Elizabeth Costello by J M Coetzee

D J Taylor warms to the passionate scepticism of J M Coetzee's philosophical novel

The small proportion of J M Coetzee's audience that subscribes to specialist literary magazines and takes an interest in academic conferences will have had the opportunity to read large chunks of Elizabeth Costello long before its appearance in hard covers. Chapters I and VI first saw the light in Salmagundi, while Chapter II will have been pored over by readers of "Occasional paper no. 17 of the Townsend Center for the Humanities, University of California at Berkeley". There are other such acknowledgments.

One imagines that Secker & Warburg's rights department were fairly relaxed about these pieces of premature coop-flying. The novel's emergence, piecemeal, in conference talks and magazine contributions, makes an immediate gesture towards its tone. That is rigorous, academic and occasionally, in its refusal to pull any intellectual punches, downright forbidding. In this characteristic it bears a strong resemblance to its eponymous heroine.

Elizabeth Costello, now in her late sixties, is a veteran Australian novelist. Much revered in international literary circles - if such things truly exist - she is celebrated largely for a single work, The House on Eccles Street, its subject the marriage of Leopold and Molly Bloom in Joyce's Ulysses, now nearly three decades old. Retiring, if not reclusive, she is sufficiently conscious of her reputation to be intermittently tempted forth. Awards ceremonies; cruise liners; high-level seminars: these are the venues at which she features - reluctantly, ineffectively (she is a surprisingly poor speaker), yet with a painful and often rebarbative sincerity.

Despite its academic grounding, Elizabeth Costello is a thoroughly modern fictional artefact: set everywhere, yet for all the multiple locations in effect set nowhere at all, starring a central character whose most obvious feature would seem to be her rootlessness. Elizabeth can be found lecturing on "realism", disparaging the African novel and professing some notably hard-line views on the sanctity of animal life. Yet Coetzee's most oblique glances are reserved for her relationships with those closest to her: a loving but exasperated son; a philosophy-teaching daughter who regards her stance on animal rights as ill-considered posing; a sister who has spent a lifetime labouring as a Catholic nun in southern Africa. Significantly, some of the most powerful scenes come when the familial and professional overlap - in particular Sister Bridget's harangue, delivered after the award of an honorary degree, on the uselessness of the entire Western humanist tradition.

Sister Bridget and her tough-minded religious absolutism perhaps offer a clue to Coetzee's ultimate intent. "Realism", reason, relativism, religion, Hellenism: practically every philosophical system or aesthetic approach of the past 2,000 years having withered beneath her gaze, Elizabeth turns up in some - allegorical? - judgement chamber. She confeses that "I cannot afford to believe. That in my line of work one has to suspend belief. That belief is an indulgence, a luxury. That it gets in the way." It would be easy to say of Elizabeth Costello, as one can say of many a "novel of ideas", that it is a work in which the author does more thinking than feeling. In fact the book, one of Coetzee's best, simply burns with creative passion.

D J Taylor's life of George Orwell is published by Chatto & Windus