The Life of a Writer According to Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello takes us into the life and time of an aging Australian novelist, the different facets of which are revealed by tagging the reader along a series of formal talks and lectures of which Elizabeth is either speaker or audience.

Writer and Mother

The lecture on “Realism” that Elizabeth gives on the occasion of her acceptance of a literary award in a college in Pennsylvania takes us into Elizabeth’s relationship with her son as a mother. How can a distinguished writer be a mother at the same time? In Elizabeth’s case, writing takes precedence as her son John’s reveals:

For as far back as he can remember, his mother has secluded herself in the morning to do her writing. No intrusions under any circumstances. He used to think of himself as a misfortunate child, lonely, and unloved. When they felt particularly sorry for themselves, he and his sister used to slump outside the locked door and make tiny whining sounds.

It was only later that John, who accompanies her to the awarding in Pennsylvania and from whose point of view we observe the narrative, read her mother’s works. He was already 33: “She denied him, therefore he denied her.” It was only then that he saw how he himself and his surroundings are transmuted as details in her mother’s novels.

Elizabeth Costello is obviously a writerly novel that dwells mainly on the life of a writer and the process of writing, including the standard metafictional questioning of the novel’s literariness:

It is not a good idea to interrupt the narrative too often, since storytelling works by lulling the reader or listener into a dreamlike state in which the time and space of the real world fade away, superseded by the time and space of the fiction. Breaking into the dream draws attention to the constructedness of the story, and plays havoc with the realist illusion. However, unless certain scenes are skipped over we will be here all afternoon.

Postcolonial Exchanges

The next talk, “The Novel in Africa,” given by the African writer Emmanuel Egudu who Elizabeth met at a PEN conference in Kuala Lumpur when she was younger, continues this focus on the writing scene. The talk is given in a cruise ship destined to Antarctica, a ship which she joined for free in exchange for the giving of trivial lectures to board tourists.

Egudu’s talk immediately goes into the standard postcolonial themes of ethnicity, language, and literature divorced from the overdetermination of class: “The African novel, the true African novel, is an oral novel. On the page it is inert, only half alive; it wakes up when the voice, from deep in the body, breathes life into the words, speaks them aloud.”

Interestingly, Elizabeth’s dismissal of Egudu as a poseur hungry only for the privileges afforded by his reputation as writer carries with it an undercurrent of resentment. Her analysis of the problematic of much African literature is politically correct. But it also reeks of both an unveiled contempt intertwined with an enduring awe at a former lover:

But the African novel is not written by Africans for Africans. African novelists may write about Africa, about African experiences, but they seem to me to be glancing over their shoulder all the time they write, at the foreigners who will read them… Yet how can you explore a world in all its depth if at the same time you are having to explain it to outsiders? That, it seems to me, is the root of your problem.

This is precisely the problem with academic postcolonialism: it fails to distinguish between former colonies that eventually emerged as capitalist nations, such as Elizabeth’s Australia, and semi-colonial societies that continue to be dominated by foreign powers, like most of Egudu’s Africa. The episode with Elizabeth and Egudu brings this distinction to the fore.

Ultimately, postcolonialism and its attendant “multiculturalist” fetish for “tolerance of the other” have its roots in the attempt of global capital to assimilate “native cultures” as one more niche market for the consumption of “cosmopolitan” literary elites. Its emergence also counteracts the strong criticism by national liberation movements against cultural imperialism.

Animal Rights?

In “The Lives of Animals,” meanwhile, we are shown Elizabeth’s nasty role as mother-in-law. She gives two talks on “animal rights” in a university in Massachusetts where her son John teaches. In this chapter she is exposed as an intolerant fanatic who is obnoxious not only to her daughter-in-law but also to her son’s colleagues.

Naturally, the singular focus on animal rights is a familiar pet project of liberal academics that have retreated from a decisive engagement with issues of class and are divorced from real people’s struggles. In Elizabeth’s imagining, the slaughter of animals for food is comparable to Auschwitz:

Let me say it openly: 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, live-stock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them.

Elizabeth adamantly condemns systematic killing of animals for food, and in the process adopts a critique of “instrumental reason” forwarded by the likes of Adorno and later on endlessly replicated by “postmodernists.” The sorry treatment of animals, in this discourse, is rooted in man’s privileging of reason and resulting elevation of man over animals that have no capacity for reason.

This extremely anti-modern view on reason is counterweighed only by the virulence of the views of her sister Blanche, who Elizabeth visits in a university in South Africa. These views were expounded in a talk on “The Humanities in Africa” that Blanche gave in the ceremony in which she was awarded an honorary degree for her work in a hospital in Zululand for AIDS victims.

The two have not seen each other for a long time. Elizabeth’s sister, a missionary nun, also attacks the evils of modern society, but does so from a strictly Roman Catholic Christian point of view. It is fascinating to see the profound solidarity between an irrational Nietzsche-inspired postmodernism and the official Christian critique of modernity.

But despite the unholy alliance between their two disparate worldviews on this score, the two sisters remain ill-disposed towards each other. The antagonistic relationship between the two is founded on a sibling rivalry that continues to simmer into their old age, with Elizabeth feeling resentful for the preachy tenor of her sister.

Intertextual Foreplay

But we are already familiar with this tone in Elizabeth’s own dealings with others. This is repeated when she gives a talk on “The Problem of Evil,” where she attacked in her speech, against her better judgment, a writer who was also present on the occasion.

It was in fact her reading of The Very Rich Hours of Count Von Stauffenberg by Paul West, novel about a group of elite officer’s ill-fated plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944, which impelled her to accept the invitation for the talk. Evil, following the standard liberal discourse, is always associated with the notion of “totalitarianism.”

The chapter “Eros,” which looks like an extended look into Elizabeth’s quirky meditation on why the gods of ancient mythology have sexual relations with humans meanwhile jumps off from a reminiscence of a meeting with poet Robert Duncan.

Both Paul West and Robert Duncan are real writers; so is The House on Eccles Street, touted as Elizabeth’s most celebrated work, an allusion to James Joyce’s Ulysses, thus bringing into Elizabeth Costello all the familiar intertextual tropes.

But it does not end there. There’s still the theorizing on the afterlife in the last chapter which puts the novel alongside such erudite works as Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers or a frivolous Filipino metafictional novel called Great Philippine Jungle Energy Café, among many others.

Against Cynicism

In the last chapter “At the Gate,” we see Elizabeth denied entry to heaven because of her refusal to admit belief in anything.  She is trapped by the gate and takes accommodation in a lodge while awaiting the summons of a Kafkaesque jury which decides her fate.

In other words, not only is J.M Coetzee’s novel a satire on being a writer and the functions required of one by a flawed literary circuit, but it also concludes an attack on the emptiness of the post-everything mode and its attendant cynicism.

“I have beliefs but I do not believe in them,” declared Elizabeth. The jury’s verdict on this cynical pose: “Unbelief – entertaining all possibilities, floating between opposites – is the mark of a leisurely existence, a leisured existence.”

As American Marxist Teresa Eberts emphatically puts it, “cynicism is the logic of a pragmatism that opportunistically deploys ideas and beliefs in order to secure its place in the ‘things of this world’—that is to say, in order to get things done within the existing structures of access and privilege.”

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