“What is so special about the form of consciousness that we recognize that makes killing a bearer of it a crime while killing an animal goes unpunished?”
Title: Elizabeth Costello
Author: J.M. Coetzee
Rating: 2/5 stars
Notes: Vegan Book Club‘s January 2020 group read
Elizabeth Costello. Writer. Vegetarian. Mother. Grandmother. Sister.
These are the titles that are arguably the most important when it comes to the eponymous main character of J.M. Coetzee’s 2003 novel Elizabeth Costello.
In this novel, Coetzee, an Australian writer and vegetarian like his heroine, returns to the narrator of his novella, The Lives of Animals. In fact, the two lectures under the Lives of Animals chapters are lifted straight from the novella, which was actually a lecture Coetzee himself gave at Princeton in 1997.
Costello is an aging author, most known for looking at James Joyce’s The House of Eccles Street from the perspective of Molly Bloom, Joyce’s protagonist’s wife. The novel sees Costello giving lectures on a variety of topics: the future of the novel, the lives of animals, realism, and more. More often than not, her audience doesn’t respond well to Costello’s talks, and honestly, as a reader, it’s not hard to see why.
More often than not, Costello comes off as pretentious. She is critical of those she is surrounded by, and, when we are in her head, she is condescending. Whether it is towards a fellow author (who she refuses to consider a peer) or towards her own sister, she does not really discriminate who she judges.
At least she is consistent.
Even when Costello is making points that I agree with (i.e. her lectures on the lives of animals), she does so in an inaccessible way or perhaps she is speaking to the wrong audience entirely.
Speaking at colleges, she makes a comparison that is often troubling: equating factory farms to concentration camps and other Holocaust-related imagery. Generally, people respond poorly to such comparisons, finding them to be in bad taste, and this is definitely the case in Coetzee’s novel. The imagery is unsettling, and, knowing Costello will give such a speech, a Jewish professor refuses to attend her lecture, and it’s understandable. It’s also a lesson for vegans and vegetarians: surely there must be a way to discuss the violence animals suffer without having to use events like the Holocaust – or slavery – to get their points across.
At the same time, Costello is faced with two particular obstacles: speaking to (presumably) carnists as a vegetarian and speaking as a woman in general. Among your average audience, neither of these categories – vegetarian and woman – are prone to be taken as seriously as their opposites (carnist and man). Though she is respected for her writing, perhaps she is not respected for her views specifically as a vegetarian or as a woman.
I wanted to like her. I really did. But I couldn’t.
Reading Elizabeth Costello, there was just something…off about the eponymous character that I couldn’t quite place, but I kept coming back to a couple questions: would Elizabeth have been more palatable if she were a man? Do I just not like reading male authors writing about/as women?
As I neared closer to the end of the novel, I became more and more exasperated with Elizabeth – her actions, her words, her everything. When she is at the gate and must make a statement of belief, she claims she has no beliefs, is unable to, as a writer, a secretary. If that is the case, what was the point of all of her lectures? Were those not her beliefs? Is her vegetarian lifestyle not a belief? Were all of her lectures, all of her issues with her family and those around her, were they just her arguing for the sake of arguing and nothing more?
I am certain Elizabeth Costello holds some literary merit – and it was definitely a fitting read for Vegan Book Club – but it wasn’t enjoyable.
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