alienating ecstasies

Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee

In his last novel, Youth, J.M. Coetzee annihilated the pretensions to high literary art of a South African émigré in 60s London. It is a peculiarly desolating book, its narrator unsympathetic, a bland egoist who has made a fetish of chill perfection as only the truly mediocre can: “What more is required than a kind of stupid, insensitive doggedness, as lover, as writer, together with a readiness to fail and fail again?” He rejects even this, as he gives himself over to the joylessness and pointlessness of life. (The narrator 'John' is the John Coetzee who exists in the antiterra of the fiction, who didn't remain in South Africa and joined the northward diaspora of a generation of his peers.) Youth baffled critics when it first appeared – but the novel is at least comprehensible as a novel, even as the sensibility it portrays bores and dismays us. Elizabeth Costello is bound to mystify for quite different reasons.

Costello/Coetzee – a near-homonym, but it'd be unwise to identify this book's central figure too swiftly as the Nobel laureate en travesti. On the face of it, one might be inclined to suspect that the distinction between what happens when a writer jack-knifes into meta-fiction and simple exhaustion is a hard one to call. When novelists depart so decisively from the broad realist modes they once found so workable – even if, as with Coetzee, they have distressed the form with cold vigour – and begin slimming down, breaking up, modulating into the essay or the sermon, readerly patience risks a forfeit. Of course we're fairly accustomed by now to the enormous biddability of 'the novel', how freely it welcomes all sorts of formal abuse. It was always, at its historical high water mark, a polymorphous entity, bending itself to the urgencies of the moment. But what is Coetzee up to now?

Elizabeth Costello, author of The House on Eccles Street among other, unnamed works, is on the circuit. An Australian writer d'un certain age, she has surrendered herself to the half-light of late literary celebrity – the public lecture, the academic conference, the 'instructional' leisure cruise. She has become mere subject matter. A thousand and one doctoral dissertations probe her oeuvre. From the Ancrene Wisse to the Sunday supplements, she has given up the isolation, the essential detachment, of her craft, for the sphere of public argument and, most importantly, self-justification. Elizabeth Costello, the book, is framed as a series of lectures, delivered variously in Africa and Amsterdam. Coetzee calmly refuses us the consolations of 'plot', therefore such development as there is coheres in the person of Costello herself. Catechised by interviewers and audiences, she must lay bare the foundations of all that she has believed.

The first chapter slyly prods the principle of 'realism' itself, with a brief episode in which Costello attends an awards ceremony at an American college. The account interleaved with authorial self-questioning, this is Coetzee flirting with the playful instabilities of post-modernism. The old Barthesian chestnut is literalised, ironically: the Death of the Author melts into the possible imminence of Costello's death. The post-structuralists missed a trick, by never factoring in the Bone-Weariness of the Author, or the Author's Desire simply to be Left Alone. On this occasion she is accompanied by her son John and we see her, in the episode alone, through his eyes. He is appalled by and pities her frailty and bewilderment. He bridles bitterly at the difference between how she, the great post-colonial writer, is regarded by the world and how, uniquely placed as he was, he couldn't assent to the ideal. “What is the truth of his mother? He does not know, and at the deepest level does not want to know.”

Had this been a manifesto pure and simple, and not refracted through the consciousness of a fictional character, nothing of Costello's incoherence as a thinker, her spasms of doubt, would have quite the 'truth-value' they actually possess. Had Coetzee sat down and straightforwardly executed a piece of discursive prose, nothing of the drama of Costello's self-exposition – the vulnerability of it – would have transmitted itself to the page.

One of the most arresting of these 'eight lessons' begins with a raw, involuntary act of practical criticism – Elizabeth Costello has read Paul West's novel The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg (a real book, by a real author, as it happens..) and experiences what can least inadequately be described as a negative epiphany:

Obscene! she wanted to cry but did not cry because she did not know at whom the word should be flung: at herself, at West, at the committee of angels that watches impassively over all that passes. Obscene because such things ought not to take place, and then obscene again because having taken place they ought not to be brought into the light but covered up and hidden for ever in the bowels of the earth, like what goes on in the slaughterhouses of the world, if one wishes to save one's sanity.

Her outrage defies articulation. Indeed, though the tenor of the book is very much in a 'confessional' mode, it is as much concerned with the moment in a reflective person's life when their ideas finally no longer admit of expression in a familiar conceptual framework. Received wisdom has its uses, not least in realm of social interaction – it can grease the wheels, makes us intelligible to one another. But Costello has no need of such hedging anymore. Much of Coetzee's book is precisely about the failure to communicate spiritual emergencies, the inadequacy of any but a closed private language to convey the ethical pulse that flows along the heart and in the blood. How can one address such matters as are set forth in West's novel, without taint? How does a writer enter the abattoir, describe what he finds there, without some stealthy contamination, ruinous to the soul? Denying ourselves the concept of Original Sin, how account for human depravity?
On each of her speaking appointments Costello encounters hostility or indifference. Her eccentric passion bears her into a terra incognita through which her audiences are unwilling to be led. Voiced, her opinions lend her a crankish air. What convictions burn within her, when spoken become leaden and dim. She approaches Paul West at the Amsterdam conference on the Problem of Evil, declares that she will not apologize for the fact that her talk would be addressed directly to him – she hadn't known West would be present when she wrote the piece. West stares past her into the distance as she speaks. He does not reply. Again, Costello receives the rebuff of incomprehension. She must always retire to her own unmanageable thoughts, to an unending conversation with the self. “There ought to be an arrangement such that she bumps into someone in the corridor, perhaps Paul West himself; something should pass between them, sudden as lightning, that will illuminate the landscape for her, even if afterwards it returns to its native darkness. But the corridor, it seems, is empty.” Faintly outlined in her fractured discussions of literary art is an aesthetics of decency – one grossly flouted by Paul West, when he ventured into the cellar where the Stauffenberg conspirators were tortured and put to death. Elizabeth Costello, reflecting on the cruelty in the world around her, wonders if perhaps the novelist might do better to draw back from atrocity.

This tortured farrago of argument concludes oddly, with a strange non sequitur that doesn't quite succeed as a capstone to all that has come before. Coetzee has added a postscript, authored by an Elizabeth not the one known to us through the pages of this book. A brief letter by Elizabeth, Lady Chandos to Francis Bacon – its prose quivers and quails with the anxiety of missaying, and the breaking of the estate, in James Wood's terms, between language and being. “Drowning, we [both Lord and Lady Chandos, corresponding with Bacon] write out of our separate fates. Save us.” They turned, each in their alienating ecstasies, to the great essayist and statesman, philosopher of scientific empiricism, for whom the universe can be known. An eloquent but finally defeated rapturist, Lady Chandos ends with the subscription and the, to us, talismanic date: “Your Obedient Servant/Elizabeth C./This 11 September, AD 1603.”

Coetzee has produced a novel of ideas, a sly, profound roman à thèse which nevertheless is thrillingly self-subverting: the 'ideas' are themselves deformed, contradictory or unpalatable. To believe, to cleave to principle, is a matter of absolute risk. To engage utterly with a moral universe that played host to Auschwitz and Kolyma might after all be to imperil one's soul. Elizabeth Costello dramatises the radical problem of liberal humanism in the 20th century – how far must we reconstitute the suffering of others before we can justly speak of it and act upon it? And where does it end?

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