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From the October, 2004
issue of Touchstone

 

Intriguing Lessons by Peter J. Leithart

Intriguing Lessons

Elizabeth Costello
by J. M. Coetzee
Viking, 2003
(230 pages; $21.95, hardcover)

reviewed by Peter J. Leithart

J. M. Coetzee won the Nobel Prize for literature last year on the strength of nearly a dozen novels, collections of essays, and other writings. His writing is spare, crystalline, precise, and unsentimental.

The plot of one of his best-known works, Disgrace, turns on the rape of Lucy Lurie, a young South African woman who is running a farm in the countryside, a rape that takes place while her father is pathetically locked in the bathroom helpless to intervene. Coetzee handles this scene with understated mastery of a kind that only enhances its horror. He then deepens our disquiet by bringing one of the rapists back into the story as the cousin of Petrus, who helps Lucy on the farm.

Deftly and with great subtlety, Coetzee turns the incident into a virtual allegory of post-apartheid South Africa, raising the uncomfortable question: Must whites submit to unpunished rape as the cost of remaining? One would hardly anthologize that chapter, but for me it is one of the best examples of Coetzee’s gifts as a writer.

David Lurie, Lucy’s father, is an academic whose affair with a student is the “disgrace” of the title. Coetzee uses that setting to offer an incisive glimpse into the scandal-mongering of the press and to raise questions about the academic life. That last theme plays a prominent role in Elizabeth Costello, the latest of his novels. Part fiction and part essay, the novel also crosses the genres of his work.

Coetzee’s Lessons

Elizabeth Costello is a 67-year-old novelist whose fame rests largely on her first novel, a telling of James Joyce’s Ulysses from the perspective of Molly Bloom, entitled The House on Eccles Street. She is in the waning years of her career, and has taken to the lecture circuit. Each chapter of this somewhat picaresque novel—they are called “Lessons”—describes one of these lectures, setting a scene and telling a story, and including lengthy excerpts from the lecture itself. In the course of these “lessons,” Coetzee addresses questions about animal rights (which has become a passion for Elizabeth), the contest of Hebrews and Hellenists, the ethics of writing, African fiction, and erotic love.

One of the most intriguing lessons occurs when Costello is invited to give a lecture at the Free University of Amsterdam on “Witness, Silence, and Censorship.” Though reluctant to speak on such topics, she accepts largely because of the emotional turmoil generated by reading an account by a Paul West concerning the execution of the men who plotted Hitler’s assassination. The scene so wounded her that she wants to talk about the dangers of writing about what should be obscene, “off-scene.” She composes a lecture that includes a sustained assault on Paul West’s book.

The lecture itself is worth reading for the questions it raises about the contemporary insistence on stripping every veil and exposing every evil. But the lecture is made more powerful and poignant, not to mention grimly humorous, by the fact that Paul West happens to be a speaker at the same conference. After a night of soul-searching and attempted revisions (self-censorship), Costello decides to give the lecture as is, even though West is sitting in the audience.

After the lecture, in which Costello did everything but claim that West had formed a pact with Satan, West offers no challenge or response, but calmly goes out for a cup of coffee, leaving Elizabeth to run off to the ladies’ room and lock herself in a stall, trying to figure out why West’s book had felt to her like the brush of Satan’s leathery wing.

In the final lesson, Costello dies and finds herself in a Kafkaesque afterlife where she is forced to write an essay on what she believes before she can gain access to her eternal home. She at first tries to argue that beliefs are a professional obstacle for a writer, that she merely tells what she sees, and believing would distort her vision. After revising her essay several times, she comes to recognize the “fidelities” she has as a writer.

Coetzee is not a writer to give answers. He is, to use Mikhail Bakhtin’s phrase, a polyphonic writer, who gives each melody line a fair hearing. The debate between Elizabeth and her sister Blanche, a nun working with sick children, concerning the relative value of Athens and Jerusalem is lively but inconclusive.

Yet, Coetzee does not shirk the questions, or reduce the questions to simplistic formulae. This clarity about the questions is a sign of Coetzee’s skill as both a thinker and a writer. More importantly for him, I suspect, this clarity and courage is a sign of his fidelity.


Peter J. Leithart is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and teaches theology and literature at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho. He is the author of Ascent to Love: A Guide to Dante's Divine Comedy and Against Christianity (both from Canon Press). He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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