Apes of God

Elizabeth Costello

by JM Coetzee

(Secker & Warburg)

By now JM Coetzee’s fiction oeuvre is so well established that it cannot but be a matrix through which any new contribution is read. This reading the new through the old seems to do a disservice to such a writer, never again allowing him or her the suspension of expectations that a debut might bring. Then again, it is not with the promise of the new that Coetzee is here concerned.

Elizabeth Costello fits the mould of the existing fiction in at least two ways. Costello — the ageing novelist, embarking on a last lacklustre series of lectures — has already been introduced to us in The Lives of Animals, a small text subsumed in the new book. She also provides us with a symmetrical persona for Coetzee himself, lauded novelist much besought in (and seemingly frustrated by) the international lecture circuit; a device then for the autobiographical turn that has characterised his recent work.

Furthermore, we find here that constant of Coetzee’s fiction, the failure of personal intimacy, the miasma of spiritual barrenness, present exactly where one would expect to find an emotional bond, be it of a familial, romantic, platonic, even collegial sort. The “eight lessons” (or chapters) of the book explore this disaffection with characteristic deftness across the cases of the protagonist’s relationship to her son, her sister, her past lovers and her fellow authors.

The moral bleakness of these relationships seems briefly offset by a corollary theme, again explored in distinct ways in each of the book’s “lessons”, that of embodiment and the ethical concerns that flow from it. Whether as an index to frailty, a token of the ineffable difference of the other or, its opposite, the ability to feel a moral, even mortal empathy for the plight of all potential others, this exploration of embodiment is Elizabeth Costello at its strongest.

Here we approach a rooting in the corporeal and mortal as a means of understanding the differences (or similarities) between not only the lives of humans and animals, but between the lives of humans and gods too. This is perhaps the novel’s chief conceit, the divine embodied, be it through the physicality of presence Costello so admires in animals, the writer’s ability to bring story to life or, in more metaphorical terms, the question of what it would mean to make love to a god. This conceit also yields an opposing position: the idea that what is often most vital about culture, and most human of all experience, stems exactly from mortal rather than divine embodiment.

Coetzee supplies his main character with a series of arguments the failure of which makes exactly this point; whether Costello is lamenting the fact that there is nothing of the Greek in Africa, when she proves scornful of an author arguing for the oral qualities of African fiction, and when she flounders in a misguided attempt to compare the Holocaust to the industrialised slaughter of animals, she seems, by default, to make Coetzee’s argument for him.

It is connection with this device that we find the book’s most overt weakness. Although there is something innovative about the attempt to fictionalise a series of intellectual arguments — and we should bear in mind here that Coetzee’s non-fiction seems never to have strayed too far from his own personal and aesthetic concerns — there is considerable risk to such an undertaking. To import too directly, too much that is explicitly academic into the fictional — and here Coetzee has his characters reciting large chunks of his own “intellectual matter” — is to risk compromising the aesthetic qualities of a work of fiction, to make it ponderous, even, potentially, pretentious.

By the same token, the constraints of such an importation also risk compromising something of the rigour and the clarity that such intellectual themes seem to deserve. Both of these are, unfortunately, afflictions from which a challenging, and frequently bracing, novel suffers.

Booker: Coetzee out, Galgut in

JM Coetzee, the first author to win the Booker Prize twice, was longlisted this year for Elizabeth Costello, but has not made it on to the shortlist. Damon Galgut, however, has — for The Good Doctor. Coetzee’s novel, said John Carey, chairperson of the judging panel, was a “novel of ideas” that lacked a strong storyline. Last year’s judges called for more storytelling and less literary pyrotechnics. This is “the year of David, not Goliath”, Carey said. The only big name on the shortlist is Margaret Atwood (Oryx and Crake), and three of the shortlisted novels are debuts: Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little, and Clare Morrall’s Astonishing Splashes of Colour. Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, also shortlisted, is her second novel.

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