Elizabeth Costello

Norbert Ruebsaat

J. M. Coetzee (who just won the Nobel Prize for Literature) calls his first book of memories a memoir and his second book of memories nothing at all, although the dust jacket blurbs call it a novel and the narrator of both books is the same person. In Boyhood, the memoir (Vintage), the narrator tells the story of his childhood in South Africa with an overprotective mother and a layabout father; in Youth, the possible novel (Secker and Warburg), the same narrator goes to London, his escape destination, where he struggles to become a writer and works as a computer programmer. The narrator in both books, “he” (never referred to by name except by others—his mother in Boyhood and his girlfriends in Youth), tells his life, and I was reminded of Kafka, who also doesn’t say who his narrators are: he calls them “K.,” for example. Coetzee’s first name, as far as I have been able to determine, is John, and this nugget of possible fact convinces me that Coetzee’s writerly trick—the use of the third-person pronoun as a stand-in for the self, for the mysterious I that Ludwig Wittgenstein, among others, has claimed is humanity’s fundamental fiction—is a stroke of textual genius. In Youth, the writer/narrator Coetzee/John tells us that he is influenced by the writings of Samuel Beckett, who was also famous for playing around with names that tended toward sound rather than sentences: “Watt,” for example. I am excited by all of this because I often experienced my own name as a fiction: I have spent hours trying to imagine who the character invented by the mouths of my parents can possibly amount to. When the sounds of my name changed because we changed languages, and it then changed further when I went to school and saw it written on the blackboard by Mrs. Anderson (who left it chalked up there all through grade one because I had trouble learning to spell it), the mystery deepened. It coagulated, congealed. In Coetzee’s most recent book, Elizabeth Costello, the main character—“she, Elizabeth Costello”—wonders if she is “a light spirit,” and I like this idea. Elizabeth Costello is not called a novel either, although on the dust jacket Coetzee is described as “one of the best novelists alive.” Elizabeth Costello is subtitled Eight Lessons, and the lesson in which the phrase “light spirit” occurs is the final one, modelled on but not named after Kafka’s famous parable Vor dem Gesetz, in which the character K. again appears. I am reminded of Alberto Manguel’s statement, also a beneficient idea, in A History of Reading, that “the writer dies in the moment when the reader is born.”

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Norbert Ruebsaat

Norbert Ruebsaat has written many articles for Geist. He lived in Vancouver and taught at Simon Fraser University.



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