Exploring the art of prose


Flesh and Blood Ideas in J.M. Coetzee’s ELIZABETH COSTELLO


By Maggie Kast •

When I’ve given a character my own thoughts on a subject close to my heart, I’ve heard critiques of my writing like, “Sounds authorial,” or, “Your character wouldn’t say that—those are your ideas.” Explication by an author can interrupt the fictional dream if not integrated into the story through character, motivation, diction, and other devices of fiction, all brought to life through sensory detail. J.M. Coetzee’s ninth book, Elizabeth Costello, published in 2003, tells the story of a well-known writer of that name. The book is structured as a series of eight lessons in which Elizabeth delivers lectures on topics including: realism, the novel, animal rights, and the problem of evil. Hermione Lee, writing in The Guardian, said the book was “more like a collection of propositions about belief, writing and humanity than a novel.” South African by birth, Coetzee is now a citizen of Australia. He is well-known as an advocate of animal rights, and gives these and other personal concerns to his character, Elizabeth. As readers we may ask: does the story invite us to enter the emotional as well as intellectual lives of the characters? As writers, we may look to a character like Elizabeth to teach us about the role of ideas in fiction.

Coetzee begins the book by speaking to the reader as the implied author, using a first-person, plural voice to tell us what he’s doing as he does it: “There is first of all the problem of the opening, how to get us from where we are . . . to the far bank.” Already we are in the land of metafiction, directed to look reflexively at the story’s journey. He introduces us to Elizabeth, a little frail at sixty-six, on her way to Altoona College in Pennsylvania to receive a large literary prize for which she must give a talk. She is accompanied by her son, John, without whom she could not have made the long trip from her home in Australia.

Now the point of view moves to John. We see, through his eyes, Elizabeth’s “old blue raincoat” and her “greasy, lifeless” hair. A digression on the role of details follows, using as example lines from Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. A castaway looks for his shipmates, and his abandonment is rendered with “[n]o large words, no despair, just hats and caps and shoes.” That sentence fragment itself is worth observing closely for the way the rhythm starts strong and weakens, losing hope as it goes: first three one-syllable words with equal stress, a sort of triple spondee, then a weaker anapest, then the list of three abandoned objects, dribbled onto the page by the connectives between them. Both the details and the rhythm with which they are rendered convey the emotion.

Elizabeth has not yet begun her talk on realism, but we have already experienced and analyzed the invention of such a story. We feel simultaneously the world-weariness of Elizabeth and the impatience of John. The implied author returns for the last time to discuss the project of the book, “Realism has never been comfortable with ideas . . .the notion of embodying turns out to be pivotal.” Ideas must flow from characters, their interests and their motivations. This may seem rudimentary to writers, but the dialogue between gut-level embodiment and the powers of reason expands over the course of the book to become a series of lessons about both writing and living.

A principal form of embodiment here and throughout the book is three-dimensional characterization, especially in the relationship between Elizabeth and John. She gives the lectures, but he is the listener, the one who deals with the audience’s reactions (often negative), and the one who tries (but does not really want) to understand her. On the one hand, he thinks of her as “a seal, an old, tired, circus seal” or “one of those large cats that pause as they eviscerate their victim . . .and give you a cold, yellow stare.” On the other, he considers her “a mouthpiece for the divine,” and “serves at her shrine, cleaning up after the turmoil of the holy day.” All of the book’s ideas are funneled through and shaped by the ambivalence of these and other flawed and complex characters, as inconsistent as people often are in real life.

In her first lecture, Elizabeth exposes the failure of realism in modern times. The word-mirror of the text used to give us the objects represented, she says, but now that mirror is broken. It may not seem helpful to writers to question a connection so vital as that between word and thing, but Elizabeth’s image of the broken mirror forces us to do just that, to consider the fragile and arbitrary nature of that connection.

Many writers have had moments when language seems worn out or used up. Gertrude Stein once complained that poetic words like “moon” no longer give one the moon. Linguist and philosopher Ferdinand de Saussure developed the science of semiotics from his recognition of the word-object disjuncture. Elizabeth’s questioning of the word-mirror helps us feel how her foundations shake as she travels halfway around the world to receive an award for work she does not consider her best and is reviled for the unpopular lectures she insists on giving.

In contrast, and in contradiction to the failure of realism, John and Elizabeth wait for an airplane after the talk and watch a woman eating popcorn. John thinks of the mashed corn and saliva in her mouth. He shudders, and so do we. His experience of Elizabeth becomes yet more embodied when she falls asleep on the airplane, head on his shoulder. He sees her nostrils, mouth and throat, and imagines what he can’t see. “No, he tells himself. That is not where I come from.” The technique of realistic narrative may be failing for Elizabeth, but John’s sensory perceptions have stolen the scene.

The two chapters called “Lives of the Animals” were first published as essays in a freestanding volume, raising the question of how essays can be embodied in fiction. Do we still find Elizabeth believable as she discourses on animal rights and, if so, how does Coetzee make us feel her passion on the subject? She invokes moral outrage, comparing the treatment of animals in “abattoirs, in trawlers, in laboratories” to the extermination of Jews in the concentration camps of the Third Reich, with special attention to the “collective sin” (Elizabeth’s words) of populations that chose to ignore what was happening in their own backyards. “By treating fellow human beings, beings created in the image of God,” she says, “like beasts, they had themselves become beasts.” She rejects the idea that reason is the defining human characteristic. “To thinking, cogitation,” she says, “I oppose fullness, embodiedness, the sensation of being a body with limbs. . .  [A]n animal—and we are all animals—is an embodied soul. To be full of being is to live as a body-soul. One name for the experience of full being is joy.” Now embodiment has evolved from a literary technique to a definition of sentient existence and its ecstatic celebration.

“Created in the image of God?” We may well ask what divinity is doing in a book by an avowed atheist author. Coetzee is clearly biblically and theologically literate. He treats lessons as testaments to questions of living. His knowledge and his attitude imply a spirituality that can’t be identified with a particular religious ideology, but his worldview is clearly embedded in the Judeo-Christian one, with Judaism’s understanding of the nephesh, the embodied and sentient soul (shared by animals), and Christianity’s incarnation, another word for embodiment.

Elizabeth speaks of God and her son speaks of gods, but that doesn’t make either of them so-called believers. Elizabeth questions the role of belief throughout the novel. “Belief may be no more,” she thinks, “than a source of energy, like a battery one clips onto an idea to make it run.” Considering animal slaughter, Elizabeth offers the disclaimer: “We may not believe in pollution or sin, but we believe in their psychic correlates.” When a listener asks if she is vegetarian from moral conviction, she responds, “It comes out of a desire to save my soul.”

For writers of fiction, belief has a special meaning. We don’t necessarily believe that our writing is historically accurate or true in the real world, but we know it must be believable. We seek verisimilitude, the appearance of reality, and sensory detail helps us achieve this. The book’s fearlessness in extending the conversation to include ultimate values and consequences should give courage to writers intimidated by current fashions of disaffection, anomie, and avoidance of God-language in fiction.

Back home in Australia, Elizabeth writes to her sister Blanche, now Catholic Sister Bridget, administrator of the Hospital of the Blessed Mary on the Hill, Marianhill, in rural Zululand. There, Sister Bridget cares for children with AIDS. The two debate the value of classical learning versus the love of Jesus. Elizabeth tells of her visit to one Mr. Phillips, a painter confined to his death bed in a nursing home, when she posed like a Greek goddess and let him gaze at her breasts.

She abandons her letter and goes on to reveal what she won’t tell her sister—that she went beyond posing to try to bring the dying painter’s sex to life with her hands and mouth. Searching for a name for what she did she tries on the Greek terms, eros, erotic love, and agape, unconditional love, often used to name God’s love for all creatures. Then she discards these Greek terms and settles on caritas, the Latin word Christians use equally for the unconditional love of God, for God’s love for creatures, and for unselfish acts of charity to a fellow human being. What could be a more fully embodied rendering of three kinds of love than Elizabeth’s selfless act and her reflection on it? Writers might hesitate to write so graphical a sex scene in the context of age and illness, to say nothing of the unsavory smells and touches that Coetzee includes, but these are the details that bring ideas to life in fiction.

As writers, we are sometimes advised to write what we know, but how often do we ask ourselves just what we believe—about life and death, for instance, or the value of art? Do stories and books serve a purpose? These are meaningful questions to ask frequently, for belief shifts with experience, whether once in a lifetime or three times a day. This is exactly what Elizabeth does in the last two parts of this novel. Earlier, she expressed doubt about what she believes, and now, at the end of her life, she faces the question head on. She arrives “At the Gate,” a sort of purgatory, and she struggles to prepare the statement of belief required for her to pass through the gate to the vaguely illuminated other side.

“Belief?” questions Elizabeth, meeting the guard at the gate. “Is that all? Not a statement of faith? What if I do not believe?” She opposes faith to belief in a way that has striking parallels to the dichotomy between reason and embodiment. One can believe in a proposition, a mission statement or a creed. One can proclaim a belief from a podium, shout it in the street or—like Elizabeth—suspect it’s just a motor attached to an idea. But one can be faithful to a god, a way of life, a person or a practice. Fidelity implies continuity of action, and only the body can act. Elizabeth tries to straddle this opposition when she reflects, “If in the end she believes in her books it is only belief in the sense that a carpenter believes in a sturdy table.”

After she has failed repeatedly to demonstrate belief to the judges, she remembers the frogs of the Dulgannon River of her childhood, who die during droughts and come back to life with the rains, a sort of resurrection. She is faithful to her experience of the frogs. Fidelity is her version of belief.

Each writer will have different answers for the guard at the gate, and many will face the most devastating possibility, hinted at from the beginning of the book: that words may fail to mirror the world. Then, regardless of what we believe, we will choke on our thoughts, deprived of words to express them. This experience can manifest as a form of writer’s block.

Elizabeth writes as  Lady Chandos in the book’s Postscript, an intertextual riff on “Letter of Lord Chandos to Lord Bacon,” by Hugo von Hoffmannsthal. Lord Chandos experienced such a loss in the letter. Elizabeth Chandos describes her own version of a similar event. She reaches for things but drowns in the metaphors she must use to name them. “[L]ike a contagion,” she says, “saying always one thing for another.” Elizabeth Chandos’s final plea is, “Save us,” echoing Elizabeth Costello’s hope that avoiding meat will save her soul.

Is Elizabeth Costello showing writers something that most already know and put into use? Perhaps, but Coetzee carries embodiment of ideas a step further than many. As he develops ideas in each lesson, he clothes them in flesh and blood, not merely as disguises but as life-giving incarnations. As the arguments expressed through the lessons accumulate, so do the scenic details, suggesting that fiction can include even complex and extended reflections, so long as the writer renders them through enriched and enlarged objective detail. Coetzee has folded both ideas and feelings into a novel, a capacious tour de force with room for brilliant thoughts as well as the humors and foibles of aging mothers, the irritations and fidelities of sons, and the souls of lions and tigers and dogs.

Elizabeth Costello shows us a way to express our own ideas in fiction, but only by digging deep into our minds and bodies and those of our characters. Every character needs a liver and heart, a gastrointestinal tract and the roller coaster of a sex life, just as we ourselves share all these aspects of human and animal life. Then we and our characters will be on equal footing, a pair of body-souls, and we can dialogue, comparing our innards with theirs and together throwing signs up onto the page, hoping the things they mirror will arrive with the words.


MAGGIE KAST is the author of The Crack Between the Worlds: A Dancer’s Memoir of Loss, Faith, and Family (Wipf and Stock) and a novel, A Free, Unsullied Land (Fomite Books). Side by Side but Never Face to Face, a novella plus stories, was recently published by Orison Books. Her stories have appeared in The Sun, Nimrod, Carve, Rosebud, and others, and her essays can be found in America, Image, Writer’s Chronicle, Fiction Writer’s ReviewThe Orison Anthology of Spiritual Writing, and elsewhere. She has won a Literary Award from the Illinois Arts Council and a prize in the Hackney Literary Contests. Two pieces were nominated for Pushcarts.