All in all, he judges, listening in, a workmanlike performance, if one can still use that word, eating up most of the hour, as intended, leaving only a few minutes to skirt the questions that begin 'What do you think ? 'What does she think about neoliberalism, the woman question, Aboriginal rights, the Australian novel today? He has lived around her for nearly four decades, on and off, and is still not sure what she thinks about the big questions. Not sure and, on the whole, thankful not to have to hear. For her thoughts would be, he suspects, as uninteresting as most people's. A writer, not a thinker. Writers and thinkers: chalk and cheese. No, not chalk and cheese: fish and fowl. But which is she, the fish or the fowl? Which is her medium: water or air?
This morning's interviewer, who has come up from Boston for the occasion, is young, and his mother is usually indulgent towards the young. But this one is thick-skinned and refuses to be fobbed off. 'What would you say your main message is?' she persists.
'My message? Am I obliged to carry a message?'
Not a strong counter; the interviewer presses her advantage.
'In The House on Eccles Street your lead character, Marion Bloom, refuses to have sex with her husband until he has worked out who he is. Is that what you are saying: that until men have worked out a new, post-patriarchal identity women should hold themselves apart?'
His mother casts him a glance. Help! it is meant to say, in a droll way.
'Intriguing idea,' she murmurs, 'Of course in the case of Marion's husband there would be a particular severity in demanding that he work out a new identity, since he is a man of - what shall I say? - of infirm identity, of many shapes.'
Eccles Street is a great novel; it will live, perhaps, as long as Ulysses; it will certainly be around long after its maker is in the grave. He was only a child when she wrote it. It unsettles and dizzies him to think that the same being that engendered Eccles Street engendered him. It is time to step in, save her from an inquisition that promises to become tedious. He rises. 'Mother, I am afraid we are going to have to call a halt,' he says. 'We're being fetched for the radio session.' To the interviewer: 'Thank you, but that will have to be all.'
The interviewer pouts with annoyance. Will she find a part for him in the story she files: the novelist of failing powers and her bossy son?
At the radio station the two of them are separated. He is shown into the control booth. The new interviewer, he is surprised to find, is the elegant Moebius woman he had sat beside at dinner. 'This is Susan Moebius, the programme is Writers at Work, and we are speaking today to Elizabeth Costello,' she commences, and proceeds with a crisp introduction. 'Your most recent novel,' she continues, 'called Fire and Ice, set in the Australia of the 1930s, is the story of a young man struggling to make his way as a painter against the opposition of family and society, Did you have anyone in particular in mind when you wrote it? Does it draw upon your own early life?'
'No, I was still a child in the 1930s. Of course we draw upon our own lives all the time - they are our main resource, in a sense our only resource. But no, Fire and Ice isn't autobiography. It is a work of fiction. I made it up.'
'It is a powerful book, I must tell our listeners. But do you find it easy, writing from the position of a man?'
It is a routine question, opening the door to one of her routine paragraphs. To his surprise, she does not take the opening.
'Easy? No. If it were easy it wouldn't be worth doing. It is the otherness that is the challenge. Making up someone other than yourself. Making up a world for him to move in. Making up an Australia.'
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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