Thursday, October 18, 2012

Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee

What is the right way to live?

Well, she's always stepping in it, isn't she, Elizabeth Costello.  She is unable not to intrude on other people's comforting illusions and must always speak the truth.

Elizabeth Costello is a cranky old Australian writer who travels the world, speaking at various conferences, and always on topics she feels strongly about. This is a novel of ideas which gives extremely short shrift to the novel part.   Reading the book was an intense emotional experience, but is it even a novel? Yes, I believe it is, for even though there is a very sketchy plot (basically an extended travel itinerary -- final destination Limbo), there is in fact one key novelistic element. That is, a main character. Elizabeth Costello is depicted as a passionate hurting human being. A person who keeps screwing up but keeps charging into battle. The square peg in the round hole. You root for her. She is just trying to do the right thing, even as she accepts the freebie cruise and the rubber chicken and the big check.

The structure of the book is a series of lectures, lectures which apparently Coetzee has in fact given. (Again, is this a novel?)  The lectures are highly interesting and I had to keep putting the book down, not because I was bored, but because I was overwhelmed and had to keep putting it down to think. What is evil? Is it the mindless munching on other sentient beings, their cruel profitable industrialized transformation into protein? Is it a novelist exploiting humans' intrinsic desire to witness depravity, or should a respectful curtain be drawn over literary depictions of evil and suffering? Should life be approached in a religious posture or a humanist posture? They both are a "quest for salvation."

Is the novelist an entertainer for the wealthy rich, or a moral teacher? (Hint - you make more money as an entertainer.)

The book did stop me from eating meat, at least for a day or two.



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