The two writers address a bracing range of topics, although the suspicion lingers that they had one eye on publication all along.
Back and forth: the revealing correspondence between Paul Auster and JM Coetzee
Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011
Paul Auster & J?M Coetzee
When Robert Louis Stevenson and Henry James met in person for the first time, both men came away with their own stash of negative impressions. James considered Stevenson “a shirt-collarless Bohemian and a great deal (in an offensive way) of a poseur”. Stevenson dismissed James as “a mere club fizzle”. Neither had at this point read the other’s works. Later, when James praised Treasure Island in his 1884 essay The Art of Fiction, an epistolary friendship developed. Stevenson, in his letters, was keen to advance on James’ essay and discuss literature. James reciprocated but would have preferred to eschew shop-talk and cultivate the friendship. Still, a friendship of sorts was consolidated, for the pair wrote often and deeply and James was inconsolable at the news of Stevenson’s “ghastly extinction”.
Literary letters can shine a light on a writer’s craft but usually reveal more about his or her nature. Keats’ last letters to Fanny Brawne are a blend of lovelorn heartache and stoic resignation towards his impending death. After Hemingway wrote about “poor Scott Fitzgerald” in his story The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Fitzgerald swiftly put pen to paper and implored Hemingway to “Please lay off me in print” – more a plea stemming from hurt pride than a fury-fuelled directive. (Magnanimously, Fitzgerald went on to praise the story, admitting only at the end that his inclusion “rather spoiled it for me.”)
In 2008, Paul Auster and J?M Coetzee finally met. In contrast to Stevenson and James, each had been reading the other’s books for years. Afterwards, Auster wrote to Coetzee suggesting they exchange letters regularly and “God willing, strike sparks off each other”. Here and Now is a collaborative meeting of minds in which over the course of three years the pair discuss a range of topics and share personal and insightful thoughts. Not bad for two famously private authors. It is difficult to know whether both writers embarked on the enterprise with a view to future publication. The Keats and Fitzgerald letters are powerful because of their assumption that only their respective addressees would ever read them – unlike, say, the poison-pen slanging match between John le Carré and Salman Rushdie that raged daily in a national newspaper for millions to follow.
The literary spat may be the most entertaining type of letter-exchange but it rings truer when the war of words is conducted unselfconsciously, Sadly, there is no such tension between Auster and Coetzee, and thus only so much emotion is on show. Perhaps more than one eye was on publication, for a certain staginess prevails throughout the book, a seemingly prearranged orchestration, with both writers on their best behaviour, unfailingly courteous and chipper, and writing only when the mood takes them. But while the letters lack brickbats and tantrums, the flip side – genuine admiration, respect and camaraderie – is palpable and just as engrossing. Coetzee is the one who gets the ball rolling and provides a template for the letters that follow: introducing subjects for discussion and clinging to them, seldom swerving off to shoot the breeze and regale us (or rather Auster) with trivialities, such as what he has been up to of late. Auster plays along and the pair debate rigid themes, from friendship and love, politics and the financial crisis, to more abstract and philosophical concerns such as the deceptions of memory and the efficacy of first impressions.
Some topics are more interesting to one than the other. Auster confesses to being “idiotically obsessed” with sport but Coetzee doesn’t take the bait and replies with a new theme. Some letters later, however, Coetzee returns to the topic but on his terms. “Is sport simply like sin: one disapproves of it but one yields because the flesh is weak?” It becomes clear Coetzee is more interested in concepts, Auster in themes. This can result in over-analysis on Coetzee’s part (sport not as a guilty pleasure but as “sin”) and oversimplification on Auster’s. More dichotomies emerge. Coetzee is a cricket aficionado, Auster a baseball freak. Coetzee, looking out for moments of heroism in his game, concludes his interest in sport is ethical. Auster enjoys it on aesthetic grounds. Auster used to play baseball with “fanatical devotion”. Coetzee, on the other hand, presents an image of himself slumped in front of the TV, squandering time that could be spent writing.
These glimpses of disparate lives, not to mention opinions, are fascinating. Although often in accord, both men are very different writers of letters, just as they are different writers of fiction. Unsurprisingly, Coetzee comes across as cerebral, more willing to recount literary anecdotes than personal ones. He substantiates arguments with quotes from Plato, Freud and Nietzsche. In one letter he references Beckett, Conrad, Tolstoy, Swift and Emily Dickinson. Auster is more personable, his heart on his sleeve, and entertains with sport and movie trivia, including one anecdote about encounters with a seemingly ubiquitous Charlton Heston. “I realize that I often respond to your remarks with stories about myself,” he tells Coetzee, but the reader is already aware: Coetzee showcases his knowledge by testing ideas; Auster illustrates them with his own experiences.
This is a winning dynamic that only wobbles when Auster tries to play Coetzee at his own game. Some writers strike him as having maintained a consistent style throughout their career – such as Dickens. After Auster’s latest book is mauled by James Wood (“There are things to admire in Auster’s fiction, but the prose is never one of them” – ouch) he decides that critics are a waste of space as they “praise for the wrong reasons, just as they condemn for the wrong reasons, which disqualifies them from serious consideration as arbiters of literary merit”.
Unlike Coetzee, Auster is no Nobel-winner, nor is he likely to be. Coetzee informs us of how, thanks to Kafka, the letter “K” is now deeply allusive, something he paid homage to with his own character Michael K Auster. Auster tried a similar trick in his novel Ghosts by naming all his characters after colours. Only one small reason why Life & Times of Michael K is far superior to Ghosts.
And yet it would be churlish to claim Auster can’t hold his own in these letters. At times his down-to-earth openness is more appealing than Coetzee’s loftiness. There are attempts at humour, for one. Coetzee reels off a serious disquisition on Israel-Palestine. Auster’s quick-fix “joke solution” is to relocate the Israelis to Wyoming. He refers to sex and love while Coetzee opts for “eros”. He congratulates Coetzee on an article he has published in the New York Review of Books, wishes him luck with his Booker nomination and frequently praises his novels. But when in one letter he mentions recently dead friends and encloses a copy of his latest novel, Coetzee’s reply comes shorn of sympathy and critique. “Thank you for sending me Invisible, which I read in two, long sessions – two gulps, as it were.” Either these letters have been severely edited or Coetzee is lacking in basic human niceties.
The letters yield several choice surprises. Coetzee is in awe of Roger Federer’s cross-court backhand volley. Auster is a technophobe who shuns mobile phones and computers and writes with a typewriter (these letters are either posted or faxed, never emailed). Coetzee visits India but in relating the experience admits to being “incapable of travel writing in all its splendor”. Auster, however, is superb on New York, the mere mention of one street summoning forth “an entire archeology of my past, memories layered on top of other memories, the primordial dig”.
Only towards the end do we get views on literature and their individual artistic techniques. Both writers share the fear that their work will not endure after they are gone. The correspondence breaks off in August 2011 but presumably the friendship continues. No, there is no vitriol on show in these letters, and unlike Hemingway with Fitzgerald, it is doubtful that one will incorporate the other in a novel to scathing or patronising effect (if anything, each writer is more likely to incorporate himself as a character, as each has done in the past). Here and Now is a stimulating and illuminating extended dialogue between friends, two unique and unlikely bedfellows, two grand old men of letters.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.