THERE IS FIRST of all the problem of the opening, namely, how to get us from where we are, which is, as yet, nowhere, to the far bank. It is a simple bridging problem, a problem of knocking together a bridge. People solve such problems every day. They solve them, and having solved them push on.
Let us assume that, however it may have been done, it is done. Let us take it that the bridge is built and crossed, that we can put it out of our mind. We have left behind the territory in which we were. We are in the far territory; where we want to be.
Elizabeth Costello is a writer, born in 1928, which makes her sixty-six years old, going on sixty-seven. She has written nine novels, two books of poems, a book on bird life, and a body of journalism. By birth she is Australian. She was born in Melbourne and still lives there, though she spent the years 1951 to 1963 abroad, in England and France. She has been married twice. She has two children, one by each marriage.
Elizabeth Costello made her name with her fourth novel, The House on Eccles Street (1969), whose main character is Marion Bloom, wife of Leopold Bloom, principal character of another novel, Ulysses (1922), by James Joyce. In the past decade there has grown up around her a small critical industry; there is even an Elizabeth Costello Society, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which puts out a quarterly Elizabeth Costello Newsletter.
In the spring of 1995 Elizabeth Costello traveled, or travels (present tense henceforth), to Williamstown, Pennsylvania, to Altona College, to receive the Stowe Award. The award is made biennially to a major world writer, selected by a jury of critics and writers. It consists of a purse of $50,000, funded by a bequest from the Stowe estate, and a gold medal. It is one of the larger literary prizes in the United States.
On her visit to Pennsylvania Elizabeth Costello (Costello is her maiden name) is accompanied by her son John. John has a job teaching physics and astronomy at a college in Massachusetts, but for reasons of his own is on leave for the year. Elizabeth has become a little frail: without the help of her son she would not be under taking this taxing trip across half the world.
We skip. They have reached Williamstown and have been conveyed to their hotel, a surprisingly large building for a small city, a tall hexagon, all dark marble outside and crystal and mirrors inside. In her room a dialogue takes place.
'Will you be comfortable?' asks the son.
'I am sure I will she replies. The room is on the twelfth floor, with a prospect over a golf course and, beyond that, over wooded hills.
'Then why not have a rest? They are fetching us at six thirty I'll give you a call a few minutes beforehand.'
He is about to leave. She speaks.
'John, what exactly do they want from me?'
'Tonight? Nothing. It's just a dinner with members of the jury. We won't let it turn into a long evening. I'll remind them you are tired.'
'Tomorrow is a different story. You'll have to gird your loins for tomorrow, I am afraid.'
'I have forgotten why I agreed to come. It seems a great ordeal to put oneself through, for no good reason. I should have asked them to forget the ceremony and send the cheque in the mail.'
After the long flight, she is looking her age. She has never taken care of her appearance; she used to be able to get away with it; now it shows. Old and tired. 'It doesn't work that way, I am afraid, Mother. If you accept the money, you must go through with the show.'
She shakes her head. She is still wearing the old blue raincoat she wore from the airport. Her hair has a greasy, lifeless look. She has made no move to unpack. If he leaves her now, what will she do? Lie down in her raincoat and shoes?
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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