- 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 0.8 x 7.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 78 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #143,139 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Elizabeth Costello: Fiction Reprint Edition
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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.
Top customer reviews
In lesson one, for example, an old and exhausted Elizabeth discusses her métier, which is liberating secondary characters from great novels written by men. And as she presents her paper on this subject, she works to maintain her old-lady novelist's image while her son, her acolyte at the conference, gets a little sex on the side. In contrast, lesson two features an African writer who challenges the realism of Western masterpieces while he turns academic presentations into mere shtick. There is sex, once again exploitive. But this time, it elicits resentment.
Anyway, this is the technique. Sometimes, the connection between lessons is Elizabeth, a dull and slightly eccentric presenter, while the conference subject shifts from literature to animal rights and the holocaust. Other times, themes, such as literary history or the brutality of existence, make the primary connection between lessons while Elizabeth slips to the periphery. Altogether, this technique generates a subtle and involving literary machine, written with Coetzee's usual diamond-hard prose. And in this way, Coetzee is able to backtrack and reexamine his issues, adding nuance and depth to his concerns with sex, brutality, moral blindness, responsibility, and making a living.
In his last two lessons and postscript, Coetzee then turns matters inside out. Through lesson six, sex is basically a physical experience with partners fighting for the upper hand. But in lesson seven and the postscript, Coetzee makes sex paramount and either ethereal or mystical. Meanwhile, the scholarly presentations, which are told in realistic fashion in the first six lessons, become Kafkaesque in lesson eight, where Elizabeth explores what she believes. These last chapters are a stylistic twist and add depth to the book.
I've read several novels by Coetzee. IMHO, his best novels place imperfect people in situations where their pathetic existence represents a moral failure in their culture (Life and Times of Michael K: A Novel). Or his imperfect characters make painful moral choices that they know will have zero worldly consequence (Waiting for the Barbarians: A Novel (Penguin Ink) (The Penguin Ink Series), (Age of Iron). But in ELIZABETH COSTELLO, Coetzee turns down the heat, since Elizabeth, aware of moral issues, is, well, sort of coasting to acclaim in a privileged academic world.
ELIZABETH COSTELLO is an intriguing puzzle and the work of a master stylist. And I found the character Elizabeth to be highly sympathetic, even though she can be inconstant, obsessive, and apocalyptic. Regardless, presentations by Elizabeth and her peers, which are both grand and subtle, are probably most appreciated by those who enjoy hair-splitting distinctions across a banquet table.
Ms. Costello gets into trouble because of one lecture when she equates the Holocaust with the modern day slaughter of "innocent" animals. "She had spoken on that occasion on what she saw and still sees as the enslavement of whole animal populations. A slave: a being whose life and death are in the hands of another. What else are cattle, sheep, poultry? The death camps would not have been dreamed up without the example of the meat-processing plants before them." I doubt that many Holocaust survivors would agree with this analogy.
An extremely complex character, Ms. Costello has qualities that are endearing. She makes a most unselfish offer to a dying man for example. Her account of her first encounter with pure evil is moving as well. A humanist, she also discusses with her rigid Catholic sister-- who is a Sister-- why she believes a living Christ makes much more sense than a dying one. She does not have a systematic philosophy. She doesn't have to; she is a mere teller of tales. The final chapter, "At The Gate", is in the tradition of and as good as anything Kafka wrote.
ELIABETH COSTELLO is a strange though beautifully written novel and very different from what Mr. Coetzee usually writes-- or at least those novels of his I have read-- but I found it altogether intriguing. Mr. Coetzee's view of the universe is dark; but, after all, we do live in a world that has produced its share of Hitlers and Stalins and Saddam Husseins.
This is also a book about a woman's slow slide into apathy and death. Everywhere Elizabeth goes, she wishes she was somewhere else. When she gives lectures, her primary motivation is to get past them, and back to the safety of her room. She has become jaded, exhausted, and constantly reminds herself of her age.
The end of the book, for me, was an utter waste of time. Costello finds herself before a gate, although it is definitely not pearly. There, and in a courtroom, she argues for the right not to believe in anything, but eventually finds something to believe in. At least she thinks she might. Or at least she can feign some passion. Whatever...
Thus, if you like equivocation, large doses of apathy, mixed with a few deep thoughts, this is your book.