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Faculty Nightstand
For fun, lit prof Vicky Kahn turns to modern-day fiction

27 February 2008


Late at night or while on vacation, Vicky Kahn, professor of English and comparative literature, strays from reading in her field. "I like to read contemporary fiction as a welcome change from 17th- century literature," says Kahn, adding that she also enjoys dipping into books about mountaineering.

Kahn, who calls Proust's Remembrance of Things Past her "all-time favorite work of fiction," has for years re-read one of its three volumes annually. Recently, she's been revisiting the novels of Henry James.

For this edition of Faculty Nightstand, she describes a novel by a modern writer whose works are likely to become part of the literary canon: South African novelist J.M. Coetzee, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003.


Vicky Kahn (Wendy Edelstein photo)
 

Elizabeth Costello
J.M. Coetzee
(Viking) 2003

Coetzee is best-known for some fairly grim and forbidding novels, such as Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace. Here's one in a different key.

Elizabeth Costello is a novel about a well-known novelist who goes around giving lectures in various places where she is being given an honorary degree. Each chapter contains a different lecture. Costello regularly if unwittingly offends her audience by lecturing with great passion on animal rights, but she also lectures about Kafka, realism, and "The Future of the Novel." (Coetzee apparently gave these lectures himself in various venues, speaking as the fictional Elizabeth. For another example of fiction as lecture, see Coetzee's Nobel Prize speech, easily available on the Internet.) Elizabeth Costello is a brainy novel in the sense that it's full of abstract argument. But it is also a very dry and witty novel. Elizabeth is alert to all the incongruities of her situation, including the fact that she - an aging, gray-headed, tired, and somewhat disheveled Australian woman - is called upon to represent "Art" by the institutional defenders of the humanities: professors and administrators.


 
But the novel is not in any sense of the word an academic novel or a novel about academic life. Instead, it's about the power of the imagination. In particular, it's about literature and its relation, even in its most austere form, to eros and to belief. Several chapters in particular stick out. One is about Elizabeth's relationship to her sister Blanche, a nun who is working in a hospital in rural Zululand. There's an obvious contrast - one that Elizabeth herself feels - between Blanche's "real work" of tending the poor and Elizabeth's mere writing. But Blanche also subscribes to a moralizing and thus fairly anemic view of art. In contrast, Elizabeth defends the powerful erotic charge of art, especially in the great painting and sculpture of the Renaissance.

In another chapter, we see Elizabeth on a cruise ship, where she is supposed to lecture about "The Future of the Novel." Here Elizabeth's antagonist is the charismatic Emmanuel Egudu, a writer from Nigeria, who is lecturing about the novel in Africa. Elizabeth thinks Egudu is a poseur, even though he delivers a captivating lecture, judging by the audience's response. In contrast, Elizabeth "no longer believes very strongly in belief. . . . Belief may be no more, in the end, than a source of energy, like a battery which one clips into an idea to make it run. As happens when one writes: believing whatever has to be believed in order to get the job done."

There is also the wonderful final chapter, a riff on Kafka's parable "Before the Law," where we see Elizabeth in the afterlife. She has arrived at a gate where she needs to make a statement about her life's work before she can pass through. Ironically, although she tries, she can't think of anything to say except that she's a writer, which means that she doesn't make detachable pronouncements. Does this mean Elizabeth believes or that she does not? The chapter proposes several answers to this question and leaves it up in the air whether Coetzee thinks of his own art as mere formalism, the kind of commitment that can't compete with Blanche's work in rural Zululand, or as an affirmation of life, even or precisely because of its irony and skepticism. Whatever we make of this question, one of the great pleasures of the novel is Elizabeth's sensibility, as registered in Coetzee's magically spare prose.