Coetzee's `Costello': imitation of belief

October 19, 2003|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Elizabeth Costello, by J.M. Coetzee. Viking. 233 pages. $21.95.

Elizabeth Costello, Nobel Prize-winning South African novelist J. M. Coetzee's brilliant new novel, burns with passionate indignation. Out of the wilderness of history, Nazis stalk this book, as does the Gulag, as does the unending suffering of all creatures - bats and dogs and apes and men.

The curtain rises with a revisiting of Franz Kafka's defining parable, "Before the Law," and Coetzee's central character, a white-haired, aging novelist named Elizabeth Costello, stands before a tribunal unable to offer a set of the moral convictions that alone would catapult her through the gate of eternity.

Rather than chapters, there are "lessons," eight in all. Elizabeth gives lectures at a university in America, at an Amsterdam conference, aboard a cruise ship. She wrestles with the question of "why there is evil in the world, what if anything can be done about it." As in Disgrace, his second Booker Prize-winning novel, Coetzee locates history's legacy of cruelty and degradation in the slaughter of animals, which Elizabeth, to the chagrin of her Jewish adversaries, likens to the Nazi Holocaust. (Commentary magazine condemns her for trivializing the Holocaust.)

Coetzee discovers the human in the capacity to imagine the life of another, as Elizabeth did in her most famous novel, The House on Eccles Street, in which she re-creates Mario Bloom, James Joyce's fictional character. She urges that others "think their way into the existence of a bat, or a chimpanzee or an oyster, any being with whom I share the substrate of life." Moral outrage fuels this narrative, as plot, like life, has run its literary course. Instead, Coetzee reanimates literary works, here Gulliver's Travels. (Earlier, in Foe, he re-imagined Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.)

His trajectory is toward a transcendence of reason, and the study of the humanities in particular, which have yielded so little light, such scant response to history's violations. Man, Elizabeth Costello says, has stood, finally, for nothing more than "physical force." Her sister Blanche, a nun in Zululand, blames "the monster of reason, mechanical reason" for the justifications of brutality for which the Hellenic model of sensuality and beauty offers neither consolation nor remedy.

If Lesson 1 pondered "realism," by the end realism has vanished for good. Allegory and parable have assumed its place as the judge demands of Elizabeth that she declare in what she believes. If I am reading him correctly, Coetzee refuses his character the "exemption" she requests.

She can offer "an imitation of belief," Elizabeth says. Coetzee himself does better.

In his exposures of the ruthless history of the inhumane in this and other novels (see Waiting for the Barbarians and his first Booker Prize winner, Life & Times of Michael K), he has been far more than "a secretary of the invisible." Writers, Coetzee suggests, would do well to attend to the judge's litany: "Atrocities take place, ... violations of innocent children. The extermination of whole peoples." Writers, like other citizens, must respond.

How else might one honor the sanctity of creation, "these dumb and in some cases inanimate creatures" evoked by Hugo von Hofmannsthal in an epigraph Coetzee places near the end of the novel, creatures that "press toward me with such fullness, such presence of love, that there is nothing in range of my rapturous eye that does not have life." Coetzee's "black thoughts" recede in the postscript, a letter ostensibly written in 1603 to Francis Bacon, offering a vision where "each creature is key to all other creatures," a cry as yet unheard.

Joan Mellen teaches in the graduate program in creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia. The latest of her 15 books, A Farewell to Justice, an account of Jim Garrison's investigation into the murder of President John F. Kennedy, will be published this winter.

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