A demand that beliefs be embodied and presented, or indeed placed on trial, forms a persistent refrain of J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello. It is a demand, for instance, made by realism in the literature of ideas; a realism that, Coetzee writes, 'has never been comfortable with ideas ...So when it needs to debate ideas, as here, realism is driven to invent situations ... in which characters give voice to contending ideas and thereby in a sense embody them' (Elizabeth Costello 9). The demand Coetzee specifies as being placed upon characters is redoubled in the expectations of readers, who call upon literary authors to appear in the flesh and give public lectures explaining their views. Yet such lectures, delivered first by Coetzee himself, as he renders in prose the public reflections of his character Elizabeth Costello, figure in the novel as scenes of mutual dissatisfaction and some embarrassment. The thwarting of the desire for enunciation of a character's or author's own belief - a thwarting upon which Costello will insist as a dimension of her literary 'calling'- thus also provides a powerful theme running through this work. It is a resistance that returns us to questions of belief and embodiment from another direction than that proposed by the realism Coetzee outlines.
The full text of this essay is available to ALS subscribers
Please sign in to access this article and the rest of our archive.