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Dispensing with realism, we can see reality

Elizabeth Costello A Novel J.M. Coetzee Viking Press: 224 pp., $21.95

November 02, 2003|John Bayley | John Bayley, a professor emeritus of English literature at Oxford University's St. Catherine's College, is the author of numerous works, including "Leo Tolstoy," "The Red Hat: A Novel" and "Elegy for Iris," about his late wife, Iris Murdoch.

Elizabeth COSTELLO is a quite famous Australian novelist -- her best known work is a feminist reinterpretation of James Joyce's Mrs. Bloom -- now getting on in life and more accustomed to traveling, lecturing and receiving prizes than to writing new novels. She is about to visit America, escorted by her son, to pick up quite a grand award, given by Altona College. In addition to the prize, it is incumbent on her to give a talk, answer questions and in a general way make herself available to Altona's faculty.

So far so good. "Elizabeth Costello," the latest novel by J.M. Coetzee, who won this year's Nobel Prize for literature, might almost be an academic version of E.M. Forster's Mrs. Moore, making the passage from one continent to another. But just as modern poetry is often about the difficulty of writing poetry, so the contemporary novel usually feels a need to escape the banality of mere narration. New Yorker cartoonist J.B. Handelsman imagined the sultan's executioner's being sent away that first morning when he arrived to collect the new wife, Scheherazade. "Go away," says the sultan, "I must hear what happened to the hippopotamus' wife."

Good novels indeed used to tell us, in their own good time, what happened to the hippopotamus' wife. Coetzee, an excellent traditional novelist in his own way, as a masterpiece like "Waiting for the Barbarians" so clearly reveals, has decided to play around here in the contemporary manner, with results that at their best are brilliant, at their worst rather unfocused and scrappy. Instead of chapters, he divides the book into eight sections, the two longest being the first -- "Realism" -- and "The Problem of Evil." Some of what we read is palpably authorial; some are Costello's reflections, parts of her speech and her unrehearsed conversations.

Iris Murdoch used to say that philosophy and fiction do not mix. She wrote both but was always careful, or so she claimed, to keep the two apart. In fiction, the hippopotamus' wife was, so to speak, much more important as herself than were any fleeting metaphysical speculations, en route, by the author or other characters. It may be that Coetzee doesn't intend us to feel any great interest in Costello herself or in what happens to her. Whether that is so or not, it is certainly difficult to feel very much.

"Robinson Crusoe" is a shrewd example chosen by Coetzee to tackle in this novel's section on realism. The moment of truth -- of the Daniel Defoe novel's essential verisimilitude -- comes early on, when the shipwrecked Crusoe safely reaches shore. During the day that follows, bits of miscellaneous flotsam come to land, relics of the drowned crew, including "two shoes that were not fellows." That is the moment of reality: After that moment, we accept everything, believe everything Coetzee tells us. "Robinson Crusoe" is the story of the real man: It is not a novel about the problem of writing a novel called "Robinson Crusoe."

"Realism" is a brilliant opening section, which shows that Coetzee thoroughly understands what he is trying to do as a novelist. He is in fact not aiming for realism but mingling with skill and art the appearances of realism, of the "two shoes that were not fellows," with a nicely calculated degree of reflection, meditation and his own substitute, so to speak, for philosophy. No doubt it is a combination of these elements that has helped to win him his much-deserved Nobel.

Costello does not "believe" in anything, except the reality of the mud frogs she used to see in the small river where she played as a child -- but did that river really exist? She sometimes wonders. And she turns out to have no personal views on "The Problem of Evil." She does not, like Hannah Arendt, believe in evil's banality, nor does she desire to gloat darkly over its contemplation. When Costello remembers the 1944 plot against Adolf Hitlerand how he gave orders that the conspirators should be hanged with especially thin piano wire, she does her best to reject the image, to refuse any mental connection with it or any similarly evil event. Coetzee seems to be implying that we cannot help enjoying the spectacle of evil -- the Crucifixion, Sept. 11 -- and that there is wickedness in that enjoyment, as much as in the events themselves.

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