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February 27, 2015

“Elizabeth Costello”

by Anne Paddock

I say what I mean. I am an old woman. I do not have the time any longer to say things I do not mean.

Elizabeth Costello is an elderly Australian writer who despite having written several novels is primarily known for a book she published decades ago about the wife of a principal character of another novel, Ulysses by James Joyce. Frustrated that her other works are often ignored, she chooses to speak on controversial issues, philosophers, and unrelated topics when asked to give a lecture, conduct a seminar, or interact with those in the literary world.

Written by J.M. Coetzee, a South African writer and a recipient of numerous awards including the Nobel Prize for literature in 2003 and the Booker prize for Disgrace and The Life and Times of Michael K, Elizabeth Costello appears to be the story of a woman’s life as a writer, mother, lover, and a sister but is in fact, the story of a woman who has struggled with her beliefs and the hypocrisy of being human.

Elizabeth_CostelloElizabeth is a fervent vegetarian and critic of the inherent cruelty of our meat-eating society, and yet she acknowledges her feet are covered in leather shoes and her arm carries a leather purse. She defends the importance of studying the humanities so our children learn humanity and yet admits the future of the novel is questionable because books, like the rest of us will crumble, decay, and not be remembered.

Costello also challenges her family and contemporaries to overcome their willed ignorance and be more compassionate by standing up to injustices by exposing them – and yet, she argues that certain topics shouldn’t be written or read because the words have just as much power to make us worse as better. She touts the importance of taking a stand, yet cannot bring herself to share exactly what her beliefs are under judgement because she won’t surrender to anyone. The world is black and white and yet, it is also very grey.

Drawing on the complexity of family relationships, the Holocaust, the animal livestock industry, and the influence of the Greeks on the humanities, the author reveals a woman of complexity, not unlike himself. Readers of Coetzee’s works know he is a vocal critic of animal cruelty and an advocate of the animal rights movement so it is not surprising that this topic comprises a large portion of the book.

In reading the eight chapters – which are organized by the presentation of a topic set forth by Costello in a series of addresses and then debated by the characters  – I often thought of Jonathan Franzen’s essay “My Bird Problem” in which he details his love of birds and the threat they face by humans and cats. The inherent problem in asking a human or a cat to not be cruel, is that we are asking them to not be who they are: a human and a cat, which is one of the core components of many issues addressed in this book.

Coetzee is also the champion of the underdog taking up the fight of the weak, whether it be animals, women, or the Black South African. An admirer of Franz Kafka, Coetzee concludes Elizabeth Costello with a scene reminiscent of Kafka’s book, “The Trial” in which the world that was condemned now stands in judgment of the critic who won’t reveal herself by standing up for what she believes in.

“Interesting how often religious communities chose to define themselves in terms of dietary prohibitions.” As in “we are the people who don’t eat pork” instead of “we are the people who eat beef, poultry, and fish” “What we don’t do rather than what we do.”

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