Elizabeth Costello

What a provocative, fussy book. I first read in back in high school. I wasn’t a fan then, and I wasn’t exactly blow away this time either–I’ve just read it again it for a class, in which we’re going to discuss things like the Eudora Welty essay “Must the Novelist Crusade?” and questions like what is the correct relationship, if any, between the artist and society? 

I didn’t like the actual experience of reading this book but I respect what it was trying to do and I think it’s full of interesting questions. The biggest issue it grapples with is to what extent (if any) should an artist attempt to grapple with REAL LIFE BURNING ISSUES–i.e., to what extent should a writer crusade.

This is a question that really interests me, especially in light of one of my favorite quotes by George Orwell from one of my favorite essaysit is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally. By “political purpose,” I don’t think Orwell meant a specific ideology, like socialism or whatever. I like to think that he was referring to an engagement with the world, as opposed to a specific political platform.

I experienced a concrete example of this recently when I watched Silver Linings Playbook (a film that I liked way more than I expected). Throughout the film, you get these little references to the economy (people being fired, losing their pensions), racism and health insurance issues. These little touches helped elevate the film out of the typical romantic comedy fantasy universe, in which social realities are typically glossed over if not outright ignored. These references to Real Life Issues were one of the things (among many) that helped make Silver Linings Playbook a great movie to me, because it demonstrated an awareness, sense of life and engagement with the world, as opposed to just trying to gloss the world over for the packaged convenience of the story.

So yeah, I’m down with art engaging, but that still doesn’t really answer the question of whether they should CRUSADE or not (that word sounds so inherently negative to me, bringing to mind pictures of knights with red crosses painted over their chests and big swords). The question of how involved artists ought to be with politics has always been an interesting one to me. Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder makes a convincing argument that in some cases artists should GTFO, with his depiction of Mario Vargas Llosa as a giant fuck-up, meddling where he shouldn’t and creating a giant mess of a trial in Guatemala, despite his (presumably) good intentions. And then on the flipside you have Javier Cercas’ Soldiers of Salamis, in which the Bolaño character/author says “if I hadn’t learned how to write, I’d be firing away with the FARC right now.”

I must admit I’ve always been intrigued/attracted to politically engaged artists-slash-folks in general, despite being fairly apathetic myself. In college I always got crushes on the type of dudes who ran organizations like the Latino Student Union, boys with scruffy beards who were really good at getting everyone in a room to shut up and listen. I guess I had crushes on them because I secretly wanted to be like them myself. It’s only recently I’ve accepted that I’m not, like, this crusading, trail-blazing leader type person who can get everyone riled up, fired and ready to go. And that’s OK. Because what I do instead is write. I can’t do or be anything other than myself, because then I’m not doing anyone or anything a service. I can only focus on my calling, not someone else’s.

Another idea that was interesting to me in this book was the one discussed in Lesson 6, “The Problem of Evil,” which asks if writers have the right to write about anything they like, no matter how dark or disturbing. Coetzee (oops, I mean Costello) clearly states that s/he doesn’t: She is no longer sure that people are always improved by what they read. Furthermore, she is not sure that writers who venture into the darker territories of the soul always remain unscathed. She has begun to wonder whether writing what one desires, any more than reading what one desires, is in itself a good thing. (160) Costello’s specific beef is with a book that graphically shows the execution of Hitler’s attempted assassins. Her ponderings made me wonder in turn about whether there are some places as an author you just do not have a right to go. Do you have the right to write about a rape scene if you’ve never experienced one? What about from the perspective of an oppressed Pakistani women if you’re a rich white guy? Isn’t one of the supposedly great things about fiction is that it basically do anything, be anyone, inhabit any kind of consciousness? I guess my personal view of the matter is that yes, fiction can and should go places, but it should do so with a tremendous amount of caution and respect. When this caution is not obeyed, that’s when you get that icky feeling in your stomach, what Costello/Coetzee (can I call her Costezee?) calls obscene.

Overall, I really respect what this book was trying to do, but that being said, it was a giant pain in the ass to read. You’re gonna need to take a breath at the end of each chapter and brace yourself for another lecture (whoops, sorry, they’re not chapters, they’re appropriately-titled “Lessons.”) This book is basically a collection of non-fiction, philosophical essays written by JM Coetzee, disguised in fictional form. Ultimately, if you’re going to read this book, you’re going to really need to be prepared and bring your A-game because  Coetzee’s not fucking around.

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Filed under books, politics, review

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