In love, there is always one who kisses and one who offers the cheek. So too in the luckless genre of letters artificially exchanged for the purposes of publication.
There’s been a little spate of these lately, the most interesting and unbalanced having been Public Enemies, in which Michel Houellebecq brilliantly began the exchange by telling Bernard Henri-Levy that what they had in common was that they were both a bit contemptible, a bond from which BHL tried unsuccessfully to extract himself for the rest of their collaboration.
Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee had read each other’s work for years but only met for the first time in February 2008, when they were both in their sixties. It seems it was the senior writer Coetzee who proposed this correspondence to Auster in a letter not included in the book, which begins instead with a formal discussion of the nature of friendship and its representation in literature by Coetzee, to which Auster responds much more loosely, talking eagerly about his own work and his own life in a way that Coetzee never does.
Coetzee has long been a superbly unforthcoming interviewee, often courteously refusing to accept the terms of a question when he does submit to the process. He doesn’t explain himself or his novels much outside his novels. That makes the fact that he does discuss subjects quite close to his work here extremely interesting; and we can be grateful to Auster for having played the part of correspondent well enough to have permitted this exchange at all, even though it doesn’t flow, and consists mainly of Coetzee announcing what he has on his mind and Auster attempting to respond satisfactorily, while intruding his own books and experiences into the discussion wherever possible.
After one such letter, Auster even says: ‘I realise that I often respond to your remarks with stories about myself. Understand: I am not interested in myself. I am giving you case studies, stories about anyone.’ We may not be convinced but we can sympathise. Becoming Coetzee’s chosen interlocutor was always going to be, to say the least, a ticklish assignment.
They are so plainly not equals. Although both writers owe their very being to Beckett, it is Coetzee who is more than just Beckettian. During the course of these letters, James Wood’s highly damaging essay ‘Paul Auster’s Shallowness’ appeared, which Auster attempts to laugh off as coming from ‘a man whose name suggests that one day he will be eaten by termites’.
But he endeavours to return the ball. After their initial discussion of friendship, Coetzee sends Auster a letter about the credit crunch, arguing that the huge numbers involved are mere signs and could be discarded:
Why not, I ask, simply throw away this particular set of numbers, numbers that make us unhappy and don’t reflect a reality anyway, and make up new numbers for ourselves, perhaps numbers that show us to be richer than we used to be, though it might be better to make up numbers that show us exactly as we are, with our well-stocked larders and our tight roofs and our hinterland full of productive factories and farms?
The idea is at once visionary and completely crackers. Auster bravely replies:
I agree with you that the crisis seems unreal, unmoored to any concrete facts… Your idea of making up a new set of numbers might be a beginning.
They discuss their mutual love of watching sport more evenly, although even here it is Coetzee who makes the unexpected and original remarks. He reprimands himself for wasting time watching cricket on TV: ‘Is sport simply like sin: one disapproves of it but one yields because the flesh is weak?’ He celebrates a Federer cross-court backhand volley:
One starts by envying Federer, one moves from there to admiring him, and one ends up neither envying nor admiring him but exalted at the revelation of what a human being — a being like oneself — can do.
And he observes: ‘Sport teaches us more about losing than about winning, simply because so many of us don’t win.’
He has an incisive paragraph in the same vein about Israel and Palestine, a paragraph that only he could have written.
There is such a thing as defeat, and the Palestinians have been defeated. Bitter though such a fate may be, they must taste it, call it by its true name, swallow it. They must accept defeat, and accept it constructively. The alternative, unconstructive way is to go on nourishing revanchist dreams of a tomorrow when all wrongs, by some miracle, will be righted. For a constructive way of accepting defeat they might look to Germany post-1945.
Coetzee says that ‘wandering into language is always a trespass’, that he doesn’t have much faith that his work will endure, and that he gets little pleasure from novels. ‘Faced with a choice between reading a run-of-the-mill novel and raking leaves in the garden, I think I would go for raking leaves.’
But he shows a flash of pride when he admits that he spends hours polishing pieces of prose, though ‘few readers are going to appreciate what goes into getting a paragraph exactly right’.
He says his excuse would be that, just as he is not the kind of person who gets off his bicycle and walks up a hill, even when no one is looking, so he is ‘not the kind of person who puts defective prose out into the world’. It makes everything Coetzee writes valuable, even this odd little book — which Paul Auster can congratulate himself on for having assisted.