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Elizabeth Costello Paperback – Deckle Edge, October 26, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

For South African writer J.M. Coetzee, winner of two Booker Prizes and the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature, the world of receiving literary awards and giving speeches must be such a commonplace that he has put the circuit at the center of his book, Elizabeth Costello. As the work opens, in fact, the eponymous Elizabeth, a fictional novelist, is in Williamstown, Pennsylvania, to receive the Stowe Award. For her speech at the Williamstown's Altona College she chooses the tired topic, "What Is Realism?" and quickly loses her audience in her unfocused discussion of Kafka. From there, readers follow her to a cruise ship where she is virtually imprisoned as a celebrity lecturer to the ship's guests. Next, she is off to Appleton College where she delivers the annual Gates Lecture. Later, she will even attend a graduation speech.

Coetzee has made this project difficult for himself. Occasional writing--writing that includes graduation speeches, acceptance speeches, or even academic lectures--is a less than auspicious form around which to build a long work of fiction. A powerful central character engaged in a challenging stage of life might sustain such a work. Yet, at the start, Coetzee declares that Elizabeth is "old and tired," and her best book, The House on Eccles Street is long in her past. Elizabeth Costello lacks a progressive plot and offers little development over the course of each new performance at the lectern. Readers are given Elizabeth fully formed with only brief glimpses of her past sexual dalliances and literary efforts.

In the end, Elizabeth Costello seems undecided about its own direction. When Elizabeth is brought to a final reckoning at the gates of the afterlife, she begins to suspect that she is actually in hell, "or at least purgatory: a purgatory of clichés." Perhaps Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello, which can be read as an extended critique of clichéd writing, is a portrait of this purgatory. While some readers may find Coetzee's philosophical prose sustenance enough on the journey, some will turn back at the gate. --Patrick O'Kelley --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Even more uncompromising than usual, this latest novel by Coetzee (his first since 1999's Booker Prize-winning Disgrace) blurs the bounds of fiction and nonfiction while furthering the author's exploration of urgent moral and aesthetic questions. Elizabeth Costello, a fictional aging Australian novelist who gained fame for a Ulysses-inspired novel in the 1960s, reveals the workings of her still-formidable mind in a series of formal addresses she either attends or delivers herself (an award acceptance speech, a lecture on a cruise ship, a graduation speech). This ingenious structure allows Coetzee to circle around his protagonist, revealing her preoccupations and contradictions her relationships with her son, John, an academic, and her sister, Blanche, a missionary in Africa; her deep, almost fanatical concern with animal rights; her conflicted views on reason and realism; her grapplings with the human problems of sex and spirituality. The specters of the Holocaust and colonialism, of Greek mythology and Christian morality, and of Franz Kafka and the absurd haunt the novel, as Coetzee deftly weaves the intense contemplation of abstractions with the everyday life of an all-too-human body and mind. The struggle for self-expression comes to a wrenching climax when Elizabeth faces a final reckoning and finds herself at a loss for words. This is a novel of weighty ideas, concerned with what it means to be human and with the difficult and seductive task of making meaning. It is a resounding achievement by Coetzee and one that will linger with the reader long after its reverberating conclusion.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (October 26, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0142004812
  • ISBN-13: 978-0142004814
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.6 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (75 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #129,864 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

J.M. Coetzee's work includes Waiting for the Barbarians, Life & Times of Michael K, Foe, and Slow Man, among others. He has been awarded many prizes, including the Booker Prize (twice). In 2003, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

67 of 70 people found the following review helpful By Peter Koonz on January 2, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Directly upon finishing Elizabeth Costello, I was ready to concede that I didn't know what the heck I had just read. The book had a tangible emotional impact on me, but I was at a loss to explain what Coetzee was after, what his meaning was. I was at the point of assigning this to the pile of the unfathomable, but there was one thing I wished to pursue first. This pursuit, which cost me a mere couple of hours, retrieved the book for me and provided a structure and meaning that I had initially missed. (More below.)
Most of the chapters (or lessons, as outlined in the table of contents) in Elizabeth Costello have been published elsewhere between 1997 and 2002. As a whole they present a series of lectures that fictional fiction writer Elizabeth Costello attends or delivers. These lectures are tied together minimally with some descriptions of her family and some dialog between characters. The final lesson, "At the Gate", is a dream-like sequence in which Costello is somehow being judged and is required to explain her beliefs. The book ends with an excerpt form Hugo von Hofmannsthal's short work Letter of Lord Chandos to Lord Bacon (1902). A postscript follows, which is Coetzee's addition to Hofmannsthahal's work: a supplementary letter from Lord Chandos' wife Elizabeth (Elizabeth C.!) to Bacon.
The first seven lessons had some sort of unity. They were, after all, lectures that somehow included Elizabeth Costello. Okay. But with the addition of the ethereal lesson "At the Gate" and the timetwisting inclusion of Hofmannsthal, Chandos, and his wife, I knew that Coetzee was after something much more complex.
The bit of homework I did before giving up on the book was to retrieve Hofmannstahl's work (available easily enough on the web).
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45 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Matthew Krichman on November 18, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This is a novel of ideas, profound ideas, written by someone who is not just a great author but also a great thinker. Coetzee has found a way to wrap a great many conceptual and philosophical arguments into a novel of the sparest proportions in terms of plot, character, and prose. There really is no plot to this book, and only one main character. It is as if Coetzee did not want the traditional elements of the novel to stand in the way of his greater purpose in this work. Amazingly, Elizabeth Costello is still very readable, a testament to the author's skill and grace.
This is certainly the most introspective of Coetzee's novels. His main character, Elizabeth Costello, is an aging Australian novelist of international acclaim, and she certainly resembles the author in many ways. Coetzee uses her as a vessel through which he wrestles with some of the more difficult questions out there. Do humans bear a higher responsibility towards the protection and humane treatment of animals? Are there topics so ugly and dark that writers have a moral obligation to stay away from them? What is the nature of salvation? These are the weighty issues that Coetzee takes on here.
What is truly impressive is his ability to argue both sides of these questions in a remarkably coherent and convincing fashion. At first one naturally assumes that the opinions expressed by the main character are also those of the author. However, the novel's minor characters, whose primary purpose is to rebut Elizabeth's arguments, are at times more convincing than Elizabeth herself, who often takes extreme positions that are difficult to defend. In this way, the reader is not so much lectured to, which would be tedious, but rather asked to think deeply about these important questions.
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28 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Wally Weet on August 9, 2005
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I find the writing curiouser and curiouser as I make my way through "Elizabeth Costello". About writers and writing, about critics and criticism, about fiction and philosophy, sex and religion, about the encounter between the objective and the relative and most curious of all about a Lady Chandos writing to Francis Bacon in 1603??? And all of it woven around lectures?? What's it all about?

It's all fascinating, written with a diamond like rhetoric -hard and brilliantly controlled; filled with arcane literary fact and wisdom, bold enough to bring even a living writer into its debate (Paul West and his novel about the failed assassination of Hitler while leaving West as a character to sit as a silent shade in the background while the elderly Elizabeth chatters at him like a school girl). What is it all about this story of a once sexy now wilting old lady who'd written one famous book based on another famous book and how she goes about the planet provoking academics and religionists who wish only to praise and honor her? Is this about a fictional writer or is it about the author or what? Perhaps it is poetry.

With my curiosity at the highest pitch on having read the Lady Chandos letter - is this another invention [Elizabeth Chandos, Elizabeth Costello???] ???? - I Googled Chandos and found: "LETTER OF ELIZABETH, LADY CHANDOS, TO FRANCIS BACON, a brief new work by J.M. COETZEE

The Letter is a plea from Elizabeth Chandos written not long after a similar letter from her husband, also addressed to Francis Bacon. In her letter, she too tries to convey some idea of their growing estrangement from words and language.
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