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A Writer’s Life: J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello

ISSUE:  Fall 2004

Elizabeth Costello. By J. M. Coetzee. Viking, October 2003. $21.95

I was lucky enough to be in the auditorium at Princeton University on October 15, 1997, when Professor John Coetzee rose to deliver “The Philosophers and the Animals”—the first of two Tanner Lectures on Human Values he was giving that year under the general title “The Lives of Animals.” This was, of course, J. M. Coetzee the novelist, but his presence in an academic setting made one particularly conscious of his status as Professor of General Literature at the University of Cape Town. There had been indications in a few of Coetzee’s publications of a concern with the question of human responses to animal suffering, most notably the passage about the chained dog in The Master of Petersburg. Readers of Doubling the Point would have been struck by a moving passage in parentheses in one of the interviews: “Let me add … that I, as a person, as a personality, am overwhelmed, that my thinking is thrown into confusion and helplessness, by the fact of suffering in the world, and not only human suffering” (248). (Disgrace had, of course, not been published at this point.) There was also the fact, known to many, of his vegetarianism, comically represented in “Meat Country.” Now, it seemed, he was going to spell out in two lectures his views on animal rights and the ethics of human-animal relations.

Although I don’t recall any audible reaction from the audience, there could be no doubt about the surprise produced by Coetzee’s opening words, spoken in his quiet, grave voice: “He is waiting at the gate when her flight comes in.” No preliminary explanation, no introduction to prepare us for this clearly fictional statement, couched in the third-person present tense familiar from The Master of Petersburg (his most recent novel at the time), and for those of us who thought this might be the familiar lecturer’s strategy of beginning with a quotation from another author, no break in the fictional tissue from henceforward to the end of the presentation. What made the event in which we were participating all the more disquieting was our gradual realization that it was being mirrored, in a distorted representation, in the fiction itself: the central character was revealed to be a novelist from the Southern Hemisphere who had been asked to give a lecture at an American college and who had chosen to speak on the human treatment of animals.1 We listened to the lecture given within the fiction—itself a testing of the norms of academic debate—and to the fictional account of the formal dinner that followed. Coetzee’s final words, spoken in his fiction by the college president, could have been spoken by the chair of the real lecture we were attending: “We look forward to tomorrow’s offering.” Coetzee’s second lecture, “The Poets and the Animals,” did indeed follow the next day; it was a continuation of the story of Elizabeth Costello’s visit to Appleton College, including a seminar led by the visiting novelist, entitled, as the audience were now primed to expect, “The Poets and the Animals.”

The two “lectures” were published two years later as The Lives of Animals, accompanied by “reflections” offered by four scholars in various disciplines (revisions of the responses they gave in Princeton), and were reprinted in 2003 in Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons, without the responses and shorn of the academic footnotes that in the original publication contributed to the uncertainty of genre. Unrecorded in print, however, are the questions from members of the audience after the “lectures”; here, too, Coetzee tended to avoid the customary first-person consideration of points made to him, preferring locutions like: “I think what Elizabeth Costello would say is that …”

The Princeton occasion was not the first time Coetzee had presented a fiction about Elizabeth Costello as a public lecture, though it became the best-known such event after the publication of The Lives of Animals. In November 1996 he had delivered the Ben Belitt Lecture at Bennington College, in which, under the title “What Is Realism?” he had read a fiction with a very similar framework: as in “The Lives of Animals,” Elizabeth Costello visits Appleton College in Waltham, Massachusetts (which sounds more like Bennington College than Princeton University), on this occasion to receive a literary award and make an acceptance speech entitled, it goes without saying, “What Is Realism?”2 We may surmise that Coetzee had no long-term plan when writing these early Costello pieces of combining them into something on a larger scale, and that when he was invited to deliver the Tanner Lectures at Princeton he decided to reuse the framework that had been successful at Bennington the previous year without worrying about overlap or inconsistencies—even having his protagonist discuss the same Kafka story, “Report to an Academy.”3 Costello’s son John, who is a crucial focalizing presence in both pieces, lives in Australia in “What Is Realism?” (he “teaches in the department of astronomy at the Australian National University” [60]) but in the United States in Lives of Animals (he is “assistant professor of physics and astronomy” at Appleton College). When Coetzee brought the pieces together in Elizabeth Costello, he had to make some slightly awkward adjustments to achieve consistency: in the earlier piece, with which the book begins (now called just “Realism”), John is said to be on leave in Australia for a year from his college in Massachusetts and has accompanied his mother from that country to a newly invented institution—Altona College, Pennsylvania—for the presentation of her award.4

Elizabeth Costello incorporates two later lectures in which Coetzee asked his audience to accept a fiction in place of the expected first-person presentation. He delivered the Fall 1998 Una’s Lecture at the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities at the University of California, Berkeley, under the title “The Novel in Africa,” placing his protagonist on board a cruise ship and devoting much more space to a lecture by a (fictional) Nigerian novelist than to Costello’s own lecture. In March 2001 he read “The Humanities in Africa” at the Carl Friedrich von Siemens Stiftung in Munich, moving the location to South Africa and focusing on Elizabeth’s sister Blanche. On a third occasion, a Nexus Conference on “Evil” in Tilburg, Holland, in June 2002, he once again challenged his audience with a self-referential presentation: he offered a fictional account of Elizabeth Costello’s participation in a conference on the question of evil in Holland. This time, however, his contribution was announced on the program not as a lecture but as a “Reading,” under the heading—the organizers no doubt had two of his novels in mind—”The Possessed; Crime and Punishment; Guilt and Atonement.”5 In Coetzee’s fiction, however, itself first published in Salmagundi under the title “Elizabeth Costello and the Problem of Evil,” Costello does not give a reading but a talk entitled “Witness, Silence, and Censorship” under the general rubric “Silence, Complicity, Guilt.” Fact and fiction are further mixed in the talk itself, which centers on a real novel, Paul West’s The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg.6 When she arrives at the conference, Costello is alarmed to find that West is among the conference participants, and one almost expects to find his name among the participants in the Tilburg conference when one looks it up on the Web. In this respect, however, reality fails to conform to fiction.

There is a good deal of new material in Elizabeth Costello. The original published text of “The Humanities in Africa” ends with the triumph of the antihumanist, Christ-imitating Blanche: “You went for the wrong Greeks, Elizabeth” (89). The “lesson” with the same title in Elizabeth Costello gives us Elizabeth’s uncommunicated response to this charge, taking up another ten pages. There are also three new pieces: the final two lessons, “Eros” and “At the Gate,” which make no use of the lecture format that has played through all the previous chapters, and a postscript in the form of a letter written by the imaginary wife—another Elizabeth C.—of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s imaginary Lord Chandos.7 (As in “The Problem of Evil,” Coetzee injects reality into his fiction in “Eros” by having Costello fancy the poet Robert Duncan, who may well have toured Australia with Philip Whalen in 1963 and read his well-known “Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar.”) A further episode in the life of Elizabeth Costello appeared a few months after the publication of the book; entitled “As a Woman Grows Older,” it was read at the New York Public Library and printed in the New York Review of Books early in 2004. Not quite consistent with the pieces in the book—Costello’s daughter in Nice is now running an art gallery there and not “the guest of a foundation,” as she was in “The Problem of Evil” (Elizabeth Costello, 160), and her son now lives in Baltimore—it consists largely of conversations between Costello and her two children, anxious about their now seventy-two-year-old mother’s refusal to change her mode of life.

The fiction-as-lecture format returned in a remarkable guise in 2003, when Coetzee received the Nobel Prize for Literature and gave the obligatory address to an invited audience in Stockholm. Once again, instead of the expected format, his lecture took the form of a story, but this time without any of the traditionally novelistic, sometimes deliberately clichéd, openings of the Costello pieces. “He and His Man” begins with a quotation from Robinson Crusoe—which misleads the hearer or reader into thinking that the title refers to Crusoe and Friday—but then plunges into a report of a report: “Boston, on the coast of Lincolnshire, is a handsome town, writes his man. The tallest church steeple in all of England is to be found there; seapilots use it to navigate by.”8We may recognize the style of Defoe’s Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain—much of the address is made up of quotations, with slight variations, from this work and from the same author’s Journal of the Plague Year9—but if “his man” doing the reporting is Defoe, not Friday, who is “he” who is being reported to? Only when we hear of his parasol and his parrot, which used to squawk “Poor Robin Crusoe,” are we sure. Defoe sending reports to Crusoe (we hear of “his man” writing in a “quick, neat hand”): this is curious enough as it is, but it later emerges that the reports, and the man who sends them, are inventions of Crusoe’s, who spends his evenings in the Jolly Tar on the Bristol waterfront making up these fictions. Soon the style changes to reflect the creative process itself: “Let him be a man of business… . Or else let the man be a saddler with a home and a shop and a warehouse in Whitechapel.” But the man seems to become increasingly independent of the one who is supposed to be inventing him, and the piece ends with a fantasy, Crusoe’s but also Coetzee’s, in which “he” and “his man” pass one another, unhailing, on ships crossing a stormy sea.


One negative response to Elizabeth Costello has been to complain that Coetzee uses his fictional creations to advance arguments—about the human relation to animals, about the value of the humanist tradition, about the morality of representing evil in fiction—without assuming responsibility for them and is thus ethically at fault. To level this charge is to take the arguments presented as arguments and to take the making of them as the fundamental purpose of the pieces in which they occur. (Most of the respondents in The Lives of Animals, for instance, engage with the arguments in this way.) It is undeniable that the arguments have a certain weight and deserve to be taken seriously. The mistake would be to think that in doing so one had responded to the full ethical force of the fictions themselves.

For the Costello pieces (and I’m including “He and His Man” as a closely related text) are, whatever their generic oddness, works of literature. (We must not miss the irony in the collection’s subtitle, Eight Lessons: it is Elizabeth Costello as much as the reader who is undergoing these lessons, and what either has learned by the end remains a matter for debate.) As I have stressed, many of these pieces were first staged as public events in which the author was also the speaker; they lose that dimension on the page (though it is a fruitful exercise to attempt to recall it while reading), but as literary works to be read and lived through they remain, in an important sense, events. The arguments within them should more strictly be called arguings, utterances made by individuals in concrete situations—wholly unlike the paradigmatic philosophical argument, which implicitly lays claim to a timeless, spaceless, subjectless condition as it pursues its logic. They are, that is, events staged within the event of the work; and they invite the reader’s participation not just in the intellectual exercise of positions expounded and defended but in the human experience, and the human cost, of exposing convictions, beliefs, doubts, and fears in a public arena.10

One reader—a philosopher, not a literary critic—who sees the importance of this is Cora Diamond. Here is part of her response to The Lives of Animals:

    [Elizabeth Costello] is a woman haunted by the horror of what we do to animals. We see her as wounded by this knowledge, this horror, and by the knowledge of how unhaunted others are. The wound marks her and isolates her… . So the life of this speaking and wounded and clothed animal is one of the “lives of animals” that the story is about; if it is true that we generally remain unaware of the lives of other animals, it is also true that, as readers of this story, we may remain unaware, as her audience does, of the life of the speaking animal at its center… . If we see in the lectures a wounded woman, one thing that wounds her is precisely the common and taken-for-granted mode of thought that “how we should treat animals” is an “ethical issue,” and the knowledge that she will be taken to be contributing, or intending to contribute, to discussion of it. (“The Difficulty of Reality,” 3–7)

As Diamond understands, it is not enough to say that Coetzee is trying out positions and arguments as a kind of intellectual experiment, taking them to an extreme he could not himself endorse. This may be accurate, but it omits the crucial fact of the fictional characters and contexts involved, characters and contexts that have their being only as events in the process of reading. Costello herself makes the case powerfully in “The Poets and the Animals” in relation to arguments about human access to animal being: “If I do not convince you, that is because my words, here, lack the power to bring home to you the wholeness, the unabstracted, unintellectual nature, of that animal being. That is why I urge you to read the poets who return the living, electric being to language” (Elizabeth Costello, 111). These words themselves, although in Costello’s mouth they are an assertion, are part of Coetzee’s fictional invention of a character and therefore part of an event which returns the living human being to language.

Coetzee introduced “He and His Man” to his Stockholm audience with a brief anecdote: as a child he read Robinson Crusoe avidly and then later, in a children’s encyclopedia (no doubt Arthur Mee’s great work, so important to the young John in Boyhood), discovered that behind it there was an author, Daniel Defoe. Who was this Defoe, when Crusoe so clearly spoke in his own voice about real adventures?11 As so often with Coetzee’s accounts of his own fiction, this explanation camouflages as much as it clarifies. The piece does indeed play with the reversal of author and character, so that Defoe the novelist becomes a fictional creation of Crusoe’s (as Elizabeth Costello the novelist is a fiction of Coetzee’s), and, in view of Defoe’s own highly successful enterprise of creating fictional narrators who were read as actual authors, the stratagem is an appropriate one. Fiction’s uncertain relation to fact has, as we have seen, been a constant thread in the Costello pieces, and in Coetzee’s career it goes back to the documentary trappings of Jacobus Coetzee’s narrative in Dusklands and embraces the engagement with authorial biographies in Foe and The Master of Petersburg and the self-distanced autobiographies of Boyhood and Youth.

However, to locate Coetzee in the tradition of postmodern playfulness, teasing the reader with fictional truths and truthful fictions, is to overlook the much more important engagement in his work with the demands and responsibilities of writing and reading, an engagement that runs through these pieces as it does through the novels and memoirs. What “He and His Man” explores is the strange process of fictional writing: the self-division it necessitates, the uncertain origins of the words that one finds oneself writing, the haunting illusion—captured in that image at the end of the piece—that there is an unbridgeable distance between the person who lives in the world and the person, or impersonal force, that produces the words. (Crusoe comments: “Only when he yields himself up to this man of his do such words come.”) That Elizabeth Costello is a novelist is not simply a device to generate self-referential ironies in the fictions about her; it is a means toward a profound self-examination on the part of Coetzee, a testing of, and by, the obligations and temptations faced by the literary writer. The reader, moreover, is not a spectator of this process, but a participant, since the event of reading cannot be separated from the event of writing.12

It is when we take all the Costello pieces together that their abiding concern with the creation of literary works, with what it means to commit oneself to a life of writing, emerges most clearly. Although individual pieces may appear to focus on issues not particularly related to this question (issues sometimes determined by the nature of the invitation to which Coetzee is responding), such as animal lives or the value of the humanist tradition, the figure of Elizabeth Costello (or in one case Robinson Crusoe) as writer is always central. Coetzee is pursuing the difficult path he broached in The Master of Petersburg, with its dark exploration of the cost of fictional creation, and alluded to at the very end of Boyhood (written as he was beginning the Costello pieces) when the young John contemplates the burden of the storyteller’s vocation.

It is important, too, that Costello is an elderly, successful writer: a writer at the stage of her life at which the big questions, set aside in the rush of an early career, come to haunt her. (She is sixty-six at the start of Elizabeth Costello, seventy-two in “When a Woman Grows Older.” We may note that there is no mention of any new publication during these six years and only one reference to work in progress—some short stories referred to in “When a Woman.”) She is also at a stage when the demands of the body, also easy to ignore in the healthfulness of youth, complicate the activities of the writer; when the inseparability of mental processes from physical desire and revulsion becomes unmistakable. I don’t wish to pursue the question of the degree to which Coetzee is writing out of his own preoccupations as a famous (though not yet elderly) writer, but it is presumably not for nothing that his and his central character’s last names begin with the same letters—even if the counterfigure of her son is given Coetzee’s first name.

Elizabeth Costello’s opening lesson announces a problem that the entire book both pursues and exemplifies: can the tradition of realism (on which Coetzee’s writing in these pieces depends for the readerly empathy that is crucial to its purpose) deal with ideas? I have stressed that Coetzee, for all his experimentation, has always drawn on the stubborn power of realism, on the vivid representation of a world, external and internal, into which the reader is invited. To the extent that we find ourselves treating the Costello pieces as arguments, their realism fails—and to include a long, uninterrupted disquisition in a fiction is to test the limits of realism, as Joyce (in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) and Thomas Mann (in The Magic Mountain) had already shown. In “Realism,” Coetzee demonstrates what has often been demonstrated before, what has, indeed, become one of postmodernism’s party tricks: that the realistic illusion can survive the author’s showing of his or her hand. Instead of the unannounced gaps in the narrative upon which the realist tradition relies, the speaker of this text—let us assume it is Professor Coetzee—signals the places where he skips. Moreover, it is made clear that he is a speaker: at one point he says, “Unless certain scenes are skipped over we will be here all afternoon” (Elizabeth Costello, 16), and notes that these scenes are not skipped in the text he is reading (later he will allude to a gap in the text itself [24]).

The issue of realism’s dealings with ideas is raised directly by the speaker—and at the same time the reader of Elizabeth Costello receives a hint about the interpretation of this text—in a comment about conversations in which fictional speakers discuss issues: “In such debates ideas do not and indeed cannot float free: they are tied to the speakers by whom they are enounced, and generated from the matrix of individual interests out of which their speakers act in the world” (9). Elizabeth Costello’s speech in accepting her award is not so much a presentation of ideas, however, as a revelation of her uncertainties and fears about the status of writing and of language more generally, and by implication a questioning of the value of the art to which she has devoted her life. She will be haunted by this question, in various guises, throughout the book.

In Lesson 2, “The Novel in Africa,” the Australian novelist who writes in the European tradition (she has piggybacked on Joyce as Coetzee has piggybacked on Defoe and Dostoevsky) is challenged by a novelist who claims to speak for the oral African tradition. (Had Costello been South African, the connection between this challenge and the criticisms sometimes leveled at Coetzee would have been even more evident.)13 Her lecture is given only in part and in summary; what is more significant is her lack of conviction in what she is saying about the novel to her shipboard audience. She does not accept the arguments of Egudu, the Nigerian novelist, but there is a sense in which orality comes to complicate her publicly announced, and once-held, beliefs: orality as the power of the voice (Egudu’s voice “makes one shudder,” says the Russian singer to Costello) and as a marker of the power of sex.

We have noted already, through the words of Cora Diamond, the significance of Costello’s suffering in “The Lives of Animals,” which constitutes the next two lessons; what must also be stressed is that she is presented (and present in Appleton College) very much as a novelist. Part of the burden she is now experiencing is the burden of feeling one’s way into other lives, including the lives of animals: the greater one’s capacity to enter imaginatively into a different mode of existence, the stronger one’s horror at behavior that denies its value. The words that end this section of the book, words of intended comfort spoken by her son as she is about to leave Waltham, are at the same time words that acknowledge, unintentionally perhaps, her death-directed state of mind: “There, there. It will soon be over” (115).

Another challenge to the novelist’s vocation is staged in “The Humanities in Africa”: Sister Bridget, Elizabeth’s sister Blanche, who has devoted her life to Christian ideals, mounts an attack on the humanities in her address to the (presumably somewhat perplexed) graduands of a South African university. The gulf between the two sisters on questions of art becomes most apparent when Elizabeth visits Blanche’s mission in Zululand and is introduced to a Zulu sculptor, Joseph. (The fact that he is known only by his first name in the mission hints at the persistence of racist attitudes among the devout nuns.) Joseph, now an old man, has spent his life carving nothing but crucified Christs, the same tortured body over and over in a variety of sizes, and although Elizabeth can think of this only as a stultifying waste of artistic potential, Blanche praises it as true devotion. If anywhere in the book Coetzee is imaginatively entering a mental and emotional region that is deeply foreign to him, this is the place: while Costello fails according to the standards of empathy she has enunciated in “The Lives of Animals,” Coetzee—through the power of his writing—lets us live for a time inside the mind of a dedicated servant of Christ for whom most art is a squandering of human energy. Although the section added to the piece in Elizabeth Costello provides Costello with the opportunity to mount a counterattack on Blanche—the story of her sexual generosity to a dying old man—it does not efface the experience she has been through in Zululand, and it is significant that although she imagines her story as a letter to Blanche, she doesn’t send it.14 We see more clearly than ever that this book is far from a celebration of the novelist’s art.

“The Problem of Evil” again probes the limits of the novelist’s enterprise. As in her lectures in “The Lives of Animals,” Costello presents an argument that is less a reasoned case than an expression of an intense response, at once mental, emotional, and physical, to something she has become acutely aware of without having any choice in the matter. In this instance, it is the power of realistic fiction to expose the reader to human evil. Once again, we have no grounds for taking this as Coetzee’s position, or even one he is attracted to: what he has done is to imaginatively represent what it might be like to feel this way (or, rather, to come to feel this way at the end of a long career as a novelist). Our rational understanding of the ethics of fictional writing may be unshaken, but it has been exposed to an alternative way of experiencing some of the issues, and to the importance of experience itself in ethical judgments.15 The fact that Costello’s insistence on ethical limits in the practice of fiction clearly arises from her own situation does not reduce the force of what she says, and it may provoke some questioning about the supposedly impersonal positions claimed by those who appeal to reason.16

The short piece “Eros,” which constitutes Lesson 7, a meditation on sexual desire between gods and humans, although it continues the engagement with the question of imaginative empathy with other orders of being (not just gods but humans who have been fucked by gods), fails to dramatize Costello’s mental wrestlings as fully as the other pieces do. By contrast, the final lesson, “At the Gate,” is a moving dramatization of the self-questioning that has characterized Costello’s mental and emotional world throughout these sketches of old age. Now, in her dream or fantasy, or simply thanks to novelistic license, Costello is at the gate that leads to a world that we (and she) assume is some kind of heavenly reward. (She is allowed to glimpse the brilliant light beyond, which is disappointingly “not of another order, not more brilliant than, say, a magnesium flash sustained endlessly” [196].) We are immediately reminded of Kafka’s fable “Before the Law,” and the self-consciously, almost parodistically, novelistic setting lets us know that it is as a novelist that she is in this place. The question of her calling that has run through all the previous episodes now becomes central, as she discovers she has to satisfy a tribunal as to her beliefs before she will be permitted to pass through the gate.

The issue of belief is, of course, what has been at stake in all these fictional representations of positions held and debated. Does Coetzee, does the reader, believe in what Elizabeth Costello, or Emmanuel Egudu, or Sister Bridget has to say about the treatment of animals, the fictional representation of evil, the oral novel, the value of the humanities? Costello’s first response is that as a writer of fiction, she cannot have beliefs; she has to be entirely open to those who speak through her. This answer points to the fact that, in Coetzee’s fiction, Costello’s beliefs, Egudu’s beliefs, Sister Bridget’s beliefs are what the reader encounters, not Coetzee’s. There is no inconsistency between Costello’s disclaimer in “At the Gate” and her passionate expression of beliefs elsewhere; the former, she makes clear, refers to her existence as a novelist, whereas the latter arises out of her experience as a human being (200).17 (Coetzee would no doubt say the same about his nonfictional prose.) Once again it would be more accurate to use a verbal form, to assert that what we encounter are not these characters’ beliefs, but their believings; we undergo their speeches and arguments as events, and we share, momentarily, the process of articulating feelings and ideas. And we cannot escape from the mise en abîme in which we are caught: “At the Gate” does not present us with an argument about the place of belief in fiction but enables us to participate in Elizabeth Costello’s believing about believing.

Rejected on the basis of this argument, Costello later tries a different tack: she believes, she tells the row of judges, in the frogs that inhabit a particular river in rural Victoria, and gives an impassioned description of their lives. (We have already noted, in discussing Coetzee’s use of allegory, that she resists an allegorical interpretation of these frogs.) She has now, of course, emptied the word “belief” of its normal content, so in a way this answer is no different from the first one: she is presenting either a tautology (“The realist novelist believes in the real world”) or an instance of extreme arbitrariness, albeit one that continues the exploration of the artist’s capacity to enter nonhuman existences. But it does enable her to go on to speculate on the role of belief in the writer’s life: “Her mind, when it is truly itself, appears to pass from one belief to the next, pausing, balancing, then moving on” (222). We never learn, perhaps she never learns, whether this second answer is accepted; and although this makes for something of a narrative anticlimax, it leaves us strongly aware that what has mattered, for Elizabeth Costello and for the reader, is the event—literary and ethical at the same time—of storytelling, of testing, of self-questioning, and not the outcome.


1 One commentator on the published lectures, Douglas Cruikshank, is so bemused by the mirroring process that he states that the visiting novelist in the fiction “has been asked to take part in the Tanner lectures, sponsored by the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University” (“Beastly Lectures,” 1)! Fact and fiction became even harder to disentangle when Coetzee subsequently moved from South Africa to Australia.

2 The lecture was published in Salmagundi the following year.

3 She does, however, make a somewhat apologetic reference to an earlier lecture in the United States in which she had used the Kafka story, placing it two years in the past rather than one; and a footnote scrupulously refers us to the published version—not of Costello’s lecture, of course, but Coetzee’s.

4 Coetzee appears to have overlooked a couple more places where adjustments needed to be made: he has John, who lives permanently in the United States, still referring to North America as a “foreign continent” (23) and an “unexplored continent” (27). There is also the puzzle of John’s marriage: what does he mean when he tells the woman he has slept with in Pennsylvania that he has been, or is, “Married and unmarried,” when in “Lives of Animals” and “As a Woman”—a Costello piece published after Elizabeth Costello—he lives with his wife and children?

5 Details of the conference can be found on the Nexus website; see

6 Costello refers to him as an “Englishman, but one who seemed to have freed himself of the more petty concerns of the English novel” (157). Although born in England, the real Paul West has lived and worked in the United States for most of his life.

7 See Hugo von Hofmannsthal, The Lord Chandos Letter. This postscript, extending Hofmannsthal’s depiction of a man who has given up writing because he has found that language fails before the revelations he experiences in his daily life, reads like a nightmarish version of some of Costello’s fears about writing.

8 This lecture, which appears on the Nobel website, was reprinted in several places; the Guardian Review, for example, published it as “The Castaway.”

9 For instance, the charmingly far-fetched account of the Lincolnshire “duckoys,” who are trained to fly to Holland and Germany and tell the ducks there in their own language about the superior conditions in England, comes from letter 7 of the Tour (97–100), and the “great engine of execution of Halifax” is described in letter 8 (201–3). The man who stays in London during the Great Plague on the strength of a biblical passage is the narrator—himself a fictional persona created by Defoe—of A Journal of the Plague Year (12–13), while the same work is the source of the stories of the cloud like an angel with a flaming sword (22–23), the man Robert who feeds his family from a distance (106–9), the man who runs naked into Harrow Alley (171–72), and the man buried alive in the dead pit at Mountmill (90–91).

10 Costello herself, although she gives lectures of a slightly more conventional sort than those by Coetzee in which they occur, apparently does not publish them. When her daughter Helen asks her if she is writing about brain science, she replies, “No… . I still confine myself to fiction, you will be relieved to hear. I have not yet descended to hawking my opinions around. The Opinions of Elizabeth Costello, revised edition” (“As a Woman,” 13). Coetzee himself seems to have felt no inhibitions about publishing discursive nonfiction pieces, collected in such volumes as White Writing, Giving Offense, and Stranger Shores.

11 Reported by David Attwell (private communication).

12 I have argued this more fully in The Singularity of Literature; see especially chap. 7.

13 See, for instance, Benita Parry’s critique in “Speech and Silence.”

14 Costello’s “letter” to her sister omits the final episode in the story, which we learn about only as a private revelation: here the classical image of the woman posing bare-breasted gives way to a decidedly unaesthetic depiction of fellatio. Outside the arena of sibling competition, Costello is not nearly so confident about the heritage of Apollo.

15 James Wood, who was a participant in the conference, reports: “It was a strange, provoking, deliberately self-contradictory tale, which instantly sparked heated commentary. It was hard to figure out Coetzee’s meaning. Yet the fictive device had justified itself: one felt that the other participants had been content with their perfected errors while Coetzee, in his new form, had nosed his way towards a battered truth, despite his apparent unwillingness to claim ownership of that truth” (“A Frog’s Life”).

16 Doubts about the claims of instrumental reason play an important part, as we have seen, in Disgrace, and there is a suggestion in “The Humanities in Africa” that this is an area that could provide common ground between Blanche and her sister, and resonate with Coetzee’s own concerns: at the end of her graduation speech, Blanche asserts that the impending death of the humanities has been brought about by “the monster enthroned by those very studies as first and animating principle of the universe: the monster of reason, mechanical reason” (Elizabeth Costello, 123). All three would find much to engage them in Derrida’s essay “The Principle of Reason.”

17 David Lodge, reviewing Elizabeth Costello in the New York Review of Books, says that, in reading “At the Gate,” “We wonder what has happened to her passionate belief in the rights of animals” (11). Apart from the misleading phrase “rights of animals,” which is not strictly what she is passionate about, this comment ignores the distinction between fiction and nonfiction.


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