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Was J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello Inspired by Canada's Elizabeth Abbott?

Posted: 06/13/11 03:40 PM ET

Literature is rife with naming mysteries, from Dominick Dunne-like romans à clef to Shakespeare's "Who is Sylvia?" Esteemed poet Ken Babstock has introduced a new twist into the name game, and it's jarringly personal. In "Russian Doctor," a poem in his just-released collection, Methodist Hatchet, Babstock concludes that Nobel Literature Prize winner J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello is modeled on... Elizabeth Abbott.

That's right, on me!

I'm not inventing this. Here, as proof, is the selection Babstock starred as he presented me with an autographed copy of Methodist Hatchet the day before he flew to Berlin for a year's stint as a visiting scholar. "Thank you for lending your identity," he'd scrawled.

Actually, I can thank the age-old literary device that, in this case, transformed Abbott into Costello. But judge for yourself.

The worst of the glare slid behind the sales lot tinsel and she wasn't a stranger at all. No stranger; my neighbour, Liz. Elizabeth Abbott. You may know her work: Celibacy

Mistresses, something on Haiti, and recently, Sugar.
Her home a hospice for dying dachshunds
way station for incoming rescues from Serbia (we nearly
took in Dunja last month.) So, animal

rights activist, retired academic, vegan, but here's where
the Danish gets sticky. Just last week it dawned
on me, in a dinghy adrift on Georgian Bay, while rethinking
the preponderance of pumpkins in The Life
and Times of Michael K, while the sun crested the horizon
over Huron and settled like a South African
in Brisbane, before I'd had either coffee or chance to tally
the consequences, it came to me, Coetzee - J.M. - him -

had modeled Elizabeth Costello on this Elizabeth Abbott.
I know what you're thinking, but stop. I looked
them up. A conference, Belgrade, '91, they shared
keynote address three ways with Martha Nussbaum

and must have had, at the very least, lunch, if not more.
I know what you're thinking. He'd submitted
a paper but was, shocker, turned down: "Paranoia: Can We
Live Among the Animals?" - R. Karadzic.


I've read and reread this at least a baker's dozen of times, with emotions ranging from shock and consternation to resentment and guilt. And comprehension! So that's why Babstock told poet Karen Solie, interviewing him about Methodist Hatchet, that "Yeah, I'm sure it'll annoy some people, there's not much I can do about it. There wasn't any other way for me to inhabit the world, the poems, this time around.... I think humans, others, even named others, appear at the level of the symbolic in the book and at the level of actuality in the domestic and in love, right up to puppetry. I didn't know they were going to flood in, I guess, but they have, what am I going to do about it? J. M. Coetzee's gonna sue me." [laughter] "Why is J. M. Coetzee in my book?" [laughs]

I fished Elizabeth Costello from my bookshelf where it had been wedged next to its slim matrix, The Lives of Animals. Both volumes were gifts from friends who just knew, they told me, that I was Coetzee's ideal reader. (The Slow Man, Elizabeth Costello's latest literary foray, is another story.) But -- I saw -- I had been critical, and had pocked Elizabeth with citrine Post-Its marking my dismay. How I had wanted Costello and the animals she championed to emerge victorious in her mission to win over her audiences with rigorous logic and learning!

"I want to find a way of speaking to fellow human beings that will be cool rather than heated, philosophical rather than polemical, that will bring enlightenment rather than seeking to divide us into the righteous and the sinners, the saved and the damned, the sheep and the goats," she said in her (too) measured way. I was tense then, and tense again in rereading, because she anticipates the defeat ("the concession of the entire battle") I felt crushing us both, and the animals with us.

And yet it's all there, every truth, every righteous notion, every goodness, the heart "the seat of a faculty, sympathy, that allows us to share at times the being of another." And in that moment at least, Elizabeth Abbott was indistinguishable from Elizabeth Costello.