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.
San Miguel by T.C. Boyle
Viking • $27.95 • ISBN 9780670026241
On sale September 25, 2012
San Miguel is something entirely new for people who, like me, read T.C. Boyle like the world's about to end (get it?). As Boyle told me during an interview at the Nashville Public Library, this is a historical novel entirely without comedy or irony. It's not, as he says, a "wise-guy" novel. Boyle also told me that he and his publisher think this one is something special, and they certainly aren't wrong.
San Miguel returns to the setting first introduced in When the Killing's Done: the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara. Boyle's newest is based on the lives of real families who inhabited San Miguel in the 1880s and the 1930s, and more specifically, the three women who were brought there by their men.
In 1888, Marantha and her family move to San Miguel in search of sunny Californian weather to help with her consumption. She spends six months at the sheep ranch, trying to restore her health and stave off the creeping boredom that comes with total isolation. Two years later, her adopted daughter Edith will do anything within her power to escape the remote island and her controlling stepfather. The novel then jumps to 1930, when newlyweds Elise and Herbie start their lives together, far away from the Depression and the rest of the world. They call themselves the King and Queen of San Miguel, and they consider themselves truly lucky—until WWII threatens to break their world apart.
As in so many of Boyle's novels, humans appear powerless before the elements, such as in this scene from Marantha's early days on the island:
Now, as she lay there in the dark, the thing in her chest quiet for once, she was afraid. The wind kept beating, keening, unholy, implacable, and it was as if it were aimed at her and her alone. As if it had come for her. Come to blow her away across the waters and force her down beneath the waves, down and down and down to the other place, darkness eternal. The roof heaved, the house rocked and groaned beneath the joists. Everything seemed to compress, as if waiting to blow like the cork from a bottle. She wanted to waken Will, wanted to cling to him and feed off the low consoling murmur of his voice, but she didn't because she knew he needed his rest—now more than ever—and there was nothing he could have done in any case, nothing anyone could do except God, and God had deserted her. Will was right there beside her, and she'd never felt more alone. She couldn't sleep. She'd never sleep again. And though she needed to get up and relieve herself she was afraid to move, as if even the slightest perturbation would upset the balance and bring the whole ramshackle structure crashing down around her.
Is this one you've been looking forward to?