25 July 2006

Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee

As a baby academic who studies literature, I am highly intrigued by the way in which the creators of the works that I love so much understand the world, and their own art. I love to listen to artists discuss their work. A lot of artists despise academics and openly describe them as clueless jerks. The ones that don’t are sometimes worse; they try to dress up their own work in unfamiliar analytical language, cramming it into incredibly dull intellectual boxes or solipsistic whining. What I love, when listening to artists, is the opportunity to see a different way of approaching the world, a mode of expressing something that defies rational everyday language. I think Derrida somewhere wrote that all literary criticism aspires to be the text itself; after all, we’re trying to elucidate something within the text, but in a different way, and perhaps we’re always struggling with the knowledge that the text has already said it, and said it better, and more elegantly? But what I find, in the best lectures, essays, etc by writers or artists, is a curious way of looking at the world, of making observations, rather than arguments. It’s a sort of aesthetic apprehension of the real, that at first blush seems somehow superficial, but, it seems to me, is every bit as true. It’s sort of like the idea behind the essay, a genre that allows itself to be an aesthetic contemplation of a given object, freed from the rigors of analytical thought. This freedom at times leads to garbage, at times to brilliance.

What is fascinating about Elizabeth Costello is that it is precisely an exploration of this mode of thinking and reasoning. The novel is actually a sort of collection of public lectures, or rather appearances, of the main character, Elizabeth Costello, a novelist. It’s interesting, because the book doesn’t necessarily endorse her arguments – it presents plenty of critiques of them, in the form of questions from the audience, or complaints of people around her. Likewise, there are lectures given by others, and her thoughts about them. She repeatedly states that she is not an academic, and indeed, despite being extremely well-read and quite intelligent, some of her arguments are vaguely offensive to reason (most especially when she argues against reason itself). All the same, a lot of her ideas are interesting – food for thought, at very least. What’s nice about the book is that it gives the lectures (although often abridged) and also gives us her thoughts about the lectures, the topics, as well as her memories, experiences, etc. It’s as though these thoughts were being situated, fleshed out.

The only real objection that I have to the book is its casual hatred of Poles. Although one could argue that Coetzee himself isn’t endorsing this view, that it belongs in the same category as Elizabeth’s sometimes offensive reflections about the Holocaust (she compares the deaths of the Holocaust to the deaths of animals slaughtered for meat), it’s not questioned in the text in the same way that her other ideas are. Nobody in the audience stands up and says, “Hey, not all the Poles were complicit, the camps were built in Poland NOT because Poles wanted them there, but because Poland was occupied by Germans, and had the largest Jewish population in Europe – it was at least partly a matter of convenience.” Unlike many of Costello’s ideas, which the text seems to make a point of holding up to scrutiny, this casual attack slips by unnoticed, even though it appears repeatedly in the text. It’s not that I object to the claim that plenty of Poles were horrifying anti-Semites and did some atrocious things – it’s that I object to that being the only thing said, without providing the rest of the story. Particularly because it’s such a complex story, and because I can’t shake the feeling that the reason that the story is so one-sided when it comes to Poland has a lot to do with the fact that while the world had to find a way to forgive the sins of Germany, France, etc, Poland was safely behind the Iron Curtain for years and could comfortably become the scapegoat. Elizabeth, for instance, nicknames a Polish woman she meets Kapo (only in her head) – purely because she’s Polish. Imagine the shitstorm that would ensue if someone made the same claim about a German character, or a French one.

Still though, it’s a good book.

1 comment:

Erdem Banak said...

As far as I know those lectures also belong to Coetzee. Both of those resources (one of them is unluckily a wiki page) say something similar; for example the lecture about animal rights was delivered in Princeton (in Wood).

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v25/n20/james-wood/a-frogs-life
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Costello

That is the reason why I really liked the book. The relationship between Coetzee and Costello gets blurry. Your first paragraph really sums up why I liked it. I have read this about 2-3 years before, I don't recall any of the lectures, just some main points. Still I remember the feeling of excitement; it was like someone was trying to think in front of me.

In the end, really good review. By the way, it looks like you don't have a comment on the book in your goodreads account.