Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

This story: Waggish reads Elizabeth Costello

Waggish has posted an authorative, challenging and welcome response to JM Coetzee’s extraordinary novel Elizabeth Costello. While this book has not struggled for attention, it’s certainly struggled to be understood and appreciated. We need more good readers like Waggish.

Unlike all of the reviews I have read, this one focuses on the "truly obnoxious" character of Elizabeth Costello herself (and, mercifully, without conflating author and character). The novel is based around several "lessons" written for fictional lectures in which, Waggish says, "[h]er arguments are irrational, trite, and mindlessly syllogistic".

I have to admit that, when I was reading the novel, this was not my opinion. But that’s because I didn’t really have one. The pleasure I got from reading the novel was the pleasure one gets following a compelling narrative. As with Bernhard’s Extinction or Concrete, one isn’t so much repelled by the narrators’ absurd opinions as seduced by the eloquence of the desperation on show. So, odd as it seems, Elizabeth Costello is in the monstrous company of Franz-Josef Murau - even if Coetzee’s prose (in James Wood’s phrase) is "precise, but blanched" compared to Bernhard’s pell-mell steam-roller.

As I say, I wasn’t detained by the characters’ opinions. I barely recall any of Costello’s or Murau’s. But I remember one particular issue that disturbed Costello; one that goes unmentioned by Waggish (and many of the reviews): her reaction to The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, a really-existing novel by Paul West. In Adam Mars-Jones’ words, she uses this in a lecture as "a key example of a book which increased rather than diminished the world's supply of wickedness, by entering too vividly into the depravity of Hitler's executioners".

This is probably why it is so memorable to me. There is an unsettling realisation that the story, all stories, while tempting us with consolation and hope, in fact add to the world’s misery. Waggish worries for Coetzee that Costello’s "specious arguments" will be mistakenly attributed to him. But he wrote the story, which is everything. He can’t escape that, hence perhaps this story.

2 comments:

  1. But with Bernhard, there is at least /some/ compatibility between author and protagonist, even when the similarities are slippery. Bernhard's hatred for Austria and his characters' hatred for Austria seem of a kinship. Perhaps instead Musil, who had opinions he wished to discredit eloquently expressed by some of the most believable, intelligent characters in fiction? (Coetzee is a huge Musil fan.)

    By the time I reached the West section, Costello's opinions were so thoroughly undermined for me that it seemed just one more histrionic expression of her pathology, and the point you raise didn't resonate with me..."a key example," as Costello says? I haven't read West's book, but if the book as she describes it comes anywhere near having any substantive effect on the world's wickedness next to The Turner Diaries and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, just to name two, then she really has lost all sense of proportion. And of course she has. She speaks only for herself.

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  2. David Lodge goes into some detail on the Van Stauffenberg sequence in his NYRB review:

    I read West's novel out of curiosity, and agreed with Elizabeth's literary judgment: it begins well, but falls off, especially toward the end, when the ghost of Stauffenberg (who was summarily executed the day of the abortive plot) observes and reports the horrible end of his fellow conspirators. There is a serious failure of tone in the fictional treatment of Hitler and his hangman, cranking up the horror when the known facts are horrific enough. Such subjects should certainly be handled with care—history and documentary probably being the best way—but Elizabeth surely goes too far in asserting that they should be sealed up and passed over in silence. Again there is more than a touch of hysteria in her reaction, which revives memories of an ugly sexual assault she suffered in youth and has never mentioned to anyone: the return of the repressed, perhaps.

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/16791

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