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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Elizabeth Costello


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To purchase Elizabeth Costello

Title: Elizabeth Costello
Author: J.M.Coetzee
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003
Length: 230 pages
Availability: Elizabeth Costello - US
Elizabeth Costello - UK
Elizabeth Costello - Canada
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Elizabeth Costello - Deutschland
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  • Earlier versions of most of the contents were previously published elsewhere, including in Salmagundi, and in the book The Lives of Animals

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Our Assessment:

A- : interesting, if not always fully successful, fictional and intellectual exercises

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe . 26/10/2003 Siddhartha Deb
Daily Telegraph . 8/9/2003 Caroline Moore
Entertainment Weekly B- 17/10/2003 R. Ascher-Walsh
FAZ . 28/10/2003 Felicitas von Lovenberg
The Guardian . 30/8/2003 Hermione Lee
The Independent . 30/8/2003 D.J.Taylor
Independent on Sunday . 7/9/2003 Justin Cartwright
Literary Review . 9/2003 Jason Cowley
London Rev. of Books . 23/10/2003 James Wood
The LA Times . 2/11/2003 John Bayley
The Nation . 3/11/2003 John Banville
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 6/5/2004 Angela Schader
New Statesman . 15/9/2003 Roy Robins
The NY Observer . 13/10/2003 Elena Lappin
The NY Rev. of Books . 20/11/2003 David Lodge
The NY Times . 21/10/2003 Janet Maslin
The NY Times Book Rev. A 26/10/2003 Judith Shulevitz
The New Yorker . 27/10/2003 .
The Observer . 14/9/2003 Adam Mars-Jones
San Francisco Chronicle . 2/11/2003 Sarah Coleman
The Spectator . 13/9/2003 Anita Brookner
Sunday Telegraph . 7/9/2003 Andrew Marr
Sydney Morning Herald . 13/9/2003 Andrew Riemer
TLS . 5/9/2003 Oliver Herford
The Village Voice . 4/11/2003 Lenora Todaro
The Washington Post F 16/11/2003 Jonathan Yardley

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus (and considerable confusion about what Coetzee is doing), though most fairly favourable

  From the Reviews:
  • "Coetzee's latest novel reads a little like the sum of his works as well. Precise in its prose and deceptively slim, it is assembled in the form of a series of episodes in the last years in the life of Australian writer Elizabeth Costello. (....) This may seem willfully postmodern, but Coetzee isn't interested in superficial formal experimentation or in creating a mere vehicle for some large ideas. He is too bound in the corporeality of the aging Costello for that" - Siddhartha Deb, Boston Globe

  • "The "disguise" of Elizabeth Costello, indeed, paradoxically makes one more rather than less convinced that this elusive writer may be revealing his own inner desert of weariness. This is the true source of interest and tension in Elizabeth Costello -- a work devoid of plot or characters, yet teasingly shot through with glancing images and vivid incidents that remind us of the novel Coetzee might have written" - Caroline Moore, Daily Telegraph

  • "But few people look forward to sitting through a lecture, no matter how thought-provoking (and these are). More off-putting is that Costello is, at best, difficult." - Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Elizabeth Costello ist die großartigste, beeindruckendste, verstörendste Figur, die Coetzee bisher geschaffen hat -- weil man sich auf jeder Ebene mit ihr auseinandersetzen kann, auseinandersetzen muß." - Felicitas von Lovenberg, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "In this fragmentary and inconclusive book, more like a collection of propositions about belief, writing and humanity than a novel, it is clear that animal rights is not the only issue. The creature in the zoo is also the novelist herself, and part of the book's driving force is an impatience with the way famous writers are required to perform like rock-stars, or to provide confessions or state their beliefs." - Hermione Lee, The Guardian

  • "Despite its academic grounding, Elizabeth Costello is a thoroughly modern fictional artefact: set everywhere, yet for all the multiple locations in effect set nowhere at all, starring a central character whose most obvious feature would seem to be her rootlessness. (...) It would be easy to say of Elizabeth Costello, as one can say of many a "novel of ideas", that it is a work in which the author does more thinking than feeling. In fact the book, one of Coetzee's best, simply burns with creative passion." - D.J.Taylor, The Independent

  • "Elizabeth Costello is constantly interrogating, to use the academic jargon, the easy assumptions of rationalism and humanism. It is as though Costello/Coetzee, both colonials, both of non-English stock, find the comfortable views of the anglophone academic world trite, even self-serving. What if, he dares to ask, all our assumptions about rationalism are false ?" - Justin Cartwright, Independent on Sunday

  • "There are not many jokes in Elizabeth Costello. It is an intensely despairing as well as an intensely self-conscious novel, a text about other texts that is also constructed as a multiplicity of texts (.....) The novel is at once static and oppressive. The tone is explicatory. Coetzee seldom seeks to dramatise or animate the dilemmas and problems that confront his characters" - Jason Cowley, Literary Review

  • "The book has a shape, rather a religious one: it inclines towards death. (...) Against all likelihood, the book is more affecting than anything else he has written, and, I think, deeply confessional. (...) Coetzee's recourse to Elizabeth Costello, and to fiction over traditional argumentation, is a way of saying that the only means of arguing for the literary -- for feeling over reason, imagination over thought -- is via the literary. Literary argumentation must take literary form. But this in turn means that ideas cannot be won, that they are vulnerable." - James Wood, London Review of Books

  • "John Coetzee's new book reads like a suicide note. (...) This is a curious, and curiously unsatisfactory, book that nevertheless, and despite its faults, resonates in the mind long after it has been put aside. Coetzee is addressing the predicament of the artist in the post-Modern -- not the postmodern -- age, when all certainties seem to have gone, when the word-mirror is in pieces." - John Banville, The Nation

  • "Trotz der Dominanz von Idee und Argument und obwohl das Buch auf die mittlerweile sehr offene Gattungsbezeichnung 'Roman' verzichtet, steht Elizabeth Costello dem Fiktionalen näher als dem Essayband." - Angela Schader, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Elizabeth Costello (...) has neither the gravity and compulsion of Coetzee's best fiction, nor the precision and intensity of his finest critical writing. (...) Although Coetzee attempts to satirise current intellectual trends, this novel is ultimately uncomfortably complicit with the world of literary celebrity and the academy." - Roy Robins, New Statesman

  • "It’s the literary equivalent of an experimental film in which the characters have no screen role to play other than presenting the director’s strong views on the history and meaning of cinema. Even with a star cast and brilliant script, such a movie would only appeal to a handful of dedicated enthusiasts; most of the audience would feel cheated and head for the doors. Mr. Coetzee’s novel is equally difficult to "sit through" -- (...) because it seems to deal with no reality at all, except a writer’s abstract reflections on the art of writing." - Elena Lappin, The New York Observer

  • "This novel (as one must call it for want of a better word) requires, and rewards, at least a second reading, but even then its import remains ambiguous, partly because of the way it mixes and transgresses generic conventions." - David Lodge, The New York Review of Books

  • "But there is a mirror effect in Elizabeth Costello, thanks to the way this brittle, ingenious not-quite-novel has been cobbled together. Parts of Elizabeth's philosophical theorizing were written and published individually as Mr. Coetzee's own thoughts. Thus the book is a string of metaphysical pit stops, cleverly rendered if tenuously linked together. (...) In light of its diffuse and rarefied ambitions, Elizabeth Costello proves improbably inviting at the simple narrative level." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "But does Elizabeth Costello succeed artistically, as a work of fiction ? The answer is yes, but more despite its metafictional superstructure than because of it. In fact, Elizabeth Costello is as haunting as anything Coetzee has written, because Elizabeth Costello is. It is a testament to Coetzee's ability to animate characters by economical means that within the narrow fictional frames that encase Costello's lectures he has created such a seductively contrary prophetess -- a person profoundly compassionate in principle and chilly in practice" - Judith Shulevitz, The New York Times Book Review

  • "But here he seems to have lost faith in the power of storytelling; his heroine’s journey takes place almost entirely in the realm of the mind, and the effect is that of exploring a cold, depopulated planet." - The New Yorker

  • "Even the heroine's inmost experiences, of sexual pleasure, generosity or trauma, feel like enrichments of the debate rather than revelations of character. (...) In Elizabeth Costello, though, JM Coetzee seems simply hamstrung by the hybrid status of his inventions. Perhaps to play this sort of game winningly you need just that -- a sense of play." - Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer

  • "Throughout, one senses Coetzee using Elizabeth to express deeply held convictions, though he's not above indulging in a little literary mudslinging by proxy.(...) Between the lectures, there are some intriguing snippets of human interaction, particularly between Elizabeth, her son and her daughter-in-law. But Coetzee is less interested in these relationships than he is in discussing the big ideas that permeate the book. Because of this, many of the characters become ciphers, and even Elizabeth seems a little out of focus." - Sarah Coleman, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "(I)t is a unified book, much more than the sum of its sporadically pre-published parts, and deals bravely with problems that few other writers dare to think about. (...) The problem of this book is the old one, familiar from Meredith and Peacock, Lawrence and Sartre: how to write concentrated serious thought in novel form, without the fiction disintegrating entirely." - Andrew Marr, Sunday Telegraph

  • "In this strange but deeply satisfying book, Coetzee combines the two aspects of his literary personality in ways that may challenge some readers' preconceptions about the relationship between imaginative and critical writing. Elizabeth Costello is both a work of fiction and a formal discussion of ethical, cultural and theoretical issues which have been preoccupying literary critics and scholars in recent decades. Moreover, the material in this book is disconcertingly both new and old." - Andrew Riemer, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "Elizabeth Costello is a thin, disagreeable character and an obvious contrivance -- an unreliable surrogate whose obsessions and inconsistencies are conventionally opposed but never effectually challenged; she does not stay even to answer her own idle self-questioning, of which there is an exasperating amount. Plainly these pieces are not to be regarded as anything so simple as "lessons"; or else the barren, undermining fiction is itself a part of the lesson." - Oliver Herford, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(A) cold little novel, more mind than matter, a series of eight "lessons" in which ideas trump character development. (...) The ideas hold court, but the novel slouches beneath a weary aura." - Lenora Todaro, The Village Voice

  • "(A) succession of almost unimaginably tiresome ruminations, cast in the form of formal academic addresses, about big-ticket issues in which Coetzee himself is interested (.....) Good writers are entitled to bad books (.....) In the present instance it can only be said that Coetzee took his entitlement and ran with it. Elizabeth Costello is not a novel but an anti-novel, which doubtless is part of the point but is of precious little consolation to the reader who must wade through its relatively brief yet seemingly endless bloviations. Precisely what Coetzee is trying to say in them may be clear to him but is often a mystery to the reader, who for much of the time feels trapped in a locked room while being harangued by a windy bore long on gas and short on intelligible argument." - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The title character of this novel is an Australian writer, born in 1928 (and sixty-six in the first of these stories). In seven of the chapters episodes from her life as an old, respected writer are described, while the eighth and the postscript are more fanciful inventions.
       In the table of contents to Elizabeth Costello the chapters are called "lessons", only the most obvious sign that this is a didactic work. These are stories -- scenes from the life of a writer -- , but almost all revolve around one or several lectures or speeches. The stories are more than framing devices -- and the lectures often only given in part -- but it is the arguments of these non-fiction pieces that are the core of each 'lesson'.
       Early on Coetzee notes:

     Realism has never been comfortable with ideas. It could not be otherwise: realism is premised on the idea that ideas have no autonomous existence, can exist only in things. So when it needs to debate ideas, as here, realism is driven to invent situations -- walks in the countryside, conversations, in which characters give voice to contending ideas, and thereby in a certain sense embody them.
       Coetzee's situations do allow for more than just dialogue and debate in reaction to the set pieces, but by centering all around the lectures the emphasis is very obviously on the ideas. Arguably, he could have written essays instead, but it appears to have been important to him to try to "embody" them: "The notion of embodying turns out to be pivotal", he admits.
       Elizabeth Costello is an odd vessel for Coetzee to choose. She is old, for one, -- twelve years older than Coetzee -- and he makes a great deal about her being so old. These episodes see her far from her antipodean home, and the travel leaves her tired or even exhausted; she falls asleep several times, and once even faints, not eager, unwilling, and occasionally simply not able to face these distant demands and realities.
       In the first piece, "Realism", Costello is to receive the Stowe Award, "one of the larger literary prizes in the United States"; her son John, a science professor at another Northeast college, accompanies her. The centrepiece is her acceptance speech, entitled: 'What is Realism ?' Coetzee doesn't offer the full speech ("Elizabeth Costello proceeds to reflect on the transience of fame. We skip ahead."), but does present the main parts. An example she uses is Kafka's story of an ape speaking before a learned society ("Report to an Academy"), a story in which: "We don't know and will never know, with certainty, what is really going on". Realism is no longer trustworthy, Costello argues: "The word-mirror is broken, irreparably, it seems."
       It is one of the dilemmas she faces, both as a writer and a person: what to believe -- and also: how important is it to be able to (or also to try to) convince her readers. In the second piece, 'The Novel in Africa', she finds: "she no longer believes very strongly in belief" -- a crisis that follows her through the book. In the final lesson in the book she abandons realism entirely and turns back to Kafka, with a vengeance, Costello finding herself in a Kafkaesque scene, before heavenly portals, on trial: before she can pass through the gates she must make a statement of what she believes (and then defend it before a tribunal).
       One cause she champions is that of animal rights: she considers the treatment of animals, especially their slaughter for food, a great evil. Two of the chapters describe her visit to Appleton College (where her son teaches), where she comes to give the Gates Lecture and a seminar. Instead of speaking about writing, she focusses on the (mis)treatment of animals by humans and her objections to it.
       Coetzee doesn't make it easy for Costello: among others, her daughter-in-law (with whom she doesn't get along) vehemently disagrees with her -- and Coetzee even gets her in trouble with a Jewish faculty member who is offended by her comparing the slaughter of cattle to the slaughter of the Jews in World War II (an incident that, a later chapter explains, became quite a scandal). Costello wavers in her certainty, too, sure of her opinion but aware that this evil she despises is essentially omnipresent (and, as even she admits, she does wear leather shoes ...).
       In 'The Problem of Evil' Costello is invited to speak at a conference in Amsterdam, on the problem of evil. Shocked by a book she is reading when she gets the invitation, Paul West's The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, she uses that as the centrepiece of her lecture. (To complicate matters, when she gets there she finds that Paul West is also one of those invited to the conference.) What disturbs her about West's book is his description of the execution of those behind the plot to assassinate Hitler. Despite the fact that West's book is a fiction, a work of imagination (albeit one based on historic fact), Costello does not believe that the writer should have delved as deeply as he did:
     'That is my thesis today: that certain things are not good to read or to write. To put the point in another way: I take seriously the claim that the artist risks a great deal by venturing into forbidden places: risks, specifically, himself; risks, perhaps, all.
       It is one of the most contentious of Costello's beliefs, and Coetzee doesn't adequately address it. Costello herself seems wary of allowing herself to be drawn into a discussion of the question, fleeing and shutting herself in a cubicle in the ladies' room, and focussing entirely on her own thoughts about the question (and her own self-doubts).
       'The Novel in Africa' addresses different writerly issues, as Costello takes up an opportunity to be a cruise-ship entertainer, allowing her to visit Antarctica (and get paid very well for very little work on top of it). She gives a talk on 'The Future of the Novel' (and, typically, begins: "The future of the novel is not a subject I am much interested in"), but it is a colleague, a Nigerian writer named Emmanuel Egudu, whose lecture on 'The Novel in Africa' is the centrepiece. Egudu -- a writer who hasn't written anything in quite a while and instead enjoys himself on the tour circuit -- suggests: "The African novel, the true African novel, is an oral novel." Costello thinks the central problem lies elsewhere:
But the African novel is not written by Africans for Africans. African novelists may write about Africa, about African experiences, but they seem to me to be glancing over their shoulders all the time they write, at the foreigners who will read them.
       Another chapter considers: 'The Humanities in Africa' (though, in fact, it addresses the humanities per se), as Elizabeth Costello goes to South Africa to see her sister, Blanche (or Sister Bridget, as she is now known as), receive an honorary degree for her work, most recently as administrator of a local hospital. It is Blanche's acceptance speech that is the centrepiece here. As Sister Bridget she says she does not belong among these humanities scholars: "The message I bring is that you lost your way long ago, perhaps as long as five centuries ago." Humanities are now "truly on their deathbed", brought there by the very "monster of reason" they unleashed. Later, Blanche also tells her sister that:
You backed a loser, my dear. If you had put your money on a different Greek you might still have stood a chance. Orpheus instead of Apollo. The ecstatic instead of the rational.
       It's among the more interesting and polarised debates in the book; it is also one of the episodes that, in its layering of narratives, suggests that these complexities are as not as easily reduced to black or white as Blanche insists.
       The brief postscript is entitled: 'Letter of Elizabeth, Lady of Chandos'. Signing the letter "Elizabeth C." (and dating it 1603), Elizabeth Costello imagines herself as wife to Lord Chandos, and this a letter to Francis Bacon written some two weeks after her husband wrote his. Her husband's letter is, of course, the famous fictional one actually written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal in 1902, in which he apologises for his complete renunciation of literary activity ("gänzlichen Verzicht auf literarische Betätigung"). For Lord Chandos, the rest was indeed silence: a man who once harboured great literary ambitions, words now literally failed him.
       "The notion of embodying turns out to be pivotal" Coetzee wrote at the beginning of this book, and it is this very ambition that Lord Chandos had once harboured: he says of the characters he wanted to use in his literary works, "verschwinden wollte ich in ihnen und aus ihnen heraus mit Zungen reden" ("I wanted to disappear in them and speak out of them with tongues"). Now, however, he finds the languages and words inadequate for his purposes -- indeed, for all purposes. Elizabeth C. pleads to Bacon: "Save my husband ! Write !", hoping that his words can convince Chandos. Despite her own doubts (about belief, about writing, about the adequacy of words) she still has some faith in literary possibility.

       Elizabeth Costello is a novel of ideas, and much of the book is devoted to exploring how ideas can be conveyed in a work of fiction. Practically each chapter -- each 'lesson' -- includes what could be considered a piece of non-fiction (generally a lecture of some sort, though not always one by Elizabeth herself), but Coetzee deliberately abridges and cuts these, presenting almost none in their entirety. He does not want this to be a book of essays, touched up with some fiction, but rather wants the fictions to complement and complete the non-fiction aspects. By and large, he is successful, but not entirely so. In particular, the character of Elizabeth Costello is problematic, especially her frequent excuse of old age and fatigue as a reason to avoid discussion or not to think things through.
       The story-elements in Elizabeth Costello are quite good: a few surprising twists, some decent exploration of personal relationships (especially among the members of Elizabeth's family), realistic scenes from a famous writer's life. The ideas Coetzee explores in this manner are also interesting, but the collection is somewhat loose, separate pieces that don't fit particularly neatly together as a whole: it's not surprising that they were published previously and separately (or that a few months after publication of this book Coetzee offered yet another Costello-episode, As a Woman Grows Older).
       A thoughtful, worthwhile book, if not entirely a success.

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Elizabeth Costello: Reviews: J.M.Coetzee: Other books by J.M.Coetzee under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       John M. Coetzee was born in South Africa in 1940. He has won many literary prizes, and was the 2003 Nobel laureate in literature.

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© 2004-2023 the complete review

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