Summary and book reviews of Elizabeth Costello by J M Coetzee

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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Book Summary

Coetzee's latest work of fiction offers us a profound and delicate vision of literary celebrity, artistry and the private life of the mind.

In 1982, J. M. Coetzee dazzled the literary world with the now classic Waiting for the Barbarians. Five novels, two Man Booker prizes and the 2003 Nobel Prize For Literature later, Coetzee is a writer of international stature and a novelist whose publication of a new work is heralded as a literary event. Now, in his first work of fiction since The New York Times bestselling Disgrace, he has crafted an unusual and deeply affecting tale.

Elizabeth Costello is a humane, moral, and uncompromising creation.

The subject of J.M. Coetzee's latest work of fiction is an Australian writer of international renown -- fêted, studied and honoured. Famous principally for an early novel that established her reputation and from which, it seems, she will never escape, she has reached the stage, late in life, where her remaining function is to be venerated and applauded.

One of a new breed of intellectual nomads, her life has become a series of engagements in sterile conference rooms throughout the world -- a private consciousness obliged to reveal itself to a curious public: the presentation of a major award at an American college where she is required to deliver a lecture; a sojourn as the writer-in-residence on a cruise liner during which she encounters a fellow guest lecturer, an African poet also employed to divert the passengers. Then there is a disquieting appearance at a writers' conference in Amsterdam where she finds the subject of her talk unexpectedly among the audience. She has made her life's work the study of other people, yet now it is she who is the object of scrutiny. But, for her, what matters is the continuing search for a means of articulating her vision and the verdict of future generations.

J.M. Coetzee's latest work of fiction offers us a profound and delicate vision of literary celebrity, artistry and the private life of the mind.

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 ...

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Reviews

Media Reviews

The New Yorker

Billed as fiction, this puzzling book by the new Nobel laureate in literature is more nebulously a collection of essays, all but two previously published.... Coetzee’s work has always been distinguished by cerebral rigor, which in his strongest novels propels narratives of claustrophobic and often savage intimacy. But here he seems to have lost faith in the power of storytelling; his heroine’s journey takes place almost entirely in the realm of the mind, and the effect is that of exploring a cold, depopulated planet.

The New York Times - Janet Maslin

Mr. Coetzee creates a formidable, even charismatic stand-in...If she is not precisely lovable, Elizabeth is still admirably fierce. Yet this book delves its way into her deepest doubts, culminating in a theatrical denouement teased out of Elizabeth's own affinity for the Kafkaesque.

Kirkus Reviews

As argument, literate, impassioned, and disturbing; as fiction, overemphatic and often dull. Perhaps only for Coetzee’s most ardent admirers.

Publishers Weekly

This is not the most accessible of Coetzee's novels, but it is an important addition to the author's body of work and heady reading for those who enjoy novels of ideas.

Booklist - Keir Graff

Coetzee may be exploding the genre, but Elizabeth Costello has real novelistic force. Our pleasure is watching this fascinating woman wrestle with intellectual issues as if they are life-and-death matters--and being convinced, in the end, that they are.

Library Journal - Barbara Love

Costello's rigid morality and probing intelligence finally illuminate the fundamental question of what it means to be human. An intense and challenging novel; highly recommended for all libraries.

Reader Reviews

Sarah

This book is amazing! While I was reading it, I thought I hated it. I couldn't stand the characters and was truly bored out of my mind. When I finished it, I was in awe. I don't want to give anything away but you will feel like you were rewarded ...   Read More

Johanes

Trul, Costello stole my heart. Coetzee writes for people with a specific outlook to life, and this work especially is one that typifies his writing. May be, he has a limited readership. and very few people will read through this one, but it is always...   Read More

Elise

This is a challenging, grim book, but worth the effort. Other reviewers call Coetzee mentally or morally rigorous. Both are true. At times, I felt defeated by the loftiness and vagueness of Costello's arguments. But the writing is so elegant and ...   Read More

David Levine

Coetzee wrote thise stories to read at scholarly conferences. While the ideas behinding them are always fascinating, they don't always work well as stories. They have all the brilliance and not much of the power of Coetzee's novels. I kept ...   Read More

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