A Frog’s Life
James Wood believes that Elizabeth Costello is ‘deeply confessional’, that in this novel ‘Coetzee is passionately confessing … that his entire book vibrates with confession’, that he ‘is confessing the immensity of his own sensitivity to suffering, and perhaps hinting at its elements of irrationality’ (LRB, 23 October). Each time, he prefaces the proposal with a hedging ‘I think’, which indicates that he is aware that many readers are likely to think otherwise. As Wood says, how much Costello and Coetzee have in common is a ‘loitering tease’: that the classic novel she has rewritten, Ulysses, is itself a rewriting of a classic suggests how far from straightforward any attempt to trace Costello back to Coetzee would be; it is also a reminder that she is a fictional character – no real novelist would try to rewrite Ulysses. It seems to me that Wood’s persuasive account of Elizabeth Costello as a defence of fiction is undermined rather than buttressed by the notion that its author is ‘confessing’. Rather, he is exploring the pitfalls of confession.
Costello does just what Coetzee will not: when he is invited to give a lecture, he reads a story; when she is invited to give a lecture, she gives a lecture. And she ends up making absurd claims: ‘A sparrow knocked off a branch by a slingshot, a city annihilated from the air: who dares say which is the worse?’ Well, I do; and I dare say Coetzee might have an idea which is worse, too, but he wouldn’t say, because it isn’t the job of fiction to give straight answers. And I am not convinced that Coetzee, or a reader, can be assumed to share Costello’s faith in her ability to imagine what it is like to be dead, or to be a dog or a frog. Coetzee, unlike Costello, is exquisitely aware not only of fiction’s power but also of its limits.
In his account of Elizabeth Costello, James Wood claims to see through the medium of the fictional fiction writer’s public pronouncements to identify a single message, a message, he says, which Coetzee shares: that the writer is sensitive to death and suffering. In that case, why the elaborate get-up? Why are Costello’s lectures such a small part of the fictive proceedings, which are mostly taken up with demonstrations of her misgivings, her worry that what she is saying is no longer what she believes? Why are there encounters with past and present lovers, why dinner parties? Why is Costello surrounded by fans, acolytes, antagonists and the indifferent? Why does the book contain such a range of reactions to her, from impassioned to dull? Why, in two of her lectures, does she discuss Kafka’s ape, dressed up to make a speech to a learned society, and forced to speak their language? Costello is neither ape nor parrot, preaching somebody else’s lesson. She is, however, both aped and parroted; and misrepresented and dismissed. Her brief (and only briefly summarised) lecture on ‘the future of the novel’ is followed by her getting into an argument about orality, performance and the need to please an audience. Her lecture on ‘realism’ turns out to be a discussion of whether she or any other writer will be remembered. Coetzee is famous for his unwillingness to appear, or appear as himself; on the evidence of Elizabeth Costello, he is right to be unwilling. The only thing he confesses to in the book is the elusiveness Wood won’t allow him.
St Paul, Minnesota
In the Breach
E.S. Turner asks why, in a recent review, I ‘join in the tease’ of referring to an otherwise unidentified judge as ‘she’ (Letters, 23 October). Shouldn’t he ask why elsewhere in the article I refer to the otherwise unidentified accused as ‘he’? Or isn’t that a tease?
Greg Dening says that following the introduction of sheep and cattle to Australia it took ‘only two hundred years for this earth to be pounded into dust’ (LRB, 25 September). This is a furphy, much quoted by city-bound environmentalists. If he cares to go out anywhere in the country after it has rained, he will see ‘damaging single-file tracks’ on about 0.001 per cent of the land leading to and between vast areas of grass and flowers.
Andrew O’Hagan describes the atmosphere among the people gathered to see David Blaine suspended in his perspex box above the Thames as ‘vicious’ and ‘desperate’, and makes the more general comment that the relationship between Blaine and his audience was ‘one of great sickness’ (LRB, 9 October).
I joined the crowds walking east along the Thames Path through Southwark to the Blaine-zone on the afternoon of 18 October, the day before he was to end his stunt (he managed to utter a few mystical vacuities before being carted off to hospital). Viciousness and desperation weren’t much in evidence. There were some ardent admirers, the ones who had posted messages on the security fence, saying ‘We’re with you, David’ and ‘For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who don’t, none will suffice.’ Most of these seemed to be young girls and boys, looking at Blaine with the same love in their eyes that my sister had whenever the Bay City Rollers or David Soul came on TV in the mid-1970s. They cheered and waved and gave the thumbs-up whenever Blaine looked their way. Most of the other people there seemed mildly intrigued, or quizzical, pleased to be somewhere that was in the news, or admiring of the fact that Blaine had spent 44 days swaying in the wind – didn’t he feel seasick? The crowd filed into the fenced area, had a look, mooched about, and filed out again, before moving off. Perhaps it was hindsight, but no one I spoke to had ever thought Blaine was going to die in his box, and they seemed reassured, rather than cheated, on realising that he was evidently OK.
I’m not sure that many people – newspaper columnists excepted – took the whole thing that seriously, so isn’t O’Hagan’s interpretation over-dramatic? If it’s not the case that Blaine was ever going to be ‘watched to death’, is today’s ‘entertainment ethos’, which O’Hagan sees as having ‘gone awry’, so different from what it’s always been? O’Hagan is more percipient than most Blaine-watchers, but perhaps he’s more gullible, too. We may be, as he says, ‘mawkish’ and ‘servile’, but we’re not stupid.
A Play for Plotters
I doubt if any great number of the LRB’s readers cares much about the difference of opinion between Blair Worden and me (Letters, 23 October), but I’ll risk one more word. The supporters of Essex knew that Shakespeare’s company had a play about Richard II that it suited them to have performed at a particular moment when that King’s reign was, as Worden puts it, ‘a sensationally topical subject’. On that point we agree, and so must anybody who has any interest in the topic. I remarked, innocently, that whatever play they had in mind must earlier have been commissioned by the company; Worden is anxious about my use of the word ‘commissioned’, uncertain whether it should be in quotes to demonstrate his belief that it should be used only in relation to the Essex initiative, a preference he does nothing to explain. Why, if the company already had a play based on Hayward, less than two years old, should they claim that it was ‘old and long out of use’? Failure to deal with this simple issue is my chief complaint against Worden.
The play we are talking about, whether by Shakespeare or another, was indisputably in the control of Shakespeare’s company; otherwise it would have made no sense for the Essex people to approach them. The circumstances of the 1611 play are, as he says, quite different, and they are also quite irrelevant. Shakespeare’s play had then been in print (complete with the deposition scene) for three years. Worden’s ‘alternative’ interpretation – that I supposed his friends would not insult Shakespeare by commissioning a play on the subject by somebody else – is, I’m afraid, wildly off the mark. What his interpretation needs is some explanation of why his suppositional new play about Richard could be said, as it were in court, to be old and long out of use.
Sukhdev Sandhu writes of Bangladeshi youths attending the vigils outside the Royal London Hospital ‘waiting in vain for Quddus Ali to regain consciousness’ (LRB, 9 October). Actually he did regain consciousness. I know because I talked to him and to members of his family when he was in the neurological ward at Homerton Hospital. I had known Quddus from years before, when I taught him at Stepney Green School. There were, as Sandhu asserts, ‘bullying classmates and unsympathetic teachers’. But plenty of others didn’t fit this description. Many of my colleagues stood outside the Royal London Hospital, in solidarity with Bangladeshi youth and in protest against the assault on Quddus. And I still have copies of letters to Quddus from primary school children, black and white, from across the borough.
Sandhu doesn’t mention the institutional racism that resulted in hundreds of Bangladeshi children in Tower Hamlets in the late 1980s being denied a school place at all. And what of the local council’s attempts to evict Bangladeshi families from their council flats on the grounds that they had made themselves ‘intentionally homeless’ by leaving Bangladesh, often decades earlier? Then as now, the threat to minority ethnic communities comes as much from people in government offices as from thugs on the streets or in the playground.
Sukhdev Sandhu misses a point in his review of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane: Hasina’s letters cannot have been written in English. Nazneen begins receiving them as soon as she reaches London, before even she can speak a word of English. The ‘pidgin English’ of the letters is a mediation: Ali’s rendering of Hasina’s illiteracies in her native language.
Bill Myers writes that computer-generated inferences are ‘nothing of the sort. They are chains of implemented instructions that only look like inferences to real inferrers, which people are and computers are not’ (Letters, 23 October). Alan Turing would have asked: how can anyone (or anything) tell the difference between something that looks like an inference and an inference?
University of Bath
I have always thought that Stanley was saying, in coded form, that he was being so bold as to speak to a gentleman to whom he hadn't been introduced (Letters, 23 October).
Rebecca Solnit refers to ‘“Wanted Man”, which Bob Dylan wrote in 1969’ (LRB, 9 October). The song is generally credited to ‘Bob Dylan and John R. Cash’, and Johnny Cash’s performance makes clear enough how much he contributed to its composition. Perhaps more to the point, though, is the absence, in both the Knopf edition of Dylan’s lyrics and on several websites with Cash’s lyrics, of the line that Solnit quotes. I’d be interested to know what version she refers to.
Boone, North Carolina
Rebecca Solnit writes: I was quoting Nick Cave's version of the song from memory.