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Mind over matter


By J.M. Coetzee

Viking, $21.95, 230 pp

Reviewed by JOHN FREEMAN

Since his literary debut in 1974, J.M. Coetzee _ who was awarded this year's Nobel Prize in literature _ has avoided the press, refused to discuss works in progress, even skipped award ceremonies (for Booker prizes in London in 1983 for The Life and Times of Michael K and in 1999 for Disgrace). So when Princeton University asked the reclusive South African writer to deliver a series of essays on censorship, it was hardly a surprise that he took the lectern and spoke not in his own voice but that of Elizabeth Costello, a fictional novelist giving lectures on animal rights at a fictional American university called Appleton College.

Five years later, Coetzee now delivers the story of this eccentric woman's life in something that cannot be called a novel, but I'd be hesitant to label it anything else.

Constructed from eight "talks," ranging in subject from literature to a defense of her life before the pearly gates, Elizabeth Costello occasionally feels like Coetzee took the content of The Lives of Animals, the academic monograph he published from his addresses at Princeton, plopped it between quotes and called it dialogue. There is no plot, secondary character development or atmosphere save a few tidy brushstrokes to flesh out the leafy academic environments where the action takes place.

What Elizabeth Costello does provide, however, is a rather circuitous intellectual biography of a brilliant but muddled woman. Don't come to the novel expecting a riveting story; expect academic filibuster. Think discourse and debate on questions like the existence of humanity and the souls of animals. Following Elizabeth from town to town on this scholarly journey requires work. Keeping up with her as she meanders from Aquinas to Descartes to Wittgenstein can be exhausting.

All this talk, however, is just talk. Elizabeth has avoided belief as if it were an obstruction to fiction. Nearly 70 and with nothing to lose, she uses a half-dozen public appearances to stand up and figure out what she believes. People ask her to talk about literature? She gives a long, turgid address on the ethics of our relationship to animals. A cruise line asks her to digress on the future of the novel? She responds with a terse lecture: "The future of the novel is not a subject I am much interested in."

Elizabeth is a difficult character to warm up to because, well, she is unusual. Coetzee dispenses with her biographical details straightaway, as if challenging readers to connect with Elizabeth entirely through her moral compass. This feels like a message to readers sniffing around the life of a novelist who prefers to be known by his work rather than his personal life. Note what information comes first:

"Elizabeth Costello is a writer, born in 1928, which makes her sixty-six years old, going on sixty-seven. She has written nine novels, two books of poems, a book on bird life, and a body of journalism. By birth she is Australian. She was born in Melbourne and still lives there, though she spent the years 1951 to 1963 abroad, in England and in France. She has been married twice, has two children, one by each marriage."

Most people have a clear division between heart and mind; Elizabeth's mind is her heart. She loves her children because they are her offspring, but they are footnotes to the real story. She has funneled all her energy into work: "Her books are, she believes, better put together than she is." It makes sense that Coetzee created Costello to talk about censorship: many of her opinions are so far afield even defenders of free speech respond by shouting, basically, you cannot say that. She shocks audiences when she compares the slaughter of cattle to the Holocaust.

While Elizabeth Costello is in style and tone remarkably different from any of Coetzee's other fictions, its preoccupation with the unutterable truth links it to predecessors. Coetzee's 1999 novel, Disgrace, concerned a white South African professor kicked out of a university after having an affair with a student. He returns home to the bush and finds his daughter participating in the new sexual and social realities of South Africa. By daring to raise _ in the mind of a white, liberal character, no less _ the fear of miscegenation, Coetzee revealed how deep and terrible is the gash of apartheid.

Elizabeth Costello has a similar unflinching gaze before the dilemma of being a novelist in our day. Having staked her soul on fiction, Elizabeth is finally, it seems, staring down the barrel of a life's gun. She must confront the horrible fact that, for the sake of her career, she believed in nothing.

The Nobel prizes will be presented in Stockholm on Dec. 10, the anniversary of industrialist Alfred Nobel's death in 1896. Coetzee is expected to attend.

John Freeman is a writer in New York.