This is an unusual book. I don't know what to make of it, and I feel like I am not fully qualified to read it, frankly.
The main character, Elizabeth Costello, is an elderly - but not really old - writer, who finds herself invited to various functions where she delivers rather obscure speeches. Much of the import of the book lies in these speeches, or in conversations at dinner. In a sense that feels odd, forced, yet not really, because she is so well-drawn. I cared about her even when I could not entirely follow her reasoning.
If I had read the list of chapters ahead of time I wonder if I would have started the book. They are called "Lessons".
Lesson 1: Realism Lesson 2: The novel in Africa Lesson 3: The lives of animals...
And so on. I am glad that I did not read this and get put off, though, for this is a beautifully written book. And the main theme really is about caring. About empathy, about giving a damn. I am always up for discourse on this subject.
Where I fall short is in the classics, particularly the Greek and Roman classics. I have never read them. So when the various characters discuss them I can only take them at their word, or try to make a whole from the parts. I feel a bit undereducated. Not unusual, I suspect, for an American from a middle-class family.
We meet Elizabeth as she travels to Pennsylvania to receive an honorary award from a university there. She meets her son there, because he lives nearby, and he feels obligated to accompany her and to watch her speak. Wherever she goes she has a tendency to ruffle feathers, not because she is a glutton for controversy but simply because she speaks what she feels and she tries to explain.
Thus she discusses "realism" - or maybe the inability to determine what is real and what is not. Or maybe her regret that she can no longer be sure what a writer really means. There is a core there, a thought worked out, and I can't say that I fully understand it. In this I am joined by the fictional audience, which clapped somewhat hesitantly.
But then we move on to other subjects. Elizabeth dissects the contention by an African writer that African writing is all about listening, community, being a part of the story, rather than offering a story to be read alone. Rather furiously she takes apart the theory and throws it into the dust bin. Then she moves on to what is my favorite subject: animals.
In the next two chapters she talks of how animals are treated in factory farms today, how no animal is safe from human appetites, and she dares to make the comparison with the Holocaust, saying that there is a holocaust every day for farm animals. Through the rest of the book these words are thrown back at her, but she does not retract them. Good for her, I say. The essence of her discussion here, I think, comes when she is pressed for what she wants or believes and she says she is at sea here, that she knows so many good and kind people and she does not understand why she herself is unable to forget or accept the horrors that happen to animals while others can. She simply does not understand. She does not set herself up as better than others, just as somebody trying to understand.
Her empathy for others permeates the rest of the book as well. She travels on a cruise ship, where she is one of the "entertainers", giving a talk and a short course on the novel. She travels to Africa to be with her sister when her sister receives an honor for what she has done in an African hospital, as a nun. She is invited to other illustrious events, in large part, she knows, because her name has become synonymous with controversy. She does not mean this to be so. She is only letting others know how she thinks, and she does think.
It's a thoughtful book, full of ideas that catch at the mind. It isn't too hard to see why the author would have won the Nobel prize in literature.