Authorial ventriloquism

Elizabeth Costello, it is safe to say, does not enjoy the same level of popularity as Franzen’s Freedom. A book about an old woman giving polemical talks about vegeterianism and then arguing with her hosts at each venue could never have the broad appeal of a grand family chronicle informed by the stateside culture of therapy. As far as I know Coetzee is indeed a committed vegetarian, just as Franzen really is a liberal with a fondness for birds. Coetzee’s book shows that he has thought deeply and read widely about animal welfare. The distance fiction allows him to take from his own hobbyhorse (as it may well be) transforms it into matter fit for art. Paradoxically, this way the case for vegetarianism is stated less convincingly than it might have been in an earnest, literate essay: Elizabeth is muddled and hectoring, led astray by her strength of feeling. Because the novel is a study of character, the contradictions of her conviction can be explored, and other, more temperate voices given their due. Thus Elizabeth Costello is as much about what it is like to hold strong moral views, and the corrosive effect that may have, as the question at hand. It also casts doubt on the humane values that might be held up as our justification as a species. Coetzee does not here wear his learning lightly, but he succeeds in giving it dramatic form and showing how what might be dismissed as dusty old debates — such as those of the Renaissance — are played out in the flesh. Likewise with the more pedestrian convictions of Franzen’s characters: Richard in Freedom, like Chip in The Corrections before him, has some good liberal riffs on consumer culture, but what makes them interesting is his sardonic excess. Attempting to generalise, and with apologies to Lukacs, who said it better: the key seems to be that the views being expressed are plausibly attributed to characters motivated by a dramatic situation; they are lifted above the merely personal into a hypostatic realm of representative significance. That doesn’t mean they need be typical, and Coetzee’s novel is the better as art (if not entertainment) for having more rarefied interests. Franzen — having made his name with The Corrections — does once allow himself what must be considered a merely authorial pronouncement when he makes Joey give up on Atonement, a Christmas present from his worthy sister:

[he] struggled to interest himself in its descriptions of rooms and plantings

even though that is both in character and an eminently plausible realist detail — at the time, McEwan’s novel must have enjoyed sales comparable to Franzen’s own.

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