Lone Star Laureate?
BY PETER LASALLE
Elizabeth CostelloBy J.M. CoetzeeViking230 pages, $21.95
n case you haven’t heard, South African novelist J. M. Coetzee—the winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in literature and author of this new book Elizabeth Costello—has a bona fide Texas connection. He holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Texas, coming to Austin in the sixties as a naive white Afrikaner on a fellowship and thoroughly savoring his several years of study. Or that’s the way he described it in a rather nostalgic essay on the experience that appeared in The New York Times Book Review not too long ago. In 1995 he returned to the university as a visiting professor under the auspices of the English Department. He taught, to much student praise, a graduate creative writing workshop and a literature seminar.
Actually, I found it no surprise that a couple of Texas newspapers picked up on the connection and ran longish, staff-written features on him. I mean, a Nobel Prize in literature is rare and major, a significant anointing. Scouring my own mind for Lone Star links with past winners, I came up only with items like brief mentions of the state in Faulkner (Texas is seen as a sort of an uncharted badland that Mississippians on the run flee to) and Hemingway (more benevolent, with a battle-weary American abroad dreaming of one day forgetting all war and maybe living in the sweet, peaceful town of Corpus Christi); there’s also a hilarious stretch in a Saul Bellow short story where a Chicago intellectual visits his businessman brother now transplanted with his wife to the state, making big money, living in a garishly sprawling modern suburban home, and raising crazed pit bulls as a hobby. Anyway, with Coetzee, Texas can at last legitimately claim, yes, some valid echo of this honor.
And it is an honor that probably anybody who has read Coetzee carefully over the last 30 years sensed was inevitable. He has created a body of fiction of the highest artistic integrity, both in a willingness to take on complex moral issues and in the sheer craft of the narration, often with risk-taking structural innovation. Novels like Waiting for the Barbarians, Life & Times of Michael K., and Age of Iron probe the shadowy matters of relationships between the colonizer and colonized, the established and the disenfranchised. The setting can be a South Africa haunted by strife, though in the best of these, the tour de force Waiting for the Barbarians, he avoids naming the landscape altogether and prefers to render a territory timelessly mythic in the lack of specifics, universal. Novels like The Master of Petersburg, about Dostoevsky during a period of deep sorrow, and Foe, which revisits with fresh textual twists Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, explore questions more literary; in the latter, Coetzee’s usual graceful yet unadorned prose turns nothing short of memorably baroque in spots, good evidence of a wide verbal range. Coetzee has addressed his own South African past in a somewhat fictionalized autobiography, Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, and most critics agreed that his recent 1999 Booker Prize novel Disgrace marked a definite decision to confront the current post-apartheid state of the country frankly and very realistically; there, a complacent white British literature professor, fired for a sexual relationship with a student, struggles with huge changes in his own life and also his native South Africa.
Elizabeth Costello is definitely a novel, though the jacket simply labels it “Fiction.” It is an odd book, one that provides a conglomerate of many of Coetzee’s concerns. The protagonist is an aging, reflective Australian who once wrote a celebrated novel about James Joyce’s Molly Bloom called The House on Eccles Street; she now finds herself quite emotionally untethered in what should be her comfortable later years. Endlessly being invited to lecture, she travels the world to attend symposia and other events and deliver opinions on the many large subjects that still intrigue her even if she has never come close to completely figuring them out. The chapter titles provide ready summary of the topics examined by Elizabeth in the lectures themselves (generously excerpted in the novel) and otherwise: “Realism”; “The Novel in Africa”; “The Lives of Animals”; “The Humanities in Africa”; “The Problem of Evil”; “Eros”; and towards the conclusion, “At the Gate,” a Kafaesque rumination on the last judgment as capped by a startling metaphysical leap. What could have been merely a series of rehearsed polemics emerges here in novelist Coetzee’s deftly shaping hands as dramatic indeed. Some of the excursions of Elizabeth to once more pontificate—which is how she is starting to see it—become very suspenseful episodes, marked by telling nervousness and sticky embarrassment. For instance, Elizabeth taking a stand on animal rights in an address at a small college in Massachusetts, located in the town where her grown son lives, gets complicated when she has to keep up niceties with her contentious daughter-in-law; the daughter-in-law is an unemployed philosophy scholar who finds Elizabeth’s intense compassion for animals outright wacky. And Elizabeth airing her beliefs on how some African writers today simply ignore their heritage, pandering to foreigners’ tastes and preconceptions, gets really complicated when she signs up to deliver a lecture on a cruise ship tour that features cultural seminars for the upscale passengers; one of the fellow “faculty” turns out to be a robust black African novelist seemingly playing the role of exactly that right down to his traditional dashiki attire, a man with whom Elizabeth herself had an affair when young.
Elizabeth is one of those infrequent characters in fiction whose utter roundness is only amplified within the shell of her ongoing solitude (remember that Elizabeth’s own famous novel treats Molly Bloom, surely literature’s iconic stream-of-consciousnessing female); the reader comes to know her more than fully in all her apprehensions and regrets and sadnesses, as well as her integrity and eventual hard-earned wisdom. Her thoughts pulsate, constantly invite lingering over them, as in this observation on deity: “The gods, the immortals, were the inventors of death and corruption; yet with one or two notable exceptions they have lacked the courage to try their invention out on themselves.”
Admittedly, Elizabeth Costello is far from a perfect piece of writing. The seams holding together successive sequences within the chapters occasionally show through, and the dialogue, even for the cast of loquacious intellectuals assembled here, sometimes rings too much like speechifying, slightly forced. Nevertheless, the novel’s daringly innovative construct may perhaps represent a large achievement. As followers of Coetzee will recognize and as the final credits page confirms, much of the material here derives from Coetzee’s own previously published public lectures on subjects. This fact, in a very postmodern way, generates almost a separate narrative existing in counterpoint to the novel’s events, with Coetzee assembling his own pronouncements to yield this fiction about somebody else’s pronouncements. Which is to say, there’s a story about storytelling itself here. The reader not only becomes caught up in the character of Elizabeth emerging, but also the character and distinct personality of a most originally architectured Book taking form before one’s eyes and ultimately emanating its own life, if you will, distinct from that of its protagonist, the imaginary Elizabeth, or its author, the real Coetzee.
And as a note, I might add something about that real John Coetzee, seeing that he is in the news now. I have to say I disagree with some commentators who have suggested a reputation of him being quite guarded in person, somebody private and usually shunning awards ceremonies and such. I myself got to spend a bit of time with him as a colleague during the semester he taught at UT. (I trust that acquaintance hasn’t diluted my objective appraisal here, and it might be worth pointing out that well before actually meeting him I did write admiringly of his novels on a couple of occasions; according to one bibliography I’ve seen, I was, in fact, among the very first in this country lucky enough to have the opportunity to comment on the work, reviewing his debut book Dusklands, originally printed only in Johannesburg, for the journal Africa Today in 1979.) When Coeztee was a visiting professor, he seemed to me a person quiet and serious by nature, but in no way noticeably guarded. What struck me most about him was that he listened more than he spoke, though when he did speak—whether with a bunch of creative writing students relaxing outside the classroom or at a potluck for Third World literature faculty at a North Austin condo—it always appeared to be with honesty, conviction and concern. Coetzee was extremely generous with his time on campus, and reading Elizabeth Costello now, how pleased I was to finish it and notice on that final credits page an acknowledgment made to Intermezzo Press, a local Austin publisher of limited-edition, letter-press books. It’s run single-handedly by Randolph Bertin, a younger guy who as an auditor sat in on Coetzee’s writing workshop and to whom Coetzee was apparently kind enough to give a chapter of the novel to issue as a separate collector’s volume, probably just to help Bertin’s small, though already very respected, operation.
True, yet another noteworthy Texas connection concerning—well, why not?—our Nobel Prize Winner. Story writer and novelist Peter LaSalle teaches at UT-Austin, where he is the Susan Taylor McDaniel Regents Professor in Creative Writing.