Excerpt from Elizabeth Costello by J M Coetzee, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Elizabeth Costello

By J M Coetzee

Elizabeth Costello
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  • Hardcover: Oct 2003,
    240 pages.
    Paperback: Oct 2004,
    224 pages.

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He is here, with her, out of love. He cannot imagine her getting through this trial without him at her side. He stands by her because he is her son, her loving son. But he is also on the point of becoming - distasteful word - her trainer.

He thinks of her as a seal, an old, tired circus seal. One more time she must heave herself up on to the tub, one more time show that she can balance the ball on her nose. Up to him to coax her, put heart in her, get her through the performance.

'It is the only way they have,' he says as gently as he can. 'They admire you, they want to honour you. It is the best way they can think of doing that. Giving you money. Broadcasting your name. Using the one to do the other.'

Standing over the Empire-style writing table, shuffling through the pamphlets that tell her where to shop, where to dine, how to use the telephone, she casts him one of the quick, ironic looks that still have the power to surprise him, to remind him of who she is. 'The best way?' she murmurs.

At six thirty he knocks. She is ready, waiting, full of doubts but prepared to face the foe. She wears her blue costume and silk jacket, her lady novelist's uniform, and the white shoes with which there is nothing wrong yet which somehow make her look like Daisy Duck. She has washed her hair and brushed it back. It still looks greasy, but honourably greasy, like a navvy's or a mechanic's. Already on her face the passive look that, if you saw it in a young girl, you would call withdrawn. A face without personality, the kind that photographers have to work on to lend distinction. Like Keats, he thinks, the great advocate of blank receptiveness.

The blue costume, the greasy hair, are details, signs of a moderate realism. Supply the particulars, allow the significations to emerge of themselves. A procedure pioneered by Daniel Defoe. Robinson Crusoe, cast up on the beach, looks around for his shipmates. But there are none. 'I never saw them afterwards, or any sign of them says he, 'except three of their hats, one cap, and two shoes that were not fellows.' Two shoes, not fellows: by not being fellows, the shoes have ceased to be footwear and become proofs of death, torn by the foaming seas off the feet of drowning men and tossed ashore. No large words, no despair, just hats and caps and shoes.

For as far back as he can remember, his mother has secluded herself in the mornings to do her writing. No intrusions under any circumstances. He used to think of himself as a misfortunate child, lonely and unloved. When they felt particularly sorry for themselves, he and his sister used to slump outside the locked door and make tiny whining sounds. In time the whining would change to humming or singing, and they would feel better, forgetting their forsakenness.

Now the scene has changed. He has grown up. He is no longer outside the door but inside, observing her as she sits, back to the window, confronting, day after day, year after year, while her hair slowly goes from black to grey, the blank page. What doggedness, he thinks! She deserves the medal, no doubt about that, this medal and many more. For valour beyond the call of duty.

The change came when he was thirty-three. Until then he had not read a word she had written. That was his reply to her, his revenge on her for locking him out. She denied him, therefore he denied her. Or perhaps he refused to read her in order to protect himself. Perhaps that was the deeper motive: to ward off the lightning stroke. Then one day, without a word to anyone, without even a word to himself, he took one of her books out of the library. After that he read everything, reading openly, in the train, at the lunch table. 'What are you reading?' 'One of my mother's books.' He is in her books, or some of them. Other people too he recognizes; and there must be many more he does not recognize. About sex, about passion and jealousy and envy, she writes with an insight that shakes him. It is positively indecent.

From Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee. Copyright J.M. Coetzee 2003. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher.

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