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That's the trouble with being innocent, you don't know what really happened.

Tomek Zaleska

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Saturday, February 7th, 2009

🦋 The problem of the opening

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.
I started reading Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello today (I went to the library looking for Disgrace, but it has been misfiled -- they put my name in the computer and will let me know when/if it turns up...) and found myself just immediately struck by the spare, elegant beauty of the author's constructions. A few notes at the outset.

This novel puts me strongly in mind of In Hovering Flight, there are several points of detail that the two books have in common; I have no idea yet how strong a parallel actually exists though. I talked to Joyce this morning and she said she read Elizabeth Costello last year -- so not a formative influence certainly -- and that she could see where I was coming from with the comparison.

I want to call this "a novel of ideas" and to use that as a way of contrasting it with some other books I've been reading lately; every page is sending me off into reveries of reflection from which I need to pull myself back to what I was reading. I think this would be a lousy book to hear read aloud.

This book is making me more interested than I've ever been before in reading Ulysses, just so I can have more of a context for understanding The House on Eccles Street.

Oh and also: I was put in mind a bit of Peter Cole's statement that the translator of a mediæval text is "creating a fictional character" for the author of the text -- I'm not sure how much of a linkage there is to Coetzee's project here since Coetzee is not "translating" Costello's book or indeed showing it to us at all; he is imagining it like Borges does in his fictions. But obviously Coetzee is "creating a fictional character" who's an author -- so, interesting, I'll keep Cole's statement in mind.

posted morning of February 7th, 2009: 3 responses
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Sunday, February 8th, 2009

🦋 The constructedness of the story

...Storytelling works by lulling the reader or listener into a dreamlike state in which the time and space of the real world fade away, superceded by the time and space of the fiction.
-- But some books (and particularly this book, as I think Coetzee is making quite clear in this chapter titled "Realism") work by inserting themselves into the reader's "real world" head, rather than creating a separate "fiction" head -- instead of rivetting plot you have long reflective sessions riffing off the book.

The narrator's intrusions, reminding us that he is telling us a story, become less frequent after the first chapter -- once Coetzee has established what kind of world he is creating, they are not necessary. This is good as they could become heavy-handed. I almost want to think of this as a book of essays rather than a novel -- each chapter centers around a long prepared talk, and the characters' responses to it. A curious sort of essays, though, as the narrator/author is explicitly not invested in the arguments being made but rather in the speakers' reasons for making and methods of making the arguments and in the listeners' understandings of the arguments. Elizabeth "is not sure, as she listens to her own voice, whether she believes any longer in what she's saying" -- but "on the other hand, she no longer believes very strongly in belief."

The Kafka story to which Elizabeth alludes in some of her talks is Ein Bericht für eine Akademie (at the bottom of the page), translated as A Report for an Academy. Wolfgang Köhler's book The Mentality of Apes can be read in part at Google Books; and there is some discussion of it at the Tufts Animal Cognition page. Plutarch's essay "On the Eating of Flesh" (which John fears Elizabeth will start talking about while she is at Appleton) is reproduced at the Animal Rights Library site.

posted morning of February 8th, 2009: Respond
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Monday, February 9th, 2009

🦋 The Poets and the Animals

Elizabeth Costello is a book which I am finding requires access to source material. (I am kind of ignoring the major piece of source material for this book, but trying to track down the incidental pieces...) Below the fold, some source material for chapter 4, "The Poets and the Animals."

This interview with Coetzee from the Swedish magazine Djurens Rätt ("Animal Rights"), while not strictly speaking "source material," also seems useful.

read the rest...

posted evening of February 9th, 2009: 4 responses
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🦋 Playing with arguments

I haven't really made up my mind what to think about the arguments in Elizabeth Costello -- I'm a little sorry nobody seems to believe any of them passionately? It's fun to engage with them playfully, in fun, but hard to treat them as actual advocacy. Well I don't think advocacy is the intent... That said, this is just lovely and seems exactly right to me:

The behaviorists who designed [the tests for cognition in animals] claim that we understand only by a process of creating abstract models and then testing those models against reality. What nonsense. We understand by immersing ourselves and our intelligence in complexity.
Coetzee's creation Costello is a marvelous speaker when she keeps her focus.

posted evening of February 9th, 2009: Respond

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

🦋 Studia humanitatis

Textual scholarship meant, first, the recovery of the true text, then the true translation of that text; and true translation turned out to be inseparable from true interpretation, just as true interpretation turned out to be inseparable from true understanding of the cultural and historical matrix from which the text had emerged.
Sister Bridget's speech in the fifth chapter of Elizabeth Costello is interesting and educational; unfortunately I am having a bit of a hard time distinguishing Sister Bridget's public speaking style from her younger sister's, which is making me wonder whether Coetzee really bothered to create a new character, or if he just pulled her on as a prop to make this speech (which Elizabeth would obviously not do). -- In contrast Emmanuel Egudu's speaking style in Chapter 2 was distinctly different from Elizabeth's.

The content of the speech on textual scholarship, however, is great -- stuff I did not know (in this degree of specificity) and am very glad to find out about.

posted evening of February 10th, 2009: 2 responses

🦋 What the Greeks taught us

Imagine the scene in Correggio's studio that day, Blanche. With his brush the man points: 'Lift it up, so. No, not with the hand, just with two fingers.' He crosses the floor, shows her. 'So.' And the woman obeys, doing with her body as he commands. Other men watching all the while from the shadows: apprentices, fellow painters, visitors.

Who knows who she was, his model that day: a woman from the streets? the wife of a patron? The atmosphere in the studio electric, but with what? Erotic energy? The penises of all those men, their verges, tingling? Undoubtedly. Yet something else in the air too. Worship.


The humanities teach us humanity. After the centuries-long Christian night, the humanities give us back our beauty.

This passage at the end of Chapter 5, where Elizabeth is taking up her pen to write about the conflict between religion and beauty, is reminding me of the objection I had to Death with Interruptions, that it was too predictable; reminding me of that objection because this book is so much the opposite of that one. Elizabeth's action here is completely unexpected, surprising, startling; and yet it fits, it is exactly what needs to happen in the book at this point.

There is a lot of painting in this chapter. Besides Correggio we saw reference to Hans Holbein and to Matthias Grünewald -- Blanche using them as examples of Reformation artists who painted the ugliness of crucified Christ.

posted evening of February 10th, 2009: Respond

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

🦋 The Problem of Evil

How will Amsterdam react to Elizabeth Costello in her present state? Does the sturdy Calvinist word evil still have any power among these sensible, pragmatic, well-adjusted citizens of the New Europe? Over half a century since the devil last swaggered brazenly through their streets, yet surely they cannot have forgotten.
Some notes on Chapter 6 of Elizabeth Costello:

The novel Costello is reading at the beginning of the chapter is The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg by Paul West. West wrote a review of Elizabeth Costello for Harper's, under the title "The Novelist and the Hangman"; however that review is not available online.

Costello refers to Stalin as "Koba the Bear, [Hitler's] older brother and mentor" -- this seems ahistorical to me and reeks vaguely of Holocaust denialism. Stalin and Hitler were both brutal tyrants and genocidaires; but there was not a mentor relationship.

It is very interesting to watch Costello, the novelist, reading and reacting to West's novel.

I'm still wondering what the student who tried to make a scene at Costello's lecture in Chapter 1 wanted to talk about. Was she a vegetarian? A person morally opposed to vegetarianism? Perhaps a biology student upset about Costello's stand against animal research? The Holocaust-belittlement would not have been an issue at that point in time unless she had made the same remarks previously; but that seems unlikely.

posted evening of February 12th, 2009: Respond

Friday, February 13th, 2009

🦋 Eros

Another chapter of Elizabeth Costello, another bunch of references.

Robert Duncan is an American poet from California. (Ellen has heard him read but says he was "considered old-fashioned" by her cohort.) Elizabeth heard him read "A poem beginning with a line from Pindar", the only time she met him, and it turned her on. She thinks of him while reading Susan Mitchell's prose poem "Erotikon (a Commentary on «Amor and Psyche»)" (this link is to Google Books, I'm not sure if it remains usable in the long term.)

And shall I come sweet sex to thee
bound truelovewise?
O take fast hold, said Sex to me,
of the moneybox, and night was our koine
with its bleats and glottic stops
its suctions and seductions.

All night we laved a fierce lallation.

Wake now, my love, I said to Sex.
Be not overly
subtle with periods and semicolons.
Take fast hold of the quim and quid.
By morning I was catamount.
Sex was microcephalic.

The legend of Eros and Psyche, which I feel like I really ought to know already, is the story of Venus attempting to humiliate her mortal daughter Psyche by the agency of her divine son Eros. (Duncan's poem also has reference to this legend.)

Why the interest in Psyche among American poets, she wonders? Do they find something American in her, the girl who, not content with the ecstasies provided night after night by the visitor to her bed, must light a lamp, peel back the darkness, gaze on him naked? In her restlessness, her inability to leave well enough alone, do they see something of themselves?

Anybody know what is the movie referenced here:

She thinks of a movie she saw once, that might have been written by Nathanael West though in fact it wasn't: Jessica Lange playing a Hollywood sex goddess who has a breakdown and ends up in the common ward of a madhouse, drugged, lobotomized, strapped to her bed, while orderlies sell tickets for ten minutes at a time with her. 'I wanna fuck a movie star!' pants one of their customers, shoving his dollars at them.
Please speak up in comments if you know. (Update: paledave says it is Frances (1982).)

Interesting that this is the first chapter not to include a speech. This makes me think the talk on censorship in Chapter 6 was a turning point for the novel, and that Coetzee is giving us an interlude here. (Would kind of like to know how the conference in Chapter 6 played out, what were the repercussions for Costello and for her reputation...)

posted evening of February 13th, 2009: 4 responses

🦋 Eros cont'd

This passage is just too awesome:

Magnificat Dominum anima mea, Mary is reputed to have said afterwards, perhaps misheard from Magnam me facit Dominus. That is pretty much all she says in the Gospels, this maid who is matchless, as though struck dumb for the rest of her life by what befell her. No one around her has the shamelessness to question what must surely have occurred to people, to her girlfriends in Nazareth for instance. How did she bear it? they must have whispered among themselves. It must have been like being fucked by a whale. It must have been like being fucked by the Leviathan; blushing as they spoke the word, those barefoot children of the tribe of Judah, as she, Elizabeth Costello, almost catches herself blushing too, setting it down on paper.

posted evening of February 13th, 2009: Respond

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

🦋 Without beliefs we are not human

Seated at one of the pavement tables she briskly composes what is to be her statement. I am a writer, a trader in fictions, it says. I maintain beliefs only provisionally: fixed beliefs would stand in my way. I change beliefs as I change my habitation or my clothes, according to my needs. On these grounds -- professional, vocational -- I reqest exemption from a rule of which I now hear for the first time, namely that every petitioner at the gate should hold one or more beliefs.

She takes her statement back to the guardhouse. As she half expected, it is rejected.

And we are getting down, here, to the heart of the matter -- this is what I think. As Chapter 8 opens, Coetzee manages to startle me once again, changing his narrative style completely (while continuing to narrate in the same voice), veering into Kafkaesque allegory -- he acknowledges as much a few pages later but calls it "Kafka reduced and flattened to a parody."

Costello is speaking to my concerns earlier about how nobody in this novel seems to be attached to the arguments they are making; she is a writer, a vessel for words and beliefs (like Mary or Leda is a vessel for God's seed -- I'm not sure yet what to make of this parallel but it is definitely front and center). I have got the feeling that Coetzee is writing in his own voice here -- should be wary of this given the repeated cautioning against it earlier in the book -- I was wondering, when Elizabeth defends herself against the charge that she has ignored the genocide of the Tasmanians (and implicitly, that she as a white Australian is not sensitive to issues of imperialism and oppression), whether Coetzee faces similar charges as a white South African. Perhaps the student in Chapter 1 was meaning to launch an attack on these grounds?

posted morning of February 14th, 2009: Respond
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