Defining Global and Regional Literatures in Elizabeth Costello and Disgrace
By April Joyner
“The dream of the great American novel is past. We need to write the global novel,” Maxine Hong Kingston once declared. Her statement, however, begs the question, “What is a global novel?” The fictional writer Elizabeth Costello, the titular character of J.M. Coetzee’s collection of addresses, sheds light upon this question by examining the novel not on a global scale but from a regional perspective. In Lesson 2 of Elizabeth Costello, she and her fictional contemporary, Nigerian writer Emmanuel Egudu, debate what classifies as authentic regional literature by contemplating “The Novel in Africa,” the lesson’s title. Although they confine their discussion of the African novel to works written by black Africans, such as the fictional Egudu and Ben Okri, the label of “the novel in Africa” equally applies to the work of Coetzee, of both Afrikaans and British South African background. Indeed, Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, amid its exploration of the consequences of apartheid’s fall in South Africa, examines the border between regionalization and globalization, both of time and space. In particular, Disgrace troubles the notion of global scholarship in a locale whose residents are so preoccupied with regional affairs at the same time that it presents the regional crisis of South African race relations to a global readership.
Together, Lesson 2 of Elizabeth Costello and Disgrace offer multiple perspectives of the boundary between regional and global literature. In the debate between Costello and Egudu, style and audience emerge as the two competing factors that determine the authenticity of regional literature. These two factors in turn provide two definitions of “regional literature”: literature reminiscent of the culture of the region in which it is produced as well as literature written for and received by a particular regional readership. Both the factors of style and audience, as well as the resultant definitions of regional literature, figure in Disgrace, as the style of David Lurie’s subject of scholarship, European Romantic literature, has little currency with his South African contemporaries and consequently finds little readership. By combining the issues of style and audience, Disgrace presents scope of relevance as a third factor in determining the authenticity of regional literature. However, neither Lesson 2 of Elizabeth Costello nor Disgrace succeeds in defining global literature. If both Egudu’s conception of African literature and David’s attempt to revamp Romanticism in South Africa fail as regional literature, are they any more legitimate under the classification of global literature?
While debating whether Egudu’s classification of African literature is valid or pretentious, neither Egudu nor Costello considers the possibility of Egudu’s African literature as a global project. On the other hand, Disgrace, although belonging to a different classification of “African literature,” takes up this project through the comparison of scholar David Lurie with J.M. Coetzee himself. Lurie seeks to transfer literature of another region to his own region, thereby demonstrating its universality. Similarly, although Disgrace explores South African racial and political dynamics in the post-apartheid era, Coetzee does not define an authorial political position, freeing the novel of investment in strict regional discourse. Disgrace, by contrasting the projects of character and author, thus establishes “global literature” as literature whose style and content are readily accessible to a multi-regional audience. Coetzee, however, raises question as to whether any novel can provide ready access to such a wide audience, for even as the discourse in Elizabeth Costello and Disgrace moves away from regional literature, neither work can entirely mute the regional or the political. Through Elizabeth Costello and Disgrace, Coetzee thus demonstrates the inability to displace literature entirely from the regional and the impossibility of global literature.
In “The Novel in Africa,” Lesson 2 of Elizabeth Costello, Elizabeth Costello and Emmanuel Egudu debate at length the validity of African literature as an authentic regional literature. Aboard the cruise ship on which he is a lecturer, Egudu strings together observations from critics of African postcolonial literature to argue that “the novel in Africa” represents a unique type of oral literature, reminiscent of the society from which its writers come. Through his insistence on orality, he anticipates the first counter-argument to his proposal that African literature represents a unique regional literature: “In view of the fact that the writers in question write in a foreign language (specifically French) and are published and, for the most part, read in a foreign country (specifically France), can they be truly be called African writers? Are they not more properly called French writers of African origin?” (Elizabeth Costello 44) By resisting this initial challenge to the notion of African literature and adopting Cheikh Hamidou’s insistence on an oral tradition privy to Africans alone, Egudu rejects the notion of universality implied in the passage’s first questions. While the label “African writer” signifies allegiance and identification with a particular region, the label “French writer of African origin” suggests a cultural exchange between the two regions and hence a more global scope. African postcolonial literature, however, as Egudu argues, does not embrace this cultural exchange but insists on its uniqueness, for the historic exchange between Europe and Africa has been one of oppression and exploitation. Even Costello, in her rebuttals to Egudu’s argument for the African novel, reveals the problems of classifying novels by African writers as global novels: “Yet how can you explore a world in all its depth if at the same time you are having to explain it to outsiders? […] It is too much for one person, it can’t be done, not at the deepest level. That, it seems to me, is the root of your problem. Having to perform your Africanness at the same time as you write” (51). By addressing the issue of audience, Costello makes a twofold observation. First, despite her skepticism of orality and negritude, she acknowledges such a thing as “Africanness” present in the literature African writers create. Costello thus allows some room for regionalism even though she shuns the notion of the African novel. At the same time, she troubles the notion of global literature in general, not only as it pertains to African writers and their work. The term “global literature” implies a crossing of boundaries, allowing a mutual understanding among people on either side of such a boundary, but Costello derides the possibility that such a mutual understanding can occur: “…it can’t be done, not at the deepest level.” Despite their disagreements, both Costello and Egudu thus problematize the notion of global literature.
In the debate between Egudu and Costello, however, the question of the legitimacy of regional literature still remains unresolved. Egudu, quoting Cheikh Hamidou Kane, rejects the suggestion of globality in his anticipated counter-argument by introducing orality as the distinguishing factor of the African region: “The writers I speak of are truly African because they are born in Africa, they live in Africa, their sensibility is African…A French or English writer has thousands of years of written tradition behind him … We on the other hand are heirs to an oral tradition” (Elizabeth Costello 44). Costello challenges this argument through her observation, “A novel about people who live in an oral culture…is not an oral novel. Just as a novel about women isn’t a women’s novel” (53). While this observation may be valid, Costello dodges Egudu’s (and Kane’s) argument that African writers transmit their Africanness into their works by virtue of having an “African sensibility,” thereby creating an African literature regardless of language or style. What matters to Costello is not such sensibility but readership. She notes that Australian literature became authentically Australian only when the country developed a substantial readership to receive the works of their countrymen, whereas African literature is not intended for Africans but readers abroad. Thus, at the same time that audience complicates the success of African literature as global novel, as noted previously, it denies African literature authenticity as a regional literature. African literature, according to Costello’s argument, fails to meet the standard of regional literature because its regionalism draws from politics and the persuasion of foreigners to such politics rather than readership.
Coetzee’s novel Disgrace takes up the question of regional and global literatures through African literature of a different sort than the one offered by Emmanuel Egudu in Lesson 2 of Elizabeth Costello: the literature of white South Africa. In his essay collection White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, Coetzee explains the nature of such literature: “Nor does the phrase white writing imply the existence of a body of writing different in nature from black writing. White writing is white only insofar as it is generated by the concerns of people no longer European, not yet African” (11). This statement makes two observations. The first seems to ally Coetzee with Elizabeth Costello in his conception of African literature, for he questions the idea that white writing is inherent different from black writing; he, like Costello, refuses to give black African writing the mystique of orality for which Egudu argues. On the other hand, he, again concurring with Costello, still acknowledges the role of regionalism in literature, as he characterizes white South Africans as divorced from Europe, though not yet assimilated as Africans. This characterization represents the main challenge to producing “African literature” for both David Lurie and J.M. Coetzee, as they both must negotiate their European heritage and influences with their African settings. Their attempts to reconcile notions of “regional” and “global” literature depend upon the success of this negotiation.
The essays in White Writing focus upon the pastoral as the landscape of white South African writing: one which hearkens back to European literature, particularly the Romantic idealization of nature, at the same time that it reveals the geographical separation, and by extension, cultural distance, between Europe and Africa. Although the setting of David Lurie’s attempted opera about Byron and Teresa, Byron’s last lover, does not strictly qualify as a pastoral, it serves the same purpose of providing a window to the European past. This idea of the pastoral not only represents David’s neo-Romanticism but also his unsuccessful attempt to find an apolitical space for his scholarly and artistic endeavors. The first chapter of Disgrace illustrates the lack of existence of such a space for David’s work:
Once a professor of modern languages, he has been, since Classics and Modern Languages were closed down as part of the great rationalization, adjunct professor of communications. Like all rationalized personnel, he is allowed to offer one special-field course a year, irrespective of enrolment, because that is good for morale. This year he is offering a course in the Romantic poets. For the rest he teaches Communications 101, ‘Communication Skills,’ and Communications 201, ‘Advanced Communication Skills.’ (3)
Although this passage does not explicitly reveal the changing political climate of Cape Town and its impact on the university, the restructuring of the curriculum indicates that the university is much more sensitive to the outside world. “Communication skills” classes replace literature classes, for they seem more applicable to the society students will enter upon graduation. Even more strikingly, the departments of Classics and Modern Languages are eliminated. This detail alludes to the irrelevance of David’s endeavors, for both departments relating to the distant past (Classics) and other societies (Modern Languages) cease to exist. Because David’s area of interest, Romanticism, combines the two as literature of a past era from another society, it thereby becomes doubly irrelevant. Whereas David’s eventual project attempts to straddle European and African cultures through art, the university is not concerned with such a global effort, preferring instead to focus on the nearer issues of its region. In a society where technical skills trump aestheticism, regionalism thus receives preference over David’s idealistic globalism.
As a result of this prioritization, David’s conception of the apolitical pastoral, frozen in time, rings false when he begins to compose his opera. David notes the opera’s departure from his expectations once he incorporates music, by way of an old banjo he once bought for his daughter Lucy:
Seated at his own desk looking out on the overgrown garden, he marvels at what the little banjo is teaching him . . . It is not the erotic that is calling to him after all, nor the elegiac, but the comic. He is in the opera neither as Teresa nor as Byron nor even as some blending of the two: he is held in the music itself, in the flat, tinny slap of the banjo strings, the voice that strains to soar away from the ludicrous instrument but is continually reined back, like a fish on a line. (Disgrace 184-185)
Contrary to what he previously imagined, David cannot inhabit the world of Teresa and Byron as a neo-Romantic, removed from his present reality. He enters the opera “neither as Teresa nor as Byron nor even as some blending of the two” but instead as an entity reminiscent of his South African environment, the music of the banjo. David reveals the banjo’s ties to South Africa in his recollection of his purchase of the banjo “on the streets of KwaMashu [for Lucy] when she was a child” (184). His description of the “odd little seven-stringed banjo” (184) in turn illustrates its novel quality, outside the conventions of the traditional instruments, like the flute or the cello, that he envisions in his opera. As described in the passage, this music finds itself out of place; it is described inelegantly as a “flat, tinny slap,” not at all reminiscent of an operatic arrangement. Even though David tries to rise above the limitations of Lucy’s banjo, the passage indicates his failure, as he “is continually reined back” to the instrument. Thus, despite his desire for escapism to another region and era, David finds himself bound to his time and place even in his art. This bind in turn demonstrates the futility of his project, as the anachronism creates discord, illustrated by the bizarre sounds of the banjo, in his work. In the end, David resigns himself to his inability to complete the opera.
David’s failure demonstrates the limitations of even widely recognized and elevated literatures, such as European Romanticism, as global projects. Importation of one region’s literature into another without attempt to bridge the cultures of the two regions is especially prone to failure, as David’s opera illustrates. The opera also shows that even a blend of two regional literatures does not automatically succeed in producing global literature, for the South African elements of David’s opera, provided by the banjo, only accentuate the foreignness of the opera David seeks to produce. The successful global project hence must have a form as well as content that remain faithful to the project’s origins while allowing universal (or near-universal) access. J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace amends the problems of David’s opera by accounting for regionalism in its portrayal of the pastoral, offering a literary landscape accessible to multiregional readers while not entirely effacing South African politics in its prose. In doing so, the novel comments not only upon David’s conception of the pastoral but also upon previous conceptions by South African writers, hence reshaping the notion of regional literature by white South Africans as well as its position to global literature.
Through David and Lucy’s interactions, Disgrace disputes the notion of the pastoral as an apolitical space by revoking past South African portrayals of the pastoral. In the introduction to White Writing, Coetzee notes the problems of the pastoral as envisioned by white South Africans:
Pastoral in South Africa therefore has a double tribute to pay. To satisfy the critics of rural retreat, it must portray labour; to satisfy the critics of colonialism, it must portray white labour. What inevitably follows is the occlusion of black labour from the scene: the black man becomes a shadowy presence flitting across the stage now and then to hold a horse or serve a meal…. For how can the farm become the pastoral retreat of the black man when it was his pastoral home only a generation or two ago? (5)
The dilemma surrounding representation of labor and blacks in South Africa, inextricably bound through the legacies of colonialism and apartheid, results in an inaccurate portrayal of the pastoral. According to Coetzee, “Blindness to the colour black is built into South African pastoral” (5). Disgrace, however, seeks to end this legacy of blindness by reincorporating blacks into the literary portrayal of the South African pastoral. It thus confronts the issue, as enumerated above, of the intersection of labor and race. Whereas previous writers have illustrated only white labor, Coetzee shows white and black labor side by side in the characters of Lucy and Petrus, the manager of her farm, as well as the problems that arise from this joint labor. The issue of ownership constitutes the chief problem of this joint labor. Coetzee acknowledges this issue in the passage in White Writing, for he recognizes the tension between pastoral as retreat and pastoral as home. Whereas the pastoral symbolizes retreat in Romantic literature, which previous white South African literature seeks to emulate, it historically constitutes home for black South Africans. With the end of apartheid, however, and the coexistence of black and white South Africans in equal political standing, comes a shift in the portrayal of pastoral. The pastoral no longer equals retreat for white South Africans but ideally becomes home, alongside that of black South Africans. Racial tensions, however, continue to complicate the notions of retreat versus home, as illustrated through the characters of Lucy, David, and Petrus in Disgrace. Consequently, just as David’s opera fails to recapture Romanticism, thereby failing to link back to European literature, the pastoral becomes divided between two regions: it exists neither as genuinely regional nor global.
The characters in Disgrace reveal the problem of the idealized portrayal of the pastoral as retreat through the issue of ownership. Lucy has built her home on a farm outside of the city. While the farm serves as a retreat for David from his troubles in Cape Town, Lucy makes a commitment to it as a home, refusing to abandon it even after she is raped there. At the same time, however, the rape and its underlying racial politics (which constitute in Disgrace “the shadowy presence” to which Coetzee alludes in White Writing, only more constant in nature) demonstrate Lucy’s ultimately insecure ownership of the place she considers her home. After David asks her to leave, Lucy replies, “Stop calling it the farm, David. This is not a farm, it’s just a piece of land where I grow things—we both know that. But no, I’m not giving it up” (Disgrace 200). Lucy’s attention to naming reveals her lack of ease both with her ownership and David’s Romantic idealism. While David calls Lucy’s land “the farm,” Lucy disconnects it, and herself, from the lofty vision of the pastoral by insisting that it is “just a piece of land where [she] grow[s] things.” Although she matches previous portrayals of the white South African pastoral by insisting upon her contributions of labor to the land, she also reveals a lack of ease about her ownership as well as David’s idealized notion of “the farm” and the pastoral. Petrus accounts for her lack of ease about ownership, for he threatens to reclaim the land for himself at any moment, Lucy’s stability being threatened by incidents such as her rape. This instability in turn undermines David’s notion of pastoral.
David’s terminology of “the farm” illustrates a continual divide between his conception of “the farm” as pastoral retreat, a portal to globality, and Lucy’s conception of it as a home and a site of labor, an insistence upon regionalism. In the wake of his attack and Lucy’s rape, he urges Lucy to go to Holland to escape the physical threat and underlying racial tensions that they have encountered. Lucy, however, resists, accepting such a threat as part of her existence: “Yes, I agree, it is humiliating. But perhaps that is a good point to start from again. Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level…. No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity” (205). Lucy demonstrates her ties to the land despite her violent experiences, her willingness to work from the bottom to create a home out of the site she has inhabited for quite a while. David, on the other hand, sees such a commitment as futile. The farm has lost its status as retreat and refuge, for it has proven not only a setting for physical threat but also the unlikely site of racial tension. As a result, he attempts to convince Lucy to seek another retreat in Holland, far removed not only from the farm but also the racially charged politics of South Africa. But, this proposal, as Coetzee acknowledges in White Writing, for Holland would prove no more suitable as a refuge than South Africa for “people no longer European, not yet African” (11). Coetzee’s remarks reveals David’s proposal as an unrealistic belief in his cosmopolitanism—his globality—as a white South African. Lucy, on the other hand, focuses upon the regional political realities that shape her dilemma. Ultimately, neither strategy offers comfort for the characters.
By refuting the notion of the pastoral as retreat, Coetzee undermines the pastoral as an apolitical space. Just as the strains of the banjo bring South Africa into David’s Romantic opera, the intersection of ownership and race brings politics into Lucy’s farm, the physical embodiment of David’s pastoral. Coetzee’s reintroduction of black characters, and the political issues that accompany the coexistence of blacks and whites in South Africa, thus destroy the Romantic sensibility that previous portrayals of the South African pastoral attempt to preserve. Even in adopting the paradigmatic landscape of the European Romantics, previously seen as timeless and universal by his literary forebears as well as his fictional contemporary, David, Coetzee brings a regional sensibility and political awareness to his portrayal. Through the landscape and politics of Disgrace, he thus illustrates that global archetypes fail to escape regional discourse. In this sense, the global novel is a project that no writer can accomplish. At the same time, however, Disgrace embraces the hybridity that Emmanuel Egudu rejects in Lesson 2 of Elizabeth Costello, for it exploits the Romantic idea of the pastoral to illustrate South African race relations. Whereas Egudu decries the notion of black African writers as British or French writers of African origin, Coetzee acknowledges the position of white South African writers as negotiators between European and South African influences. Rather than attempting to classify his literature, including Disgrace, as strictly “regional” or “global,” as does Egudu, he illustrates the inability to fulfill either, for Egudu’s arguments fail to place African literature in either category. Coetzee thus presents hybridity of influences as the middle ground between the restrictive labels of regional and global literature. Even though Disgrace may not fulfill either category because of its understated politics, through its exploration of well-studied literary archetype, it still presents a wider scope beyond its region of discourse.
Coetzee, J.M. Disgrace. New York: Penguin, 2000.
---. Elizabeth Costello. New York: Penguin, 2004.
---. White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1988.
© April Joyner