An Irrelevant Woman?: On Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello

J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello
Viking, 2003
233 pages

It is hard to warm up to Elizabeth Costello, the main protagonist in J. M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello. The fact that Coetzee titled this novel Elizabeth Costello suggests that we are meant to pay attention to her. Yet, how do we pay close attention to a woman who is somewhat cold, patronizing, often unpleasant, and, dare I say it, irrelevant? Perhaps the point is not to warm up to her. There is no written or unwritten rule which states that readers have to like main protagonists. Elizabeth Costello is neither a nurturing mother nor a caring sister. What she is is a strong and opinionated older woman who can intellectually spar with the best of them and this is something that the academic characters in the book seem to resent. Elizabeth Costello is the quintessential “detached observer” making her own path in a world dominated by male authority and voice.

Having said that, Elizabeth Costello, the novel, may be read as a fascinating and provocative look at how we treat revered aging people in the west. While reading this novel I was immediately reminded of Mickey Sabbath, Phillip Roth’s immoral protagonist in Sabbath’s Theater. Now having spent some weeks away from the book I have come to realize that Elizabeth Costello is more like a female King Lear. The message linking the two works is the same: when one reaches a certain age we begin to fall into irrelevancy. The cold hard truth is that no one wants us around when we’re old.

Coetzee sets the tone quite early: “Elizabeth Costello is a writer, born in 1928, which makes her sixty-six years old, going on sixty-seven. She has written nine novels, two books of poems, a book on bird life, and a body of journalism. By birth she is Australian. She was born in Melbourne and still lives there, though she spent the years 1951-1963 abroad, in England and France. She has been married twice. She has two children, one by each marriage.” So there we have her, all neat and tidy. We are introduced to Elizabeth through a CV-like summation. The rest is filler. Which translates to mean that life may be filler for what we are on paper.

I suspect that the cold detachment running throughout this book is Coetzee wondering about his own mortality and relevance. Like a lot of Coetzee’s books the protagonist can be read as a distant relative, or shadow of the author himself. He need not have worried since he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. Yet, interestingly enough, Elizabeth Costello has been absent from best seller lists.

There is a lot of Italo Calvino’s 1983 novel Mr. Palomar in Elizabeth Costello. Both books are named after their main protagonists. Both books deal with detachment and irrelevancy. Perhaps we should read Elizabeth Costello as the female counterpart to Mr. Palomar. Likewise, I hear a lot of Calvino in Coetzee’s voice.

Elizabeth Costello is divided into eight chapters, called “Lessons” by Coetzee, as well as a postscript. Most of the chapters were either previously published as essays, or given as lectures by Coetzee at various universities around the globe. Each chapter deals with a certain episodic event in the life of the protagonist. The last “Lesson,” titled “At the Gate” constitutes a Kafkaesque (Costello is preoccupied with Franz Kafka) situation told in dream-like patterns. For this reader it was by far the most powerful chapter. What “lesson” I am supposed to take from it remains a mystery. Yet the writing is some of Coetzee’s finest to date.

We should be thinking of old age while reading this book. We should be thinking about generational differences and failures to communicate. But most of all we should be thinking about what a great story Elizabeth Costello is without being the least bit self-conscious.


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