Since 1982, J. M. Coetzee has been dazzling the literary world. After eight novels that have won, among other awards, two Booker Prizes, and most recently, the Nobel Prize, Coetzee has once again crafted an unusual and deeply affecting tale. Told through an ingenious series of formal addresses, Elizabeth Costello is, on the surface, the story of a woman's life as mother, sister, lover, and writer. Yet it is also a profound and haunting meditation on the nature of storytelling.
Old age offers no comforts, and that, for Coetzee, is its virtue. Costello has a passing but unforgettable encounter with its unpleasantnesses in a ladies' room outside the lecture hall in Amsterdam, where she has gone to hide after her talk has gone badly, as her talks usually do. As she sits on the toilet, this distinguished artist struggling to work through the implications of a code of literary ethics meant to protect the dignity of the powerless and the naked, a child scratches at the door and calls out to her mother in scornful Dutch that there's a woman in there, she can hear her. Costello hurriedly flushes and exits the stall, ''evading the eyes of mother and daughter.'' There is no justice in the ability of youth to shame age, and yet it's a fundamental fact of the embodied life. Coetzee's unflinching exploration of this desolate and strangely beautiful terrain represents the cruelest and best use to which literature can be put. Judith Shulevitz