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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  • First Published:
    Oct 2003, 240 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2004, 224 pages

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'You and she had quite a tête-à-tête says his mother. 'Good- looking, isn't she?'

'I suppose so.'

She reflects. 'But, as a group, don't they strike you as rather…

'Rather lightweight?'

She nods.

'Well, they are. The heavyweights don't involve themselves in this kind of show. The heavyweights are wrestling with the heavy weight problems.'

'I am not heavyweight enough for them?'

'No, you're heavyweight all right. Your handicap is that you're not a problem. What you write hasn't yet been demonstrated to be a problem. Once you offer yourself as a problem, you might be shifted over into their court. But for the present you're not a problem, just an example.'

'An example of what?'

'An example of writing. An example of how someone of your station and your generation and your origins writes. An instance.'

'An instance? Am I allowed a word of protest? After all the effort I put into not writing like anyone else?'

'Mother, there's no point in picking on me to fight with. I am not responsible for the way the academy sees you. But you must surely concede that at a certain level we speak, and therefore write, like everyone else. Otherwise we would all be speaking and writing private languages. It is not absurd - is it? - to concern oneself with what people have in common rather than with what sets them apart.'

The next morning John finds himself in another literary debate. In the hotel gymnasium he bumps into Gordon Wheatley, chairman of the jury. Side by side on exercise bicycles they have a shouted conversation. His mother will be disappointed, he tells Wheatley - not entirely seriously - if she learns that the Stowe Award is hers only because 1995 has been decreed to be the year of Australasia.

'What does she want it to be?' shouts Wheatley back.

'That she is the best,' he replies. 'In your jury's honest opinion. Not the best Australian, not the best Australian woman, just the best.'

'Without infinity we would have no mathematics,' says Wheatley.

'But that doesn't mean that infinity exists. Infinity is just a construct, a human construct. Of course we are firm that Elizabeth Costello is the best. We just have to be clear in our minds what a statement like that means, in the context of our times.'

The analogy with infinity makes no sense to him, but he does not pursue the issue. He hopes that Wheatley does not write as badly as he thinks.

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. The notion of embodying turns out to be pivotal. In such debates ideas do not and indeed cannot float free: they are tied to the speakers by whom they are enounced, and generated from the matrix of individual interests out of which their speakers act in the world - for instance, the son's concern that his mother not be treated as a Mickey Mouse post- colonial writer, or Wheatley's concern not to seem an old-fashioned absolutist.

At eleven he taps at the door of her room. She has a long day before her: an interview, a session at the college radio station, then, in the evening, the presentation ceremony and the speech that goes with it.

Her strategy with interviewers is to take control of the exchange, presenting them with blocks of dialogue that have been rehearsed so often he wonders they have not solidified in her mind and become some kind of truth. A long paragraph on childhood in the suburbs of Melbourne (cockatoos screeching at the bottom of the garden) with a sub-paragraph on the danger to the imagination of middle-class security A paragraph on the death of her father of enteric fever in Malaya, with her mother somewhere in the background playing Chopin waltzes on the piano, followed by a sequence of what sound like impromptu ruminations on the influence of music on her own prose. A paragraph about her adolescent reading (voracious, unselective), then a jump to Virginia Woolf, whom she first read as a student, and the impact Woolf had on her. A passage on her spell at art school, another on her year and a half at post—war Cambridge ('What I mainly remember is the struggle to keep warm'), another on her years in London ('I could have made a living as a translator, I suppose, but my best language was German, and German wasn't popular in those days, as you can imagine'). Her first novel, which she modestly disparages, though as a first novel it stood head and shoulders above the competition, then her years in France ('heady times'), with an oblique glance at her first marriage. Then her return to Australia with her young son. Him.

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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