Multiple Booker winner Coetzee (Disgrace, 2000, etc.) dramatizes—just barely—a celebrated Australian author’s considerations of “the humanities” as embodied in moral action.
Coetzee’s eighth is a gathering of lectures and talks, framed by circumstances preceding and responses succeeding them, each involving elderly Elizabeth Costello (one of the narrators of Coetzee’s recent nonfiction Them Lives of Animals, 1999). Renowned as the writer of The House on Eccles Street (a novel about Molly Bloom), Elizabeth is invited to speak at various prestigious conferences, sometimes accompanied by her son, a college science teacher. At Williamstown, Pennsylvania, she usefully (if unoriginally) defines realism as a sense of being “embedded in life”; subsequent appearances in the US and abroad are dominated by her provocative comparisons of the slaughter of animals to Hitler’s genocidal mandate “to treat people like animals”; “The Problem of Evil” elicits her emotional response to a novel about Nazi Germany by Paul West—who also attends the Amsterdam conference at which she discusses it; and, in a final chapter that clearly reveals Coetzee’s debts to Kafka and Beckett, we see Elizabeth in purgatory, commanded to state what she believes, but willing only to declare her nonpartisan “negative capability.” A page of acknowledgements affirms that Coetzee has here reimagined in semifictional form several of his recent nonfiction essays and lectures. The result is a disappointing hybrid that cannot, except by the loosest possible definition, be called fiction. Yet it does involve and pique one’s interest, saved from utter turgidity by its protagonist’s vividly delineated confusion and uncertainty at having taken positions that alienate her from other, equally rational and sensitive people (such as her older sister, a nun working heroically in Africa).
As argument, literate, impassioned, and disturbing; as fiction, overemphatic and often dull. Perhaps only for Coetzee’s most ardent admirers.