Excerpt of Elizabeth Costello by J M Coetzee
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She shakes him; that is what she presumably does to other readers too. That is presumably why, in the larger picture, she exists. What a strange reward for a lifetime of shaking people: to be conveyed to this town in Pennsylvania and given money! For she is by no means a comforting writer. She is even cruel, in a way that women can be but men seldom have the heart for. What sort of creature is she, really? Not a seal: not amiable enough for that. But not a shark either. A cat. One of those large cats that pause as they eviscerate their victim and, across the torn-open belly, give you a cold yellow stare.
There is a woman waiting for them downstairs, the same young woman who fetched them from the airport. Her name is Teresa. She is an instructor at Altona College, but in the business of the Stowe Award a factotum, a dogsbody, and in the wider business a minor character.
He sits in the front of the car beside Teresa, his mother sits at the rear. Teresa is excited, so excited that she positively chatters. She tells them about the neighbourhoods they are driving through, about Altona College and its history, about the restaurant they are headed for. In the middle of all the chatter she manages to get in two quick, mouselike pounces of her own. 'We had A. S. Byatt here last fall,' she says. 'What do you think of A. S. Byatt, Ms Costello?' And later: 'What do you think of Doris Lessing, Ms Costello?' She is writing a book on women writers and politics; she spends her summers in London doing what she calls research; he would not be surprised if she had a tape recorder hidden in the car.
His mother has a word for people like this. She calls them the goldfish. One thinks they are small and harmless, she says, because each wants no more than the tiniest nibble of flesh, the merest hemidemimilligram. She gets letters from them every week, care of her publisher. Once upon a time she used to reply: thank you for your interest, unfortunately I am too busy to respond as fully as your letter deserves. Then a friend told her what these letters of hers were fetching on the autograph market. After that she stopped answering.
Flecks of gold circling the dying whale, waiting their chance to dart in and take a quick mouthful.
They arrive at the restaurant. It is raining lightly. Teresa drops them at the door and goes off to park the car. For a moment they are alone on the pavement. 'We can still abscond,' he says. 'It is not too late. We can get a taxi, drop by the hotel to pick up our things, be at the airport by eight thirty, take the first flight out. We will have vanished from the scene by the time the Mounties arrive.'
He smiles. She smiles. They will go through with the programme, that barely needs to be said. But it is a pleasure to toy with at least the idea of escape. Jokes, secrets, complicities; a glance here, a word there: that is their way of being together, of being apart. He will be her squire, she will be his knight. He will protect her as long as he is able. Then he will help her into her armour, lift her on to her steed, set her buckler on her arm, hand her her lance, and step back.
There is a scene in the restaurant, mainly dialogue, which we will skip. We resume back at the hotel, where Elizabeth Costello asks her son to run through the list of the people they have just met. He obeys, giving each a name and function, as in life. Their host, William Brautegam, is Dean of Arts at Altona. The convenor of the jury, Gordon Wheatley, is a Canadian, a professor at McGill, who has written on Canadian literature and on Wilson Harris. The one they call Toni, who spoke to her about Henry Handel Richardson, is from Altona College. She is a specialist on Australia and has taught there. Paula Sachs she knows. The bald man, Kerrigan, is a novelist, Irish by birth, now living in New York. The fifth juror, the one who was seated next to him, is named Moebius. She teaches in California and edits a journal. She has also published some stories.
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.