Elizabeth Costello is the story of an Australian novelist in her later years. Each chapter of the book features a lecture or debate, hers or someone else’s, as well as discussions and meetings surrounding the central lecture. Elizabeth’s thoughts and beliefs around a series of complex ideas are the threads tying the novel together.
This novel is relatively short in words, but long on ideas and themes. I read it in just a few days, but I spent at least as much time again to digest and gather my thoughts.
“Things can be true, she now thinks, even if one does not believe in them, and conversely.” Elizabeth’s thoughts and ideas have changed since her youth, confusing the logic of her lectures, but leaving them much more fascinating than clearly articulated, logically-flawless arguments would be. After all, the themes themselves (the difference between humans and animals, the role of the novel, our ability to be the “other”) are messy and complex, not cut-and-dry. Coetzee elegantly navigates these ideas the way a real person who is intelligent and thoughtful, but also immersed in issues beyond easy human understanding, would. The result is a very interesting and interlocking set of ideas that give quite a bit of food for thought.
One idea is the differences and similarities between three categories of “life”: animals, humans, and god(s). In several lectures, Elizabeth argues for treating and understanding animals the same as we do ourselves. She argues that animals have a soul just as humans do. Where her argument (and also, I would say, human understanding) breaks down is when it comes to a difference between humans and animals: reason. Elizabeth argues that the scientific experiments designed to determine if animals can think are not useful because they lack complexity: “We understand by immersing ourselves and our intelligence in complexity. There is something self-stultified in the way in which scientific behaviorism recoils from the complexity of life.” She says that animal reason is different from human reason, and there is no translation between the two.
Later, the novel discusses the relationship between humans and god(s) and it becomes clear that the major difference between the two is belief. In the final chapter, Coetzee writes “without beliefs we are not human.” Elizabeth also hears from another character that those with difficult lives (those who, unlike immortal gods, will face death) cannot afford not to believe and have faith. This echoes an earlier experience Elizabeth had in Africa where she learns that faith and company in suffering are critical comforts for people. Ultimately, Elizabeth says that all it means to be alive is “to be able to die.” The ultimate difference between humans and gods is that gods are not living.
Compounding these issues is the issue of our ability to be or experience “the other” – to stand in another’s shoes. When arguing that humans can indeed experience life as an animal does, Elizabeth says that “there are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination.” However, when it comes to humans and gods, Elizabeth changes her mind, seeing limits: “the physical mingling of two orders of being… is strictly speaking not possible, not while the laws of nature continue to hold.” She wonders what kind of hybrid being a god must become to allow humans to experience and understand. This argument is echoed later in the final chapter when Elizabeth glimpses beyond the gate to the afterlife and is disappointed to see nothing that is beyond human experience.
The most interesting moment is when Elizabeth describes the way the gods must see humans: “So like us in many respects, their eyes in particular so expressive; what a pity they lack that je ne sais quoi without which they can never ascend to sit beside us!” This is fascinating because it is so clearly the way humans see animals.
The final theme of the book is the role of the novel in allowing us to experience “the other,” for good or for bad. Elizabeth brings together all three modes of being when she says: “All is allegory… each creature is key to all other creatures. A dog … is at one moment a dog and at the next a vessel of revelation. And perhaps in the mind of our Creator… where we whirl about as if in a millrace we interpenetrate and are interpenetrated by fellow creatures by the thousand.” The novel is the ultimate allegory, offering guidance and experience that cannot be had otherwise. Elizabeth explains this most clearly when she describes writers as “secretaries to the invisible,” bringing the unknown to light. Over the course of her life, Elizabeth begins to see danger in this that she didn’t see earlier in life. She begins to believe that evil is everywhere, just waiting to creep into the light, and a novel is the perfect opportunity because, once released, it’s almost impossible to stop: “When the storyteller opens the bottle, the genie is released into the world, and it costs all hell to get him back in again.”
If you’re looking for fun or adventure in your next read, definitely look elsewhere, but if you’re in the mood to have your synapses poked and prodded, I highly recommend Elizabeth Costello. I have tried here in this review to share the themes of this wonderful novel without deluding myself or others that I can tie them up in a neat little bow. Part of the strength of Coetzee’s novel is that it allows Elizabeth to be human. She is a vehement defender of what she thinks she knows, or at least knows for the moment. Like animals, we do not always have reason and even when we do, reason sometimes turns out to be, in Elizabeth’s words: “the monster.”