Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011 by Paul Auster & J.M. Coetzee
Viking • $27.95 • ISBN 9780670026661
On sale March 11, 2013
If you truly want to know an author intimately, you must read their letters. For example, if you want to discover the man behind Slaughterhouse-Five, you read Vonnegut's Letters, featured in our November Well Read column. I especially love when two writers find mutual respect and creativity through letters—like Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
Their correspondence begins, aptly enough, with a discussion of friendship. It moves on to the financial crisis (which, mercifully, Auster puts a kibosh on pretty quickly), and then to sports and competition, language and style, American poetry, film, sports again, Israel, libraries and much, much more. By skipping from one subject to the next, the letters never drag or feel sluggish or boring. The time and distance between letters and the frequent changes in topic allow the correspondence both levity and quickness. Meaning: Those who don't spend time pondering Samuel Beckett will enjoy these letters, and those who do will enjoy them, too.
Perhaps my favorite topic was the concept of names. Coetzee writes:
Your name is your destiny. Oidipous, Swollen-foot. The only trouble is, your name speaks your destiny only in the way the Delphic Sibyl does: in the form of a riddle. Only as you lie on your deathbed do you realize what it meant to be "Tamerlane" or "John Smith" or "K." A Borgesian revelation.
To which Auster responds:
We grow into the names we are given, we test them out, we grapple with them until we come to accept that we are the names we bear. Can you remember practicing your signature as a young boy? Not long after we learn how to write in long-hand, most children spend hours filling up pieces of paper with their names. It is not an empty pursuit. It is an attempt, I feel, to convince ourselves that we and our names are one, to take on an identity in the eyes of the world.
Needless to say, I have spent my whole life exploring and meditating on my own name, and my great hope is to be reborn as an American Indian. Paul: Latin for small, little. Auster: Latin for South Wind. South Wind: an old American euphemism for a rectal toot. I therefore shall return to this world bearing the proud and altogether appropriate name of Little Fart.
Winter Journal by Paul Auster
Holt • $26 • ISBN 9780805095531
on sale August 21, 2012
Thirty years after his breakthrough debut, the memoir The Invention of Solitude, Paul Auster returns to the medium in Winter Journal.
With the hindsight of Didion, the narrative elegance of Nabokov and the mesmerizing writing for which he himself is known, Auster (now 65) steps into what he calls "the winter of [his] life" by looking back on a lifetime. He shares his memories and the fleeting moments of his body—places it has been, things it has felt (both wonderful and terrible)—through threaded vignettes constructed of languorous sentences that feel much like memory itself. Each fragment careens toward death, a boat against the current.
Auster writes as "you," a device which could feel like an assault were it not for the accomplished writer behind it. At times, the "you" seems removed, peering at his former self in a distant way, as when he recounts the hours immediately following his mother's death: "No tears, no howls of anguish, no grief—just a vague sense of horror growing inside you." At other times, the "you" seems to be surprised and thrilled all over again, such as when he discovers his own penis at age five: ". . . how fitting that you should have a miniature fireman's helmet emblazoned on your person, on the very part of your body, moreover, that looks like and functions as a hose." And always, the "you" is hypnosis to trick you, reader, into remembering a life that isn't your own.
It's a fast read, never waning to nostalgia, that will move you to chew the cud of your own mortality and (somehow) still find time to disappear into your own memories.
You think it will never happen to you, that it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the world to whom none of these things will ever happen, and then, one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else.
Your bare feet on the cold floor as you climb out of bed and walk to the window. You are six years old. Outside, snow is falling, and the branches of the trees in the backyard are turning white.
Speak now before it is too late, and then hope to go on speaking until there is nothing more to be said. Time is running out, after all. Perhaps it is just as well to put aside your stories for now and try to examine what it has felt like to live inside this body from the first day you can remember being alive until this one. A catalogue of sensory data. What one might call a phenomenology of breathing.
Will you keep an eye out for Auster's new memoir in August?