Let’s start this one at the end. Sometimes it’s the only way to make sense of a story. The title character of J. M. Coetzee’s new novel, Elizabeth Costello (Viking), is a much-honored postmodern writer who, inexplicably to herself and to us, winds up in a strange kind of literary limbo (whether this is a dream, a hallucination, or a state after death is nowhere indicated). There, a panel of mysterious judges requires her to state what she really believes before she will be allowed to move on. This presents a particular problem for Elizabeth Costello, because she regards it as a professional duty to have no fixed beliefs—indeed, she thinks of belief as an outright obstacle to the writer’s role as “secretary to the invisible.”
One of the judges comments: “You do not judge between the murderer and his victim? Is that what it is to be a secretary: to write down whatever you are told? To be bankrupt of conscience?” The writer lamely argues that the guilty, too, have a story to tell. But her heart is not much in the defense. And no wonder. We have earlier seen her as a passionate advocate of vegetarianism, a sensitive reader of books on the Holocaust, one of which, she believes, by bringing alive the horrors involved in the torture of the group that tried to assassinate Hitler, has allowed the “leathery wing of the devil” to touch writer and reader alike. At a conference on evil, she finds herself arguing, quite unexpectedly, for a kind of undefined censorship. It is not always good for us to read about certain things, even true things, she says. And it is possible for a writer to become a “dupe of Satan,” spreading by art the very evil that he is trying to condemn by exposing it.
These are just some of Costello’s confusions and inconsistencies. But there is still more complexity. Coetzee, a South African who now lives (like his heroine) in Australia, is also a much-honored writer. He has won South Africa’s top prize for fiction three times, England’s prestigious Booker Prize twice, and many other literary awards around the world. So it is only to be expected that sections of Elizabeth Costello have the power to draw us into her life and trials. The spooky limbo scene—which Elizabeth recognizes, even while she is experiencing it, to be a deliberate pastiche of literary clichés—is especially haunting. But there is also something radically uncertain about this story that is not merely the result of one aging writer’s confusions. Coetzee may or may not have written a very successful novel here, and it is difficult even to be sure if he intended the outcome. But it merits attention if only because it seems to be a powerful cry for deliverance from some postmodern puzzles.
The story basically unfolds by following Elizabeth to a series of conferences where she is either receiving some literary prize (usually accompanied by a fat check) or delivering a paper on a big subject like evil. These chapters are labeled “lessons,” though they are quite far from being didactic. In a strange way even for postmodern fiction, Coetzee works multiple sides of the street simultaneously. The lectures on vegetarianism, for example, appear to have been given by Coetzee himself in real life at a conference at Princeton where the notorious animal-rights philosopher Peter Singer and others also spoke (the papers were eventually published separately as The Lives of Animals).
But in the fictional setting, the arguments against eating meat are not allowed to stand unchallenged. The novelist’s son (who teaches at the fictional college where the fictional “lectures” are delivered by Elizabeth) and his wife attend the lectures, and they and others in the audience see her claim that the butchery of animals made possible the butchery of human beings in the Holocaust as cranky and morally deplorable. People naturally like eating meat and had a long history, until very recently, of struggling to defend themselves against animals (we might add that animals also have an uninterrupted history of eating one another). Elizabeth concedes some of this, and senses that she may be indulging a private obsession, but she still feels revulsion. In the end, the son comes to understand that, as confused as she may be, the mother/novelist is genuinely, helplessly, appalled at watching meat being served, as if she were seeing Nazi lampshades made of human skin. The arguments recede into the background, and the two actually reach, despite longstanding distances, a kind of human understanding through her very real suffering.
Costello has less success with other family members. Her sister, Blanche, has become a Catholic nun (Sister Bridget) who runs a hospital in Zululand. They grew up together as Irish Catholics in Australia, but their relationship has been brittle for years and will remain so after one last meeting at a university where, this time, the sister is receiving an honorary degree. You might think that this scene would pit a Mother Theresa–like figure against a postmodern one. But the nun in this case had earlier studied classics, and her remarks at her degree ceremony (“The Humanities in Africa”) could not have been predicted.
She begins by criticizing the modern university for having “embraced humane studies only in an arid, narrowed form.” The early humanists initially sought the True Word, but wound up in a sterile, idealized classicism. Though she is a militant Catholic, Sister Bridget prefers Martin Luther to Erasmus for noting that. As far as the modern university goes, the good sister observes: “We have settled for the claim that the study of the classics might offer a way of life, or if not a way of life then at least a way of earning a living which, if it cannot be proved to do any positive good, at least is on no side claimed to do any harm.” As a result, though it took a long time, the studia humanitatis are “on their deathbed.”
This draws a series of predictable reactions from the university faculty. Even Elizabeth Costello, who has no use for old, exhausted humanistic disciplines, objects: “This hard Catholic line—what has happened to ecumenicism?” But read carefully, these responses are more reflex than reflection, and do not really engage Sister Bridget’s argument. Elizabeth, too, thinks the modern university has as its core discipline “moneymaking.” The academics believe they are hearing Catholic “fatalism” and the “Low Middle Ages.” But Sister Bridget’s denunciation of an idealized classical Greece as an “alternative religion to Christianity” is a lot more sophisticated than that. And as Elizabeth reminds them, her industrious and charitable medical missionary sister is no fatalist. But various assumptions and a kind of interpersonal static prevent any of them from understanding very well.
In fact, the personal static in the postmodern world, whether inside us or in our relations with others, seems to make both argument and example irrelevant for Elizabeth Costello. Perhaps that is the real meaning of her final appearance in limbo. She seems to have a creed: The self is merely a sequence of experiences with no one of them being more “sovereign” than the others. And it also denies what almost everyone experiences: There are certain moments that decide what we and our lives will be. But even that belief, of course, is contradicted by the several passionate positions she has espoused in her old age. Wrestling with this text, it’s hard to say whether Coetzee planned this indeterminacy. But he and his character seem in search of some relief from their condition without clear hope of whence it might come. He wants to hold on to various postmodern beliefs, it appears, but at the same time sees their incoherence. And not only they. In the final paragraphs, Elizabeth asks the gatekeeper of limbo whether they often see “‘people in my situation?’ …He lays down his pen, folds his hands, regards her levelly. ‘All the time,’ he says, ‘We see people like you all the time.’ “