When I was at the University of Cape Town, doing my honours degree in English Literature, I avoided our very famous professor, the Booker prize-winning, Nobel laureate, JM Coetzee. According to student rumour, he refused to teach undergraduates, gave one seminar to Honours students and preferred to lavish his brain on Masters and Ph.D students only. He was said to be reserved, intellectually terrifying and not kind to graduates who might, in his august presence, have an attack of nerves and say something silly. Rian Malan, another South African writer, has said of Coetzee, “A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word.” Not one for feeling like a fool, or being around chilly, non-laughing types, I chose to study with other teachers, including Prof Coetzee’s partner Dr Dorothy Driver who taught me how to do a feminist reading of a text and to love Jean Rhys.
Reading one of Coetzee’s recent novels is a little like attending one of his seminars as an ill-prepared and nervous graduate. He has high expectations of his reader. You can’t turn up as an empty vessel, and allow his work to be poured into you. Instead, you need to grapple with the text. About three years ago, I tried to read Elizabeth Costello, his story of a famous writer, but tossed it aside in frustration about two-thirds of my way through the book. It was not its scholarly nature that put me off, but the fact that he killed his protagonist and left her outside the pearly gates making repeated applications to a board of angels? gods? other-worldly beings? to get into heaven. I found it intensely irritating; I had been enjoying Elizabeth’s story and to have her hanging about in some naive representation of purgatory, inspecting her navel, was intensely dissatisfying. I gave up the grapple.
I have recently finished reading his new novel Slow Man, which is a story about a retired photographer who has a bike accident, loses a leg and has to cope with his new, inefficient, slow body. I was lured in and enjoying bobbing gently on top of the text, when to my surprise, even horror, Elizabeth Costello turned up. All the realism I had previously been enjoying was turned upside-down. For a brief moment, I considered tossing Slow Man aside like its predecessor, but I persevered, and I’m glad I did.
There are all manner of ways to read Elizabeth Costello’s role in the narrative of Slow Man: she is a writer observing his life and taking the liberty of trying to shape its progress; she is a being from another dimension who is trying to guide him; she is his conscience acting to criticise his blundering actions; she is a fairytale witch who will place a curse on him when he tries – repeatedly – to cast her out; she is a fairy godmother or guardian angel who helps him to make better decisions; or, she is a flesh-and-blood character whose need for love and companionship mirrors his own. In the end it appears that she may be the latter, but what matters most is that he discovers he does not need or love her. Her emotional ministrations help him through a rough patch, help him come to terms with his very one-sided love for his Croatian nurse Marijana and help him realise that he is alone. He chooses grumpy old age and leaves Elizabeth Costello to hers – or to fly off into the ether. This we never know.
I found the non-real intrusion of this mysterious Elizabeth far easier to tolerate than her sudden death in the previous novel. Perhaps this was because Paul’s story and his bumbling attempts to form a relationship with Marijana and her family were so compelling, that the presence of Elizabeth was just an adjunct to the main narrative thread. I would strongly recommend Slow Man. I thought it was a great read.
Having finished it, I thought I’d better go back and check out the last third of Elizabeth Costello, to find out what had happened to her. I found her caught in a miserable limbo, making reapplications to the board of angels in order to get herself into heaven. Their main accusation against her was that she had no beliefs but merely wrote what she saw, like a “secretary of the invisible”. She is proud to be a conduit of ideas, but the angelic board wants more moral engagement from her, so the story leaves her, dallying outside the gates of heaven, waiting to be allowed in.
Since I am but a lazy graduate, under-prepared to grapple with the intertextual layerings of Elizabeth Costello, I give you, for further explication, the Wikipedia entry. Perhaps if I had gone to Coetzee’s seminar, I would have been better equipped to read his novel. I’m sure there are many of you out there more able to grapple with the giant than I am. Let me know when you do.