Elizabeth Costello is a serious character. I didn’t realize this when I first picked up the fourth book in my book project, named after said character, and written by J.M. Coetzee. In fact, I didn’t know anything about the book at all. I picked it up on a whim one day, on a lark, if you will, after having carted this slim book around for years.
When was I supposed to read this book? Undergrad however many years ago? Grad school? During my academic years, it was not like me to let an assigned book go unread, no matter how boring the book seemed, or how busy I was at the time. Suffice it to say, something happened and this book went unread until 2012. I chalk it up to picking this book up extraneously in the campus book store.
The blurb on the back of the book gave no indication as to what Elizabeth Costello would be about, but I went ahead anyway. I’ve never had such an experience before with a book as when reading Elizabeth Costello. I knew immediately that I did not like Elizabeth’s son or his wife, but I’m not sure how much I liked Elizabeth either. But it was more than that. I knew I was reading something complex, something serious, something that demanded the exigencies of analysis and literary criticism to fully enjoy.
Elizabeth Costello is a woman who gained her fame by writing one book in the voice of Molly Bloom, a character from Ulysses. (You can listen to Kate Bush’s song “Flower of the Mountain,” which uses a soliloquy of Molly Bloom’s in the lyrics.) During her career she has written other works, but her fame is forever anchored to this piece despite her interest in other intellectual pursuits. She is asked to speak at various functions but she speaks not about Molly Bloom as her hosts would wish, but rather animals, animal cruelty and animal philosophy–much to the discomfort and downright anger of her hosts and audiences. Susan Moebius, who wrote a book about Elizabeth remarks, “Elizabeth Costello has been a key writer for our times. My book isn’t about her alone, but she figures strongly in it” (22). Susan means other moments in time, other people as influencers are represented in her book, but she says this defensively to Elizabeth’s son. I think her remark captures the relationship Elizabeth now has with herself as a writer–she’s there, she has an influence on something, but it’s not really about her anymore.
I remarked to a few friends that I was reading this book. Mostly with the reaction of, “ooohhh, good luck” inferred. One friend commented that Coetzee is a “writer’s writer.” Truer words. He weaves philosophy, writings of actual writers (Kafka, Ted Hughes, Descartes, Kant [of whom, in regards to why we philosophically choose to treat animals well, Elizabeth “would have expected better” (67)], Jonathan Swift), and the intellectual preoccupations of academics in his book.
Now, the most important question: Would I recommend Elizabeth Costello* ? and**
Elizabeth Costello is a serious character because Coetzee is a serious person. I mean, wow. Check out Coetzee giving his 2003 Nobel Lecture where he literally takes off his “everyday” eyeglasses, puts them in his pocket, and pulls out his “reading” glasses and doesn’t even make a joke about this ridiculous process. And that he doesn’t make a joke about his superfluous number of eyeglasses is pretty much the funniest thing that happens during this speech. More, read Jonathan Dee’s NYT book review of Coetzee’s biography. (After reading the review of his biography, which seems to be a pretty amazing read, my reaction? Eesh…)
I’d recommend Coetzee if you appreciate literature qua literature, if you appreciate super serious, amazingly presented writing. This is not beach reading, this is not escapism. This is take out some paper, wax literary reading. Reading this book made me feel pretty garsh-darned smart, so if you are looking for any of these experiences, read this book.
* Other books in the book project, many of which I talk about a lot more than Elizabeth.
** This book is so serious. (I mean, did you notice the length of this post?) I almost didn’t use any asterisks. Thank goodness for shameless self-promotion.