'Is that what you are doing in your books, would you say: making up Australia?'
'Yes, I suppose so. But that is not so easy nowadays. There is more resistance, a weight of Australias made up by many other people, that you have to push against. That is what we mean by tradition, the beginnings of a tradition.'
'I'd like to get on to The House on Eccles Street, which is the book you are best known for in this country, a path-breaking book, and the figure of Molly Bloom. Critics have concentrated on the way you have claimed or reclaimed Molly from Joyce, made her your own. I wonder if you would comment on your intentions in this book, particularly in challenging Joyce, one of the father figures of modern literature, on his own territory
Another clear opening, and this time she takes it.
'Yes, she is an engaging person, isn't she, Molly Bloom - Joyce's Molly, I mean. She leaves her trace across the pages of Ulysses as a bitch on heat leaves her smell. Seductive you can't call it: it is cruder than that. Men pick up the scent and sniff and circle around and snarl at each other, even when Molly isn't on the scene.
'No, I don't see myself as challenging Joyce. But certain books are so prodigally inventive that there is plenty of material left over at the end, material that almost invites you to take it over and use it to build something of your own.'
'But, Elizabeth Costello, you have taken Molly out of the house - if I can continue with your metaphor - taken her out of the house on Eccles Street where her husband and her lover and in a certain sense her author have confined her, where they have turned her into a kind of queen bee, unable to fly, you have taken her and turned her loose on the streets of Dublin. Wouldn't you see that as a challenge to Joyce on your part, a response?'
'Queen bee, bitch Let's revise the figure and call her a lioness, rather, stalking the streets, smelling the smells, seeing the sights. Looking for prey, even. Yes, I wanted to liberate her from that house, and particularly from that bedroom, with the bed with the creaking springs, and turn her loose - as you say - on Dublin.'
'If you see Molly - Joyce's Molly - as a prisoner in the house on Eccles Street, do you see women in general as prisoners of marriage and domesticity?'
'You can't mean women today. But yes, to an extent Molly is a prisoner of marriage, the kind of marriage that was on offer in Ireland in 1904. Her husband Leopold is a prisoner too. If she is shut into the conjugal home, he is shut out. So we have Odysseus trying to get in and Penelope trying to get out. That is the comedy, the comic myth, which Joyce and I in our different ways were paying our respects to.'
Because both women are wearing headphones, addressing the microphone rather than each other, it is hard for him to see how they are getting on together. But he is impressed, as ever, by the persona his mother manages to project: of genial common sense, lack of malice, yet of sharp-wittedness too.
'I want to tell you,' the interviewer continues (a cool voice, he thinks: a cool woman, capable, not a lightweight at all), 'what an impact The House on Eccles Street made on me when I first read it in the 1970s. I was a student, I had studied Joyce's book, I had absorbed the famous Molly Bloom chapter and the critical orthodoxy that came with it, namely that here Joyce had released the authentic voice of the feminine, the sensual reality of woman, and so forth. And then I read your book and realised that Molly didn't have to be limited in the way Joyce had made her to be, that she could equally well be an intelligent woman with an interest in music and a circle of friends of her own and a daughter with whom she shared confidences - it was a revelation, as I say. And I began to wonder about other women whom we think of as having been given a voice by male writers, in the name of their liberation, yet in the end only to further and to serve a male philosophy. I am thinking of D. H. Lawrence's women in particular, but if you go further back they might include Tess of the D' Urbervilles and Anna Karenina, to name only two. It is a huge question, but I wonder if you have anything to say about it - not just about Marion Bloom and the others but about the project of reclaiming women's lives in general.'
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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