I had to go back to my notes (yes, I have notes on most everything I have read since 1999 or sometime like that, before I got the blog) to see what I thought about it then. This is what I wrote:
A hybrid between a novel, a short story collection, and essays. It´s about the author´s relation to life, man, and work, in six chapters. In the first one we see Elisabeth through the eyes of her son. He accompanies her as she goes to accept an award and we see the gap between the image of the author and the real woman. In the second chapter it´s about her relationship to other artists, the distance, the closeness, the admiration, the competition. Then it´s about faith and science, or reality vs the ideal, when Elisabeth goes to visit her sister the nun. In the fourth chapter Elisabeth disputes another author´s work, she is torn between admiration and repulsion for a work that describes evil. She doesn´t want to see it, she argues that the world might become a better place if we remain quiet about certain things, but at the same time she suspects it´s a weakness in her that has to do with her age. Then she thinks about the divine and how it is to be found in imperfection. And in the sixth chapter she is facing the gates of heaven and finds herself in front of a kafka-like court, where she is being asked to declare her beliefs. Finally, as an afterword, a letter from another Elisabeth C to Francis Bacon, about her husbands madness. Almost poem-like.
"Elisabeth Costello" is not easy to understand. It is a riddle I can not open.
That´s what I wrote. Not a single word about wanting to read it again. And I have to say, it´s still rather puzzling to me. Well-written, yes, sure, but it takes more than genius to win my love. Perhaps I confused my feelings for this book with the ones I had for "The Lives of Animals", where Elisabeth Costello also appears. I do remember being quite in love with that one, but I can´t find any notes on it, I probably wrote about it in my diary, and I´m just not up to leafing through thousands of pages to find them.
I read that last bit again, that letter to Francis Bacon and I suppose Coetzee is finishing the whole thing off with the declaration that words are just not enough. That truth, or life, is not to be found in literature. At least that´s what I think he is saying.
Perhaps I need to grow older, much older, to get this. Or perhaps I should just read something else. The world is full of good books. I´m just a bit shocked that I didn´t love it, I had this idea that I love everything Coetzee has written. That´s one less illusion. But I think I´ll hang on to it. In another ten years, or twenty, perhaps I can really relate.