what’s it like to be a corpse?

Although I’m a great admirer of J.M. Coetzee, and count Disgrace, Waiting for the Barbarians, and Diary of a Bad Year among my favorite books, Elizabeth Costello is a very odd and curious affair. The novel is a series formal presentations slapped together by a thin mixture of narrative mortar. The tone is learned and erudite. I suppose you wouldn’t expect anything less from lectures, monologues, and seminars on such issues as literary realism, vegetarianism and the horrors of the “industrialization … and commodification of animal flesh,” as well as the novel and the humanities in Africa, and the problem of evil, that is, the danger of reading and writing about the prohibited, the obscene. If it’s true that the novel is a “form of writing that is formless, that has no rules, that makes up its rules as it goes along,” then Coetzee creates for himself at least one rule that I want to hold him accountable to. In a lecture at a university, a slightly befuddled Elizabeth Costello attributes to the poet and novelist the power of inhabiting other modes of being, a bat, an ape, a jaguar, and even a corpse. Unlike the philosopher, the poet-novelist evokes an individual life, say, the life of a jaguar, through words. Not the idea of a jaguar. Not an abstraction. But the concrete universal, i.e., “the jaguarness embodied in this jaguar.” These are Coetzee’s words, not mine. Alright, then, what is it like to be a sad, lonely, 66-year old novelist? We catch glimpses of her tearful face and her strained relations with her son and daughter-in-law, with journalists and professors, and with other writers, to boot. But only glimpses. We never catch the Elizabeth Costelloness embodied in this Elizabeth Costello. She doesn’t twitch with novelistic vitality. Instead, she struggles to emerge from Coetzee’s cold, hard expository marble. An unfinished torso.

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7 Responses to what’s it like to be a corpse?

  1. Richard says:

    Despite some of what you say here, Kevin, you and Coetzee have my full attention with both your post title AND your description of the emergent unfinished-ness (sic, on my part) of this book. I haven’t read Coetzee before, though, so maybe this isn’t the best place for me to start. Do you have a personal favorite by the author among the ones you mentioned or is that a three way tie for the top honors?

    • The top three are so very different: Waiting for the Barbarians is a splendid allegory; Disgrace, a gleaming, highly polished diamond that cuts; and Diary of a Bad Year, a formally inventive triptych that succeeds precisely where E. Costello fails, i.e., blending expository and narrative styles seamlessly. However, if I were to reread one today, it would be Disgrace.

  2. I think the idea of the “unfinished torso” is right on here, though I think it is unfinished by design. Costello (and Coetzee for that matter) is so aware of her personhood that it inhibits her ability to be. What would happen if a naked marble statue suddenly realized its statueness? Withdrawal, escape, and avoidance. This novel seems to me to be as much about this as anything else. I think it’s even more revealing of Coetzee than his allegedly “biographical” books.

    • Hi Ape, it’s been 9 months since you’ve last commented here! Shame on you. I’ve had a baby in that time, almost literally. Costello doesn’t strike me as an inhibited person. She does what she says and she says what she does, even at the risk of being called an anti-Semite. Although she’s not inhibited, she’s slightly misaligned, even unhinged, owing perhaps to the awareness of her own mortality, or to the fact that very few people share her convictions. In any event, she’s not at home in the world at the moment. She’s lost. That’s fine and well. What’s really vexing is that Coetzee’s expository style in the formal addresses infects his narrative style, to such an extent that we’re often only left with the disembodied exchange of ideas, as we routinely see in her various “debates” with her son, sister, former lover, etc. Now if this choice is by design, it’s a very bad choice, indeed.

      Best,
      Kevin (an Ape lover)

  3. Colleen says:

    Damn, that’s a good review. You humble me. Coetzee simply irritates me.

  4. Richard, Ape, and now you, today I’ve bagged my holy trinity!

  5. Good points Kevin. When I think of the Coetzees I’ve read, this is the one that I stumble most on. In some ways it seems like it’s laying the ground for Diary, in terms of playing with the novelistic form. It is more a novel of ideas isn’t it … and that makes it a challenge and interesting to read.

    I take your point that if you, perhaps, preach something you should also practise it. And yet, I thought we did get a lot of EC’s character – acerbic, doubtful, prickly – at a particular point in time when she is confronting her life. (It has been several years since I’ve read it though …)

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