Elizabeth Costello, J. M. Coetzee’s ninth book of fiction, appeared in print a few weeks after the Swedish Academy announced that Coetzee had been selected for the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature. Though she is not a Nobel laureate, the novel’s eponymous protagonist is, like Coetzee, an accomplished author who has traveled widely and earned widespread acclaim. Costello’s most famous book, The House on Eccles Street, a revision of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) from the perspective of Molly Bloom, seems analogous to Coetzee’s own experiment in literary reconception. Her Foe is a version of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) as narrated by a woman who shares the main character’s island solitude. Costello is Australian, a woman, and, born in 1928, twelve years older than the sixty-three-year-old Coetzee, who in 2002 relocated from his native South Africa to Australia. Costello is fusty and feisty, and the drama in Coetzee’s Platonic dialogue that is packaged as a novel consists of a clash of ideas—Costello’s and the world’s.
Elizabeth Costello is organized as a sequence of eight chapters, called “Lessons,” followed by a four-page postscript. In each of the lessons, set in locations scattered throughout the globe, Costello either lectures or meditates on a variety of topics. In the postscript, Coetzee, building on German poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s “Letter of Lord Chandos to Lord Bacon” (1902), imagines what Lord Chandos’s wife, Elizabeth, might have written in a separate letter to Francis Bacon in 1603.
In Lesson 1, Costello journeys to fictional Altona College in Williamstown, Pennsylvania, to accept a prestigious award. She is accompanied by her son, John Bernard, who teaches physics and astronomy at Appleton College in Massachusetts and thinks of his mother as “an old, tired circus seal.” Reluctantly agreeing to public performances as the price of Altona’s accolade, Costello submits to a radio interview by a feminist named Susan Moebius and gives an after-dinner speech titled “What is Realism?” In her inconclusive talk, Costello stresses the impermanence of literary reputations and the inadequacy and indeterminacy of words. Later that evening, eager to get closer to the elusive novelist she interviewed, Moebius goes to bed with Costello’s son.
In Lesson 2, Costello accepts an invitation to board a cruise ship sailing from Christchurch, New Zealand, to Cape Town, South Africa. In return for the waiver of all expenses and a substantial honorarium, she is expected to give passengers a short course on the contemporary novel. She contends, without any conviction, that “the novel suggests how we may explore the power of the present to produce the future.” Also sailing on the SS Northern Lights is Emmanuel Egudu, a writer from Nigeria whose lecture is titled “The Novel in Africa.” Egudu observes that it is impossible for an author to make a living in Africa because that continent’s traditions are oral, not written. Costello is bothered by Egudu’s claims because she rejects his privileging the oral over the written and his self-serving strategy of exoticizing himself and because, during three consecutive nights in Kuala Lumpur many years ago, she shared a bed with him.
Lessons 3 and 4 are set in Waltham, Massachusetts, at Appleton College, where, two years after her visit to Altona, Costello has been invited to deliver the annual Gates Lecture. She stays with her son and his wife, Norma, an unsuccessful academic philosopher who has never liked her mother-in-law and is outraged by her inflammatory public pronouncements. For her formal lecture at Appleton, Costello chooses to talk about animals, how human beings are complicit in a vast system of abattoirs, trawlers, farms, and laboratories that exploits, tortures, and murders other species. She insists that even if rationality is unique to Homo sapiens, that distinction does not grant the human species the right to abuse other animals, whose “fullness of being” entitles them to human empathy. Costello fulminates:
We are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it, in that ours is an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing rabbits, rats, poultry, livestock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them.
During the question-and-answer session that follows Costello’s lecture, at a dinner in her honor at the...
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