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Esquire
Wednesday, October 22nd, 2003


 

Elizabeth Costello

by J. M. Coetzee

Great Writing About Not Writing

A review by Adrienne Miller

Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee tests fiction's limits in his superb new work of biographical reconstruction. Elizabeth Costello, the "distinguished" Australian novelist, is no longer young and continues to be known principally for a book she wrote forty years earlier. Costello is a writer who no longer writes, at least not novels, not anymore, so she does what all writers who don't write do: hires herself out on the grim lecture circuit. Coetzee circles his heroine like a shark — what we know of her we learn principally from a series of eight of her disjointed speeches (at college campuses, a cruise ship, an awards ceremony in Amsterdam...with a guest appearance by the real-life novelist Paul West), ranging in subject matter from animal rights to the problem of evil. Costello's mind is as formidable as it ever was, but her body is failing; she's old and she's a woman, and people often treat her with a certain cruelty and disdain (although Coetzee is far too delicate a writer to moralize about this point). The main question in this novel of ideas: What does Costello believe in? She's given her life over to words — to the exclusion of her children, her sister, who's a nun in Africa, and who doesn't believe in "the novel" or anything similarly humanistic — but even words have betrayed her by the book's overwhelming conclusion.


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