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Mind into matter

With an aging writer as his protagonist, J.M. Coetzee explores the tension between the abstract and the everyday

Elizabeth Costello

By J.M. Coetzee

Viking, 230 pp., $21.95

The award of this year's Nobel Prize for literature to J.M. Coetzee merely confirms what his readers have known for quite some time: This reticent South African who now lives in Australia is one of the finest contemporary novelists in the English language. But he is also, to use a phrase from V.S. Naipaul's Nobel acceptance speech two years ago, a writer who is the sum of his works. Coetzee gives few interviews, his two autobiographical books lay bare the recesses of the writer's inner life while withholding most external details, and his public image consists largely of a gaunt authorial picture that stares at you like an accusation from the book jackets. There is no way to know him other than through his writing.

Coetzee's latest novel reads a little like the sum of his works as well. Precise in its prose and deceptively slim, it is assembled in the form of a series of episodes in the last years in the life of Australian writer Elizabeth Costello. She is an elderly woman, best known for an early novel reworking Joyce's ''Ulysses,'' and most of the episodes center on the lectures she gives all over the world. Since her talks take up themes that resonate through Coetzee's earlier books - realism in literature, the problem of evil, the status of animals, the role of humanities - it is not surprising to find that they have been taken bodily from actual lectures by Coetzee. This may seem willfully postmodern, but Coetzee isn't interested in superficial formal experimentation or in creating a mere vehicle for some large ideas. He is too bound in the corporeality of the aging Costello for that, too caught up in the jet-lagged and slightly confused woman in tawdry clothes who upsets her hosts with her strange lectures.

Giving a speech at a New England college, Costello makes an extended comparison between contemporary abattoirs and Nazi extermination camps that disturbs a number of her listeners. Later, at a conference in Amsterdam, she attacks a fellow writer attending the conference for having gone too far in his depiction of evil: ''Mr West, when he wrote those chapters, came in touch with something absolute. Absolute evil... Through reading him that touch of evil was passed on to me.'' Costello's themes are neither gratuitous nor badly argued, and Coetzee's narrative method often presents human beings as defined by the ideas that dominate them. Certainly, minor characters like her son John (a professor of physics), her sister Blanche (a missionary), and the Nigerian Emmanuel (a fellow writer and former lover) play their roles as rationalist, believer, and postcolonial in such exemplary fashion that there seems little life left in them after the performance. But the nature of Costello's relationship to her own disturbing ideas is far more uncertain, lacking the conviction that might otherwise make her trespasses temporarily forgivable to her audience.

When pressed by listeners about her ideas, she fumbles for answers. In Amsterdam, unaware till the day before that the writer she is attacking is also attending the conference, she stays up all night to eliminate references to him and ends up delivering the original lecture anyway. If there is a point to this exhibition of the alternating pattern of brilliance and bewilderment in Costello, the incommensurability between a writer and her ideas, it is to be found, surprisingly enough, in the finite and decaying body possessed by the elderly woman. In what is a characteristically economic touch, we are made aware of this for the first time from the point of view of her son John, the very embodiment of her former fertility: ''He thinks of her as a seal, an old, tired circus seal. One more time she must heave herself on to the tub, one more time show that she can balance the ball on her nose.''

After this, when Costello goes on to speak of the rights of animals, just enough has been indicated for the reader to think that she may be speaking less as a committed campaigner and more as someone aware of her own impending extinction. There are other novels by Coetzee that also explore this uneasy triangulation between ideas, the individual, and the body. In them, however, a difficult relationship with the body often simulates the individual's fraught engagement with the body politic of apartheid South Africa. For Costello, in many ways fuller and more contented than her fictional South African predecessors, the problem is more fundamental than that. It is a question of the boundary imposed on her body by death. What words or ideas or stories can be adequate in the face of such overwhelming certainty?

Coetzee could have left it at that to produce an impressive but bleak novel, a narrative that efficiently performs its own inadequacy as a narrative and does no more. But the final chapter, a reworking of Kafka's parable ''Before the Law'' in ''The Trial,'' gives the reader something beyond this stark finitude. That Kafka should be the animating spirit for such an impulse may appear surprising at first, but then he is also the forebear of all writers tortured by questions of the body, the thin man extraordinaire, obsessively recording his weight in his diaries while wasting away. Like Kafka, Coetzee too offers a glimpse of something else behind the working of the mysterious law of the universe, touching the human in his very attempts to record the dying animal within us. The autobiographical protagonist in Coetzee's previous book, ''Youth,'' speaks of his ideal literary style as ''hard and clear like a flame.'' It is an apt enough description of Coetzee's own approach, but one should not be led completely astray by that resemblance and the obvious illumination of ideas in ''Elizabeth Costello.'' Occasionally, at the border where animal meets human, and life encounters death, Coetzee is capable of warmth as well.

Siddhartha Deb is the author of the novel ''The Point of Return.'' He lives in New York.

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