On the one hand, fans of the authors should be considered the only audience for this book of correspondence between South African J.M. Coetzee (twice winner of the Man Booker Prize and Nobel recipient) and American Paul Auster (author of the much-loved New York Trilogy). And yet it seems to be the “fans” who are the most disappointed with this easy-going epistolary document – disappointed in the very thing that I most enjoyed about it, namely the lack of insight it gives into the writing process. Auster and Coetzee are not interviewing one another; they are engaging in chit-chat. If at the end of four years and 247 pages they had mostly discussed their creations I would be denouncing them both as insane egotists. Happily, that is not the case.
I am not actually a “fan” of either author, having had some prior enjoyment of Auster (through Leviathan, The New York Trilogy and the films Smoke and Blue in the Face) but never yet of Coetzee. While this meant I latched onto Auster as the recognizable voice, before I was halfway through I found myself more and more invested in what the stranger Coetzee was saying. Discovering an author through their letters turns out to be an immensely enjoyable experience.
Meaningful, broad-ranging yet quite casual, Here and Now flows almost giddily from one subject to the next, topics ranging from sports to the treatment of incest in literature to the notion of a “mother tongue.” Their two styles form a complement to one another. Auster is more inclined to ramble; a gifted spinner-of-yarns, his anecdotes take up much of the room in the book. Coetzee’s letters are shorter, preferring ethical analysis and psychological study (with Freud at his elbow), eschewing the personal – which is a pity, because he’s no slouch at storytelling either and his “chess story–which is also a kind of horror story” tells of a random ocean-voyage chess match made on his first trip to America. It ended in a draw and the feeling that he could have won plagued him across the States, consuming all his energy:
We docked. I was in the legendary city of New York. But the mood of the contest would not leave me, a mood of cerebral excitement, feverish and slightly sick, like a real inflammation of the brain. I had no interest in my surroundings. Something kept humming inside me.
…All I wanted was to be alone, so that I could replay the chess game on paper and settle the doubt that nagged me. All the way to Texas in the Greyhound bus (two days? three days?) I pored over my notations, following a hunch that I should never have accepted a draw; that in three or four or five moves Robert the German would have been forced to capitulate.
I should have been drinking in my first sights of the New World. I should have been making plans for the new life that was opening up before me. But no, I was in the grip of a fever. In a quiet way, I was raving mad. I was the madman in the last row of the bus.
That episode is what comes to mind when you write about the pleasures of competition. What I associate with competition is not pleasure at all but a state of possession in which the mind is focused on a single absurd goal: to defeat some stranger in whom one has no interest, whom one has never seen before and will never see again.
Be warned that there is a fair amount of sporting discussion over the course of these four years. I found it slightly irritating (they’re both aware that sport is, unless you participate, “an utter waste of time” and yet they persist) but I have to admit that they kept my interest far, far better than I would have expected. This is one of the subjects that Coetzee rescues with his focus on ethics, pettiness, grace and “the great school of losing…“
On the other hand, their political views are pretty bleak (in particular, Auster seems to be hopelessly naive about the way money works). Thankfully these conversations take up a very small portion of the book and the rest is given over to more enjoyable subjects: modern poets, modern communication, Philip Roth, critics (surprise, surprise, they don’t like them), Philippe Petit, travel writing (they both suck at it) and family dinners, among other things. This is Here and Now‘s strong suit: humanizing a couple of literary lions.
Authors tend to be thought of as “different” – collectors of the strange, omnivorously stealing from other people’s lives to fuel their work, or solitary souls tormented by the blank page, whose personal lives invariably house a number of demons. While Auster and Coetzee acknowledge some measure of truth behind the “romantic bullshit” of the writing life, their letters show two well-adjusted men who enjoy a good film, suffer jet lag, are frequently baffled by their reader’s reactions and seem to be in happy relationships. Is any of this profound? Not really. Is it interesting? Surprisingly so.
As well as being pleasant to read, there is also a subtle evolution in their friendship over the course of Here and Now. Right from the start they maintain an almost-Victorian level of propriety regarding personal matters and though they sometimes disagree, they remain affable. Anyone hoping for soul-searching (or mud-slinging) won’t get it; Auster and Coetzee are the very soul of discretion. At the start of their correspondence Auster has this to say about friendship: “Friendship is good manners, kindness, steadiness of affect. Friends who shout at each other rarely remain friends.” They take this as their gospel and scrupulously stay out of each other’s personal lives, leaving the reader with no sense of voyeurism (an almost impossible feat in the realm of private correspondence). It is therefore a bit of a jolt when Auster expresses deep concern for Coetzee’s insomnia, pushing their previous boundaries of decorum in the process.
This incident comes at the tail-end of the book and leads me to wonder: Here and Now was published in 2013 and the letters cut off in August 2011, leaving (I presume) well over a year of continued correspondence out of the picture. Considering the greater degree of whimsicality/warmth on Coetzee’s part in his final letters, is it possible their conversation continued on a somewhat more personal level? Is that why it wasn’t included? I find myself hoping so. Politeness is a good thing but when it’s so painstakingly thorough it does seem to be selling the ideals of friendship a little short.
Coetzee (left), Auster (right). Not politically though.