/

Writers’ elegant letters to each other suffer from lack of venom and indiscretion

by Tim Adams

The Observer

The demise of letter writing is the cause of widespread lament.

HERE AND NOW: Letters, 2008-2011, by Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee. Faber and Faber, 2013, 248 pp., $27.95 (hardcover)

The mourning, you’d say, is less for the reading or writing of letters than for the care for friendship that they imply. In the course of this curious epistolary exchange, which begins with a meditation on the idea of just that kind of attentive friendship, Paul Auster, 66, and John Coetzee, 73, both declare themselves technophobes — the closest they generally get to the digital age is the fax machine.

They trust the appearance of the written word on paper, the minor grind of pen and ink or type, and seem to write with nostalgia for that intimate flourish in mind. At the least, each one of these missives, with its rhetorical ease, is a small act of defiance against emoticons and LOLs, a throwback to considered after-dinner thought.

At one point, Auster, admits to a passing frustration that his hotel room in Paris does not contain a typewriter, to which the proper response would seem to be: In which century do you normally stay?

If it’s rather comforting to imagine these two august literary figures taking the time between novels and global festival duties to correspond with each other, the eavesdropping never quite matches the expectation. It is not fully clear from these elegant letters whether, as with the celebrated scabrous exchange between Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Levy published last year, that the correspondence was written with eventual publication in mind, but you suspect that to be the case. As a result the letters are stripped of anything resembling gossip, or indiscretion, the stuff that usually makes the reading of other people’s private correspondence a guilty pleasure.

Like all awkward men sometimes stuck for something to say, Auster and Coetzee often look to sport for a refuge. It gives you a sense of the tone of their friendship that this theme of their conversation does not involve exclamatory commentary on last night’s outrageous sending off, or the particular psychosis of this or that coach, but a running debate about whether their watching of sports on television is at heart an aesthetic or an ethical pleasure or simply a waste of time that could better be devoted to the serious business of literature.

“In your last letter,” Auster writes, early on, “you mentioned ‘athletic sports’ — activities with no parallel in the rest of creation … which reminded me of some brief exchanges about sports while driving around France last summer. Would it interest you to delve into this matter?”

It would.

Houellebecq’s and Levy’s letters were a hoot because both men were ever aware of the danger of pretension of a project involving the public consumption of their stray thoughts, conscious even as they were constructing their exchange that all writers are propagandists for their own neuroses.

Neither Auster nor Coetzee comes with too much form for self-deprecatory comedy, but still you wait in vain for even a trace of the kind of unalloyed venom or convincing insecurity displayed by Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis, say, in a similar context.

Literary peers are uniformly accorded respect, with the minor exception of Philip Roth, who is deemed to be in danger of repeating himself. Domestic life — which generally is introduced only as a pretext for conveying regards to their respective wives, and hope for the next meeting in wherever a publicity tour might take them, Tuscany or Adelaide — is rarely examined in detail.

In one typical P.S., Auster observes of his novelist spouse Siri Hustvedt: “On the heels of the German publication of ‘The Shaking Woman’ last month, Siri has been invited to give the annual lecture at the Freud Foundation in Vienna. Imagine. How not to be proud of her?” In place of banter or self-revelation Auster and Coetzee let us in on their writerly thoughts about things — the financial crash, incest, chess, the two-state solution to the Middle East — in a spirit of earnest inquiry, and in doing so provide a slightly bloodless insight into their relationship with the creative process.

They are both extremely clever, with a shared passion for formal experiment, and an often dazzling insight into the human condition, so you wonder why they want to publish at this lower wattage.

Coetzee’s solution to global financial meltdown is a Borgesian one: Why not replace the set of numbers we have in the economic world with another set, and start over. Auster, meanwhile, wonders aloud if one way out of the ongoing tension in Israel might be to “evacuate the entire Israeli population and give them the state of Wyoming.” These kinds of jokes are what fuel some of their debate about the issues of the day, in riffs that sometimes distract but rarely seem heartfelt.

These pages are at their most compelling when the respective writers begin to dwell on the currency of their fiction. In his ongoing obsession with the loops and whorls of coincidence, Auster wonders at one point about the fact that in the course of a few days, at Cannes, where he is a judge on the Prize jury, and then in Chicago at a book event, and in a New York hotel where he is waiting to take Juliette Binoche out to lunch, he has happened to bump into Charlton Heston. “What am I to make of this, John? Do things like this happen to you, or am I the only one?”

Coetzee puts the Heston encounters down to the fact that Auster works in the film business before moving on to other concerns, including a review he is writing of the collected letters of Samuel Beckett, a shared hero. “It seemed to me that the editors of the new ‘Letters’ were drawing rather too sharp a line between the literary and the personal,” he observes. “One consequence is that the reader of the letters has little idea of why Beckett keeps shuttling between Dublin and Paris and Hamburg and London.” Something of the same vice, you might say, also applies here.