Tennis and termites

Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011, by Paul Auster and JM Coetzee, Faber RRP£20/Viking RRP$27.95, 256 pages

With the advent of email, volumes of literary letters are likely to become a thing of the past. “If everything went digital, think of the possible mischief that could ensue,” Paul Auster comments anxiously to JM Coetzee. The novelists had met in February 2008 and, on Coetzee’s prompting, embarked on an epistolary friendship to “strike sparks off each other”. The result is Here and Now, an old-fashioned volume of letters sent by post and fax over a period of three years.

Coetzee is known to be a literary recluse, yet he opens up to Auster in unexpected ways. For example, he enthuses on the subject of sport and commends Roger Federer’s “crosscourt backhand volley” as a thing of human beauty. Auster, corresponding from his home in Brooklyn, is no less keen on tennis, and confesses an admiration for cricket too. “I was absorbed, I was emotionally involved, I tore myself away only reluctantly,” he writes of a five-day game between Australia and South Africa in 2012.

Coetzee, born in South Africa in 1940, is Auster’s senior by seven years, and is the more considered and reserved of the two. At times, Auster writes as though he is thinking aloud, sentences flowing spontaneously from his fingertips. Charlton Heston, the Hollywood actor, is berated for his “putrid right-wing pronouncements”; the exacting Coetzee is unlikely to have used such a disproportionate adjective.

Confused by the technology of the “digital life”, the correspondents are punctilious in answering each other’s written epistles. Auster does not even use email. “So sorry that the fax machine was unplugged,” he writes to Coetzee in April 2010, adding (in some surprise) that the ink cartridge has “nearly given out”. Neither he nor Coetzee cares much for book reviewers, and James Wood comes in for a special drubbing (“his name suggests that one day he will be eaten by termites”, snarls Auster).

Auster marvels that he did not actually “punch” another critic for his unpleasant reviews. Coetzee, self-confessedly “thin-skinned”, sums up his view of reviewers as “saying clever things at other people’s expense”; obviously it is much more than that.

Notably, the letters reflect personal anxieties about friendship and the potential drudgery of marriage. Coetzee, who is married to the literature scholar Dorothy Driver, agrees with Auster that marriage is “above all a conversation” that evolves over time. If a husband and wife are unable to find ways to talk to each other, the marriage has “little chance of surviving”. Friendship is obviously a “component” of marriage, says Auster, yet friends who shout at each other (as most married couples do) rarely remain friends. The distinction has the virtue of being true.

As reproduced here, the correspondence is polite and respectful in tone. Coetzee and Auster agree on their love of European film, Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett; they scarcely disagree on anything.

To Auster, Coetzee expresses an interest in the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, who had treated the young Beckett for panic attacks and depression at the Tavistock Clinic in London. “Is there a good book or article that I can read to get an idea of Bion’s approach to therapy?” (Auster refers the question to his novelist wife Siri Hustvedt, who is much concerned with neurology.)

At times, the correspondence is rather anodyne, as talk is of book tours, the forgetfulness attendant on old age and the threat posed to the written word by the electronic revolution. Nothing new in any of that. The authors remain good company, however, as they are excited by pretty well anything of human concern, interest and puzzlement. In spite of its manifest contrivance as a literary idea, Here and Now upholds the sterling virtue of good writing combined with emotional and intellectual engagement; it may even help to bring back the art of faxing.

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