Materiality and the madness of reading: J.M. coetzee's elizabeth costello as post-apartheid text

Louise Bethlehem*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Unlike the “situationsl metafiction” (Attwell 1993: 20) of J.M. Coetzee's earlier novels, whose imbrication in the political matrix of the late-apartheid State has become a matter of critical orthodoxy, Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons (2003) rejects a South African emplacement for its writer-protagonist and hereby seems to suspend questions relating to the positioning of this work within post-apartheid literary culture. Coetzee's privileging of the transcultural, or formal aesthetic, dimensions of the work ratifies the normative exclusion of the historical master-narrative in the name of universalism (Butler 2000). Yet, for all that it defensively forecloses the possibility of “post-apartheid South Africa” being taken as its referent, I claim, “Lesson 8: At the Gate”, of Elizabeth Costello contains a persistent interrogation of the relations between representation and material embodiment that draws the text back - despite itself - into the semiotic matrix of South African literary culture, here to intersect the working through of these relations in extraliterary form before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The survie/survival of the material body before a tribunal oriented towards “confession” (Coetzee 2003: 211) presents an opportunity for the haunted and displaced analogy with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that my paper pursues.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)235-253
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Literary Studies
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Dec 2005


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