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
    Oct 2004, 224 pages

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'No, I don't think there is anything I would want to say, I think you've expressed it all very fully. Of course, fair's fair, men will have to set about reclaiming the Heathcliffs and Rochesters from romantic stereotyping too, to say nothing of poor old dusty Casaubon. It will be a grand spectacle. But, seriously, we can't go on parasitizing the classics forever. I am not excluding myself from the charge. We've got to start doing some inventing of our own.'

This is not in the script at all. A new departure. Where will it lead? But alas, the Moebius woman (who is now glancing at the studio clock) does not pick up on it.

'In your more recent novels you have gone back to Australian settings. Could you say something about how you see Australia? What does it mean to you to be an Australian writer? Australia is a country that remains very far away, at least to Americans. Is that part of your consciousness as you write: that you are reporting from the far edges?'

'The far edges. That is an interesting expression. You won't find many Australians nowadays prepared to accept it. Far from what? they would say. Nevertheless, it has a certain meaning, even if it is a meaning foisted on us by history. We're not a country of extremes - I'd say we're rather pacific - but we are a country of extremities. We have lived our extremities because there hasn't been a great deal of resistance in any direction. If you begin to fall, there isn't much to stop you.'

They are back among the commonplaces, on familiar ground. He can stop listening.

We skip to the evening, to the main event, the presentation of the award. As son and companion of the speaker he finds himself in the first row of the audience, among the special guests. The woman to his left introduces herself. 'Our daughter is at Altona,' she says. 'She is writing her honours dissertation on your mother. She's a great fan. She has made us read everything.' She pats the wrist of the man beside her. They have the look of money, old money. Benefactors, no doubt. 'Your mother is much admired in this country. Particularly by young people. I hope you will tell her that.'

All across America, young women writing dissertations on his mother. Admirers, adherents, disciples. Would it please his mother to be told she has American disciples?

The presentation scene itself we skip. It is not a good idea to interrupt the narrative too often, since storytelling works by lulling the reader or listener into a dreamlike state in which the time and space of the real world fade away, superseded by the time and space of the fiction. Breaking into the dream draws attention to the constructedness of the story, and plays havoc with the realist illusion. However, unless certain scenes are skipped over we will be here all afternoon. The skips are not part of the text, they are part of the performance.

So the award is made, after which his mother is left alone at the rostrum to give her acceptance speech, entitled in the programme 'What is Realism?'. The time has arrived for her to show her paces.

Elizabeth Costello dons her reading glasses. 'Ladies and gentle men,' she says, and begins to read.

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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