May 7, 2012

Coetzee's lecture novel

Elizabeth Costello by J. M. Coetzee (Viking Penguin, 2003)

The lecture as a species of the novel? And this academic invasion works? I've read two novels of this kind. One was Elizabeth Costello by J. M. Coetzee, constructed out of its novelist character's lectures which were, in large part, transcribed verbatim in the text. Some sections of the lectures were paraphrased, other "extraneous" writings or events in the book were merely glossed over, dismissed with a stylistic flourish. Here's the omniscient narrator, right before Elizabeth Costello's delivering a lecture on the subject of realism.

   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works by lulling the reader or listener into a dreamlike state in which the time and space of the real world fade away, superseded by the time and space of the fiction.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.

This was from the first lecture, entitled "What is Realism?" It already pointed to the lecture novel as a form of performance. The omission of supposedly insufferable parts was the rule ("There is a scene in the restaurant, mainly dialogue, which we will skip.") Skip, skip, skip. The reader was delivered from unnecessary scenes. He should be thankful for this consideration on the part of the narrator. And Costello, for her forthright behavior, despite her unstable and opinionated nature. And Coetzee, for keeping everything to the interesting minimum.

Let us invert the sense. How about the novel as a species of academic lecture? Or is it the same thing as the first? Let's skip to the second lecture, where Costello was aboard a cruise ship giving a talk about "The Novel in Africa". After her lecture, she had a debate with someone with whom she had a bit of a "history". They were arguing about the "living voice" in the African novel, its oral nature. Her position: the novel was not a performance.

The novel was never intended to be the script of a performance. From the beginning the novel had made a virtue of not depending on being performed. You can't have both live performance and cheap, handy distribution. It's the one or the other.

I'm not sure what she'll think of audiobooks. But skipping ahead to the third lecture, a two-part talk on "The Lives of Animals", the novelist Costello was up to some provocative argumentation. (This double lecture first appeared as a self-contained book, with commentaries from four scholars, in 1999. A few years ago I read an edition that was without the commentaries.) In her argument against animal cruelty (and also: in Coetzee's argument against animal cruelty, via fiction), Costello brought in a metaphoric leap of condemnation.

   Let me say it openly: we are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it, in that ours is an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing rabbits, rats, poultry, live-stock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them.

Despite the hardened position, the speech had room for self-deprecation. She basically spoke her mind because such "philosophical language", which at the same time was literary language, was "available" to her. And so she resorted to it:

But the fact is, if you had wanted someone to come here and discriminate for you between mortal and immortal souls, or between rights and duties, you would have called in a philosopher, not a person whose sole claim to your attention is to have written stories about made-up people.

The last few words defined the surface work of a novelist, Costello's and Coetzee's. Perhaps the greatest qualities of Coetzee as a writer, and that of his alter-ego, are two-fold: sympathy and compassion. The first is prerequisite to the second. Costello later spoke of the deeper, human, role the novelist could embody.

[T]here is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another. There are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination. If you want proof, consider the following. Some years ago I wrote a book called The House on Eccles Street. To write that book I had to think my way into the existence of Marion Bloom. Either I succeeded or I did not. If I did not, I cannot imagine why you invited me here today. In any event, the point is, Marion Bloom never existed. Marion Bloom was a figment of James Joyce's imagination. If I can think my way into the existence of a being who has never existed, then I can think my way into the existence of a bat or a chimpanzee or an oyster, any being with whom I share the substrate of life.   

Skirting around (and yes, skipping) the main argument of Costello here, the fact is, The House on Eccles Street never existed. "Costello's Marion Bloom" never existed. It was a figment of Costello's imagination just as Costello herself was in Coetzee's. Creating the persona of Costello in this novel of lectures probably arose, in part, from the novelist's need to put distance between his radical views and that of his protagonist. He was always cross-examining the controversial contents of his character's speech, through Costello's detractors and devil's advocates, even if he obviously shared and believed in them. By his creation he produced and structured a layer of inquiry wherein the novelist adopted the very fictional methods of his character, and so demonstrated the capacity of fiction to augment the imagination and enlarge the spirit.

Costello, as character, was both likeable and unlikeable. Mostly she was unlikeable. But her intelligent and realistic representation was more than enough for her vitality of ideas and sympathetic imagination to leap off the page. To skip from fictional design and enter the reader's universe of ideas.

The second lecture novel I read after Coetzee's was Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas. In it, the character was delivering a lecture on the subject of irony. Pure fun. Maybe I'll write something on it.


  1. Elizabeth Costello is the Coetzee work I'd most like to read. I'd very much liked his early, Beckett-like Life and Times of Michael K., but was less enthusiastic about some of his later works and gave up reading him somewhere along the way. But this one persistently begs for my attention, so I'll likely give it a try thanks to your comments. I'd assumed that the second "lecture" novel was the Vila-Matas. Please do write something about it. Following Trevor's brief post on it over at The Mookse and the Gripes, I've been considering writing about it too. We'll make it a read-along. Oh, and by the way, I love that you're so attuned to noticing these new genres; speaking of which, the Andres Neuman novel just published in English translation has a translator protagonist.

  2. I remember being intensely, I don't know, irritated reading about this book when it came out. Sympathy with the conference participants, I guess, who invite Coetzee to yak about literature and instead get one of these things. But the idea has grown on me, a lot, and anyways at some point anyone who asks Coetzee to speak has to know what they'll get.

    So, someday I'll read the book. Always a pleasure now to read about it.

    The only Coetzee I have read is Foe which was excellent but more a course in Advanced Defoe Studies disguised as a novel.

  3. Scott, I wanted to read more of his latter books since I lost him in the radar after he won the Nobel. For me Dusklands, Waiting for the Barbarians, and The Master of Petersburg are quite excellent. Perhaps the very novels Costello would have some problem about! I was planning to write about Never Any End with Costello only as an introduction, but the latter invaded my thoughts. And I kept hearing about Traveller of the Century it's almost I've already read it.

  4. Tom, Costello was really a polarizing figure. That's probably her strength as a character. Coetzee must be so uncomfortable talking about his own views in public that he had to invent a mouthpiece. (That's one way of looking at it.) Anyone who asks Coetzee for a talk will be rewarded or punished depending on his willingness to be played. I always liked novels masquerading as something, and Coetzee's always wore masks other than novels.