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.
what’s it like to be a corpse?