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.

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