Monday, 30 September 2013

A Life in Letters - Here and Now, Paul Auster & J.M. Coetzee

Here and Now, Letters 2008 - 2011 by Paul Auster & J.M. Coetzee

I spend a lot of time researching what to read next. In fact, I think I spend more time discovering new books on various themes than actually reading. Despite this controlled and pre-planned approach to my reading I do occasionally read books (often rather good ones) which I come across in a more serendipitous manner. 

Here and Now belongs to this category of serendipitous finds. This book attracted my attention while I was browsing the 800s section (literature) in my local library. Faber and Faber did a great job of producing this collection of letters: it is a lightweight hardback book, with tasteful portraits of each author on the cover and it has wonderful chocolate brown end-papers (my favourite colour). As this is a collection of letters many pages feature quite a lot of formatting at the top of the page: date, address, Dear John or Dear Paul.  I liked the fact that the pages had been arranged with balance in mind by placing the authors' names (verso page) and the title of the book (recto page) at the foot of the page. 

The physical appearance of the book encouraged my to pick it up, but beyond aesthetics, I didn't know anything about it or have any preconceived ideas about what I would find inside, when I checked the book out. I have not read any of Paul Auster's writing and although I have read Disgrace I used to think that J.M. Coetzee was a woman, not a man (I also used to think that A.S. Byatt was a man and not a woman)!

I found the collection very readable indeed, and I think the diverse topics discussed in Auster's and Coetzee's letters would appeal to many people. Among other topics, they exchange ideas about sports (the concept of losing in individual games versus team games. Take singles tennis, for example, the majority of entrants in a tournament will be losers and not winners), the financial downturn and capitalism, film, how to deal with literary criticism and critics, the challenge of the digital age in novel writing,
"You say that you are quite prepared to write novels in which people go around with personal electronic devices. I must say I am not. The telephone is about as far as I will go in a book, and then reluctantly. Why? Not only because I'm not fond of what the world has turned into, but because if people ("characters") are continually going to be speaking to one another at a distance, then a whole gamut of interpersonal signs and signals, verbal and nonverbal, voluntary and involuntary, has to be given up. Dialogue in the full sense of the term, just isn't possible over the phone." [From J.M. Coetzee to Paul Auster April 2011).
And, discussions on the degradation of culture since the late 1970s, early 1980s (although, don't most people over the age of about 55 make a similar lament?).

In addition to containing interesting discussion on a varied list of topics, I also found the letters quite touching. The authors express delight at the opportunity of meeting each other in person at literary festivals (to be in the same place, at the same time is quite a feat as Paul Auster lives in New York City and J.M. Coetzee lives in Australia) and on return home from their meetings they say how much they enjoyed being able to spend some time together. The warmth that shines through their letters makes me want to pick up my pen and write an old-fashioned letter to a friend.

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