by Robert WeibezahlMarch 2013
Two writers strike up an epistolary friendship
Most collections of literary letters are published posthumously and, more often than not, include just the one-sided narrative of a single writer. So, Here and Now: Letters, 2008-2011 is doubly notable: a three-year correspondence between two living writers—Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee and acclaimed American novelist Paul Auster. Soon after the two men met in 2008, Coetzee proposed that they become literary “pen pals,” communicating by the decidedly old-fashioned means of writing letters. This engaging collection is the result.
“I have been thinking about friendships,” Coetzee aptly begins the first letter, and it is indeed a kind of friendship that develops over the course of the correspondence. Essentially of the same generation (Coetzee is seven years older), the South African and the American share much common ground despite their cultural disparity. Hence, there is opinionated discussion, if little disagreement, when the men touch on political issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or America’s global profile during the Bush years. These topics, though, provide the jumping-off points for philosophical musings on a host of other concerns, both literary and everyday—very often sports and movies.
Eavesdrop on a dazzling conversation between two of today’s most celebrated literary minds: J.M. Coetzee and Paul Auster.
The dialogue is wide-reaching—from a consideration of the writings of Jacques Derrida and whether a writer’s mother tongue shapes his work, to the pleasures of watching Roger Federer play tennis in his prime, to the future of the printed book. There is talk of Samuel Beckett (a writer both men count as a major influence) and Kafka, of whether there are any contemporary poets producing important work (Auster says yes, Coetzee is not so sure), and a bit of dishing about such high-profile writers as Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen. World Cup soccer, the charms of manual typewriters and the films of William Wyler are given equal space alongside more weighty concerns.
All of which comes together to convey a very appealing, human portrait of these two writers. The letters of Coetzee, a famously private man, tend to be a little “deeper” in content, while Auster’s are more anecdotal and marked by a familiarity that perhaps reflects a particularly American kind of openness. From Auster we get far more personal details, for instance, including glimpses into his life with his wife, the writer Siri Hustvedt, and her family. He recounts stories of interesting characters and situations he encounters in his day-to-day life in New York City. Coetzee, on the other hand, barely mentions his own wife, and unlike Auster, rarely looks back to the details of his childhood (and disappointingly, says little about his South African homeland or even his adopted country of Australia). Still, despite Coetzee’s opaqueness, we come to know him a little better by book’s end, thanks in no small part to Auster’s ability to draw him out on the page.
Some familiarity with the writers’ work might enrich the experience of reading these letters, but it is not a requirement for enjoying the congenial back-and-forth. Reading Here and Now is akin to eavesdropping on a dazzling, extended dinner conversation between two intelligent and substantive minds (think a more literary, paper-and-ink My Dinner with André). If it inspires you to pick up the novels of Coetzee and Auster, all the better.