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«Elizabeth Costello J.M. Coetzee Chapter 1 Realism THERE IS FIRST of all the problem of the opening, namely, how to get us from where we are, which ...»

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Elizabeth Costello

J.M. Coetzee

Chapter 1


THERE IS FIRST of all the problem of the opening, namely, how to get us from

where we are, which is, as yet, nowhere, to the far bank. It is a simple bridging

problem, a problem of knocking together a bridge. People solve such problems every

day. They solve them, and having solved them push on.

Let us assume that, however it may have been done, it is done. Let us take it that the

bridge is built and crossed, that we can put it out of our mind. We have left behind the territory in which we were. We are in the far territory, where we want to be.

Elizabeth Costello is a writer, born in 1928, which makes her sixty-six years old, going on sixty-seven. She has written nine novels, two books of poems, a book on bird life, and a body of journalism. By birth she is Australian. She was born in Melbourne and still lives there, though she spent the years 1951 to 1963 abroad, in England and France. She has been married twice. She has two children, one by each marriage.

Elizabeth Costello made her name with her fourth novel, The House on Eccles Street (1969), whose main character is Marion Bloom, wife of Leopold Bloom, principal character of another novel, Ulysses (1922), by James Joyce. In the past decade there has grown up around her a small critical industry; there is even an Elizabeth Costello Society, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which puts out a quarterly Elizabeth Costello Newsletter.

In the spring of 1995 Elizabeth Costello travelled, or travels (present tense henceforth), to Williamstown, Pennsylvania, to Altona College, to receive the Stowe Award. The award is made biennially to a major world writer, selected by a jury of critics and writers. It consists of a purse of $50,000, funded by a bequest from the Stowe estate, and a gold medal. It is one of the larger literary prizes in the United States.

On her visit to Pennsylvania Elizabeth Costello (Costello is her maiden name) is accompanied by her son John. John has a job teaching physics and astronomy at a college in Massachusetts, but for reasons of his own is on leave for the year. Elizabeth has become a little frail: without the help of her son she would not be undertaking this taxing trip across half the world.

We skip. They have reached Williamstown and have been conveyed to their hotel, a surprisingly large building for a small city, a tall hexagon, all dark marble outside and crystal and mirrors inside. In her room a dialogue takes place.

Elizabeth Costello J.M. Coetzee ‘Will you be comfortable?’ asks the son.

‘I am sure I will,’ she replies.The room is on the twelfth floor, with a prospect over a golf course and, beyond that, over wooded hills.

‘Then why not have a rest? They are fetching us atsix thirty. I’ll give you a call a few minutes beforehand.’ He is about to leave. She speaks.

‘John, what exactly do they want from me?’ ‘Tonight? Nothing. It’s just a dinner with members of the jury. We won’t let it turn into a long evening. I’ll remind them you are tired.’ ‘And tomorrow?’ ‘Tomorrow is a different story.You’ll have to gird your loins for tomorrow, I am afraid.’ ‘I have forgotten why I agreed to come. It seems a great ordeal to put oneself through, for no good reason. I should have asked them to forget the ceremony and send the cheque in the mail.’ After the long flight, she is looking her age. She has never taken care of her appearance; she used to be able to get away with it; now it shows. Old and tired.

‘It doesn’t work that way, I am afraid, Mother. If you accept the money, you must go through with the show.’ She shakes her head. She is still wearing the old blue raincoat she wore from the airport. Her hair has a greasy, lifeless look. She has made no move to unpack. If he leaves her now, what will she do? Lie down in her raincoat and shoes?

He is here, with her, out of love. He cannot imagine her getting through this trial without him at her side. He stands by her because he is her son, her loving son. But he is also on the point of becoming – distasteful word – her trainer.

He thinks of her as a seal, an old, tired circus seal. One more time she must heave herself up on to the tub, one more time show that she can balance the ball on her nose. Up to him to coax her, put heart in her, get her through the performance.

‘It is the only way they have,’ he says as gently as he can. ‘They admire you, they want to honour you. It is the best way they can think of doing that. Giving you money. Broadcasting your name. Using the one to do the other.’ Standing over the Empire-style writing table, shuffling through the pamphlets that tell her where to shop, where to dine, how to use the telephone, she casts him one of

–  –  –

the quick, ironic looks that still have the power to surprise him, to remind him of who she is. ‘The best way?’ she murmurs.

At six thirty he knocks. She is ready, waiting, full of doubts but prepared to face the foe. She wears her blue costume and silk jacket, her lady novelist’s uniform, and the white shoes with which there is nothing wrong yet which somehow make her look like Daisy Duck. She has washed her hair and brushed it back. It still looks greasy, but honourably greasy, like a navvy’s or a mechanic’s. Already on her face the passive look that, if you saw it in a young girl, you would call withdrawn. A face without personality, the kind that photographers have to work on to lend distinction.

Like Keats, he thinks, the great advocate of blank receptiveness.

The blue costume, the greasy hair, are details, signs of a moderate realism. Supply the particulars, allow the significations to emerge of themselves. A procedure pioneered by Daniel Defoe. Robinson Crusoe, cast up on the beach, looks around for his shipmates. But there are none. ‘I never saw them afterwards, or any sign of them,’ says he, ‘except three of their hats, one cap, and two shoes that were not fellows.’Two shoes, not fellows: by not being fellows, the shoes have ceased to be footwear and become proofs of death, torn by the foaming seas off the feet of drowning men and tossed ashore. No large words, no despair, just hats and caps and shoes.

For as far back as he can remember, his mother has secluded herself in the mornings to do her writing. No intrusions under any circumstances. He used to think of himself as a misfortunate child, lonely and unloved. When they felt particularly sorry for themselves, he and his sister used to slump outside the locked door and make tiny whining sounds. In time the whining would change to humming or singing, and they would feel better, forgetting their forsakenness.

Now the scene has changed. He has grown up. He is no longer outside the door but inside, observing her as she sits, back to the window, confronting, day after day, year after year, while her hair slowly goes from black to grey, the blank page. What doggedness, he thinks! She deserves the medal, no doubt about that, this medal and many more. For valour beyond the call of duty.

The change came when he was thirty-three. Until then he had not read a word she had written. That was his reply to her, his revenge on her for locking him out. She denied him, therefore he denied her. Or perhaps he refused to read her in order to protect himself. Perhaps that was the deeper motive: to ward off the lightning stroke.Then one day, without a word to anyone, without even a word to himself, he took one of her books out of the library. After that he read everything, reading openly, in the train, at the lunch table. ‘What are you reading?’ ‘One of my mother’s books.’ He is in her books, or some of them. Other people too he recognizes; and there must be many more he does not recognize. About sex, about passion and jealousy and envy, she writes with an insight that shakes him. It is positively indecent.

She shakes him; that is what she presumably does to other readers too. That is presumably why, in the larger picture, she exists. What a strange reward for a

–  –  –

lifetime of shaking people: to be conveyed to this town in Pennsylvania and given money! For she is by no means a comforting writer. She is even cruel, in a way that women can be but men seldom have the heart for.What sort of creature is she, really?

Not a seal: not amiable enough for that. But not a shark either. A cat. One of those large cats that pause as they eviscerate their victim and, across the torn-open belly, give you a cold yellow stare.

There is a woman waiting for them downstairs, the same young woman who fetched them from the airport. Her name is Teresa. She is an instructor at Altona College, but in the business of the Stowe Award a factotum, a dogsbody, and in the wider business a minor character.

He sits in the front of the car beside Teresa, his mother sits at the rear. Teresa is excited, so excited that she positively chatters. She tells them about the neighbourhoods they are driving through, about Altona College and its history, about the restaurant they are headed for. In the middle of all the chatter she manages to get in two quick, mouselike pounces of her own. ‘We had A. S. Byatt here last fall,’ she says. ‘What do you think of A. S. Byatt, Ms Costello?’ And later: ‘What do you think of Doris Lessing, Ms Costello?’ She is writing a book on women writers and politics; she spends her summers in London doing what she calls research; he would not be surprised if she had a tape recorder hidden in the car.

His mother has a word for people like this. She calls them the goldfish. One thinks they are small and harmless, she says, because each wants no more than the tiniest nibble of flesh, the merest hemidemimilligram. She gets letters from them every week, care of her publisher. Once upon a time she used to reply: thank you for your interest, unfortunately I am too busy to respond as fully as your letter deserves. Then a friend told her what these letters of hers were fetching on the autograph market.

After that she stopped answering.

Flecks of gold circling the dying whale, waiting their chance to dart in and take a quick mouthful.

They arrive at the restaurant. It is raining lightly.Teresa drops them at the door and goes off to park the car. For a moment they are alone on the pavement. ‘We can still abscond,’ he says. ‘It is not too late.We can get a taxi, drop by the hotel to pick up our things, be at the airport by eight thirty, take the first flight out. We will have vanished from the scene by the time the Mounties arrive.’ He smiles. She smiles.They will go through with the programme, that barely needs to be said. But it is a pleasure to toy with at least the idea of escape. Jokes, secrets, complicities; a glance here, a word there: that is their way of being together, of being apart. He will be her squire, she will be his knight. He will protect her as long as he is able. Then he will help her into her armour, lift her on to her steed, set her buckler on her arm, hand her her lance, and step back.

There is a scene in the restaurant, mainly dialogue, which we will skip.We resume back at the hotel, where Elizabeth Costello asks her son to run through the list of the people they have just met. He obeys, giving each a name and function, as in life.

–  –  –

Their host,William Brautegam, is Dean of Arts at Altona. The convenor of the jury, Gordon Wheatley, is a Canadian, a professor at McGill, who has written on Canadian literature and on Wilson Harris.The one they call Toni, who spoke to her about Henry Handel Richardson, is from Altona College. She is a specialist on Australia and has taught there. Paula Sachs she knows. The bald man, Kerrigan, is a novelist, Irish by birth, now living in New York.The fifth juror, the one who was seated next to him, is named Moebius. She teaches in California and edits a journal. She has also published some stories.

‘You and she had quite a tête-à-tête,’ says his mother. ‘Goodlooking, isn’t she?’ ‘I suppose so.’ She reflects. ‘But, as a group, don’t they strike you as rather...’ ‘Rather lightweight?’ She nods.

‘Well, they are. The heavyweights don’t involve themselves in this kind of show.The heavyweights are wrestling with the heavyweight problems.’ ‘I am not heavyweight enough for them?’ ‘No, you’re heavyweight all right.Your handicap is that you’re not a problem. What you write hasn’t yet been demonstrated to be a problem. Once you offer yourself as a problem, you might be shifted over into their court. But for the present you’re not a problem, just an example.’ ‘An example of what?’ ‘An example of writing. An example of how someone of your station and your generation and your origins writes. An instance.’ ‘An instance? Am I allowed a word of protest? After all the effort I put into not writing like anyone else?’ ‘Mother, there’s no point in picking on me to fight with. I am not responsible for the way the academy sees you. But you must surely concede that at a certain level we speak, and therefore write, like everyone else. Otherwise we would all be speaking and writing private languages. It is not absurd – is it? – to concern oneself with what people have in common rather than with what sets them apart.’ The next morning John finds himself in another literary debate. In the hotel gymnasium he bumps into Gordon Wheatley, chairman of the jury. Side by side on exercise bicycles they have a shouted conversation. His mother will be disappointed, he tells Wheatley – not entirely seriously – if she learns that the Stowe Award is hers only because 1995 has been decreed to be the year of Australasia.

–  –  –

‘What does she want it to be?’ shouts Wheatley back.

‘That she is the best,’ he replies. ‘In your jury’s honest opinion. Not the best Australian, not the best Australian woman, just the best.’ ‘Without infinity we would have no mathematics,’ says Wheatley. ‘But that doesn’t mean that infinity exists. Infinity is just a construct, a human construct. Of course we are firm that Elizabeth Costello is the best.We just have to be clear in our minds what a statement like that means, in the context of our times.’ The analogy with infinity makes no sense to him, but he does not pursue the issue.

He hopes that Wheatley does not write as badly as he thinks.

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