In Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons, the eponymous protagonist is a retired author of international literary acclaim, who now spends her time giving guest lectures and interviews at scholarly events around the world. Old age has loosened, rather than reified, her ethical and literary convictions, and swelled her emotional reserves; rather than provide the staid academic wisdom expected of her, Costello offers provocative, unsettling opinions on issues such as animal rights, literary censorship, and the nature of belief - opinions she may or may not believe in herself. Profoundly aware of itself, Coetzee's novel is about human morality and mortality, but above all, about literature itself and the ethical responsibilities of writers and readers.
An earlier version of Lesson 1 appeared under the title 'What is Realism?' in Salmagundi nos. 114-15 (1997).
An earlier version of Lesson 2 appeared as 'The Novel in Africa', Occasional Paper no. 17 of the Townsend Center for the Humanities, University of California at Berkeley, 1999. Cheikh Hamidou Kane is quoted from Phanuel Akubueze Egejuru, Towards African Literary Independence (Greenwood Press, Westport, 1980), by permission of the author. Paul Zumthor is quoted from Introduction à la poésie orale, by permission of Éditions du Seuil.
Lessons 3 and 4 were published, with responses by Peter Singer, Marjorie Garber, Wendy Doniger and Barbara Smuts, as The Lives of Animals (Princeton University Press, 1999).
An earlier version of Lesson 5 appeared as 'Die Menschenwissenschaften in Afrika' / 'The Humanities in Africa' (Siemens Stifung, Munich, 2001).
An earlier version of Lesson 6 appeared in Salmagundi nos. 137-38 (2003).
'Letter of Elizabeth, Lady Chandos' was published by Intermezzo Press, Austin, Texas, in 2002.
Some chapters of this book are revised versions of essays previously published in literary and cultural journals.
Editions and translations have been updated for Elizabeth Costelle: Eight Lessons by Eilish Copelin as part of a Semester 2, 2013 scholar's internship. The selection and inclusion of these editions and translations was based on their availability through Australian libraries, namely through the search facilities of Libraries Australia and Trove (National Library of Australia).
Given the international popularity of Coetzee's work, however, this record is not yet comprehensive. Editions and translations not widely available in Australia may not have been indexed. Furthermore, due to the enormous breadth of critical material on Coetzee's work, indexing of secondary sources is also not complete.
'Sympathy, understood to be the capacity to suffer with the other, has long been regarded as one of the major vehicles to inspire an ethical communion. By minimizing differences through identification, sympathy helps us resonate with other beings and to exist in relation to them. This thesis examines the ethical endeavors on the vexed question of sympathy in four works by J. M. Coetzee - - The Lives of Animals (1999), Disgrace (1999), Elizabeth Costello (2003) and Slow Man (2005), all of which manifest Coetzee's notable interest in a fully-engaged sympathetic imagination into depraved and deprived human or nonhuman subjects. ' (Thesis summary)
'The power of literature has the ability to elevate the lives of others, including non-human animals. This is poignantly dramatised in J.M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello. The titular character of this fiction asserts that literature has the capacity to imagine and inhabit the existence of others, including non-human animals. If this is possible then animal life can be represented as being just as valuable as a human life. In Elizabeth Costello we are confronted with ethical and moral questions to do with the valuing human above that of non-human animals.'