50, no. 18 (November 20, 2003): 6-9.

The New York Times Book Review 153, no. 52648 (October 26, 2003): 15-16.

The New Yorker 79, no. 32 (October 27, 2003): 103.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 38 (September 22, 2003): 80-81.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 5, 2003, pp. 5-6.

The Village Voice, November 4, 2003, p. 87.