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Cannonball Read IV: Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee

By Sophia | Books | April 12, 2012 |

By Sophia | Books | April 12, 2012 |

“In his new work of fiction, J.M. Coetzee has crafted an unusual and deeply affecting tale told through an ingenious series of formal addresses. Vividly imagined and masterfully wrought, Elizabeth Costello is, on the surface, the story of a woman’s life as mother, sister, lover, and writer. Yet it is also a profound and haunting meditation on the nature of storytelling that only a writer of Coetzee’s caliber could accomplish.”
I had never read anything by Coetzee before, although he appears to be very well regarded. He has won the CNA Prize (South Africa’s premier literary award) three times; the Booker prize twice, and a bunch of others. In addition, Elizabeth Costello won the Nobel Prize for fiction back in 2003. And if all this acclaim weren’t enough, my father gave me the book, exhorting its virtues and telling me I had to read it.

I am somewhat disappointed in myself for not appreciating or seeing the genius of this novel, but I am forced to admit that I just didn’t get it. Although I am aware that some parts were well written, I was not moved. The beginning I found slow but with some interesting details and arguments. However, instead of gaining steam, learning more about the characters and feeling more involved with the story, as I was expecting to happen, by the end I had lost any interest I had in the character, and was frustrated at the unending discussions. However, I did sleep better the week I was reading this book than I had in a long time. I would pick up the book right before bed and after a couple of pages barely be able to keep my eyes open.

Elizabeth Costello is an Australian writer. She has written a number of critically acclamed novels in her past but is now facing old age. The story is written through a series of public talks that either she, or someone she knows well, gives. The themes vary pretty drastically from: the ethics of eating meat (one I found more interesting); to the nature of the novel; to something about the study of humanities versus religion (this is when I really started losing interest); to the essence of being a writer and death (this is when I really got tired of Elizabeth Costello as a character). Along with these philosophical discussions are glimpses into Costello’s relationships with her son, daughter-in-law, sister, and former lover.

I am a very concrete thinker. I don’t mind discussing philosophical ideas, but to keep me interested they need to be based in something that affects people. That’s why I appreciated Elizabeth Costello’s interactions with her friends and family. Coetzee quietly and subtly brings up the complicated feelings and tensions that come with relationships. However, I immediately got frustrated when the subject became too ethereal. I don’t care how Elizabeth Costello’s sister defines the study of humanities and how that somehow makes her religious ways better. And I am bitter that I was forced to read pages and pages of these discussions that held no meaning for me, just to get a small glimpse into the characters’ lives. Considering the myriad prizes this author and this book have won, I may be in the minority with my reaction to this book, but it was not for me.

(Header image: Going Out by Avigdor Arikha, 1981, oil on canvas, The Israel Museum of Art, Jerusalem, Israel.)

For more of Sophia’s reviews, check out her blog, My Life as Seen Through Books.

This review is part of Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it.

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