“Here and Now” might be described as snack food for serious readers. In its pages, two fine novelists discuss friendship, sports, the writing life, politics, cellphones, Samuel Beckett, computers, incest, the letter K, Israel, favorite films, vicious reviewers, old age, perfectionism and much else. However, it’s hard to believe these are truly personal letters — they are too finished, too packed with info-dumps that real correspondents wouldn’t bother with — but it’s worth getting over any sneaking sense of phoniness. This is civilized discourse between two cultivated and sophisticated men. Not much of what they say is really new or surprising, but it’s a pleasure to be in their company.
Paul Auster, probably best known for his New York trilogy (“City of Glass,” “Ghosts,” “The Locked Room”), lives in Brooklyn with his wife, the novelist Siri Hustvedt. J.M. Coetzee, 2003 Nobel laureate in literature and twice winner of the Man Booker Prize, grew up in South Africa but now resides with his wife, the literary scholar Dorothy Driver, in Australia. Even in the age of e-mail, the two novelists communicate via the printed page — Auster types and sends actual letters, while Coetzee transmits faxes. (Why Auster doesn’t fax his typed sheets is never explained.)
The two friends, both in their 60s when the letters begin, are equally well-read and thoughtful, though Coetzee is distinctly more reserved, modest and philosophical. Auster, by contrast, gravitates toward anecdotes, funny stories and what sometimes approaches name-dropping. He speaks, for instance, of threesome dinners with Don DeLillo and Philip Roth. There’s a slight air of the glamorous jet-setter to Auster, while Coetzee presents himself as rather a provincial. He never mentions his books, let alone his Nobel Prize.
Both men love to watch sports, and Auster several times writes movingly about his love for baseball, a sport, as he explains to Coetzee, in which even the best teams must expect to lose with considerable frequency and learn to do so with grace. Coetzee, in his turn, argues that “men run faster or kick the ball farther not in the hope that pretty girls with good genes will want to mate with them but in the hope that their peers, other men with whom they feel bonded in mutual admiration, will admire them.” He later adds that he doesn’t like “forms of sport that model themselves too closely on warfare, in which all that matters is winning and winning becomes a matter of life and death — sports that lack grace, as war lacks grace. At the back of my mind is some ideal — and perhaps concocted — vision of Japan in which one refrains from inflicting defeat on an opponent because there is something shameful in defeat and therefore something shameful in imposing defeat.”
When the pair move on to contemporary literature, especially poetry, Auster laments, “We live in an age of endless writing workshops, graduate writing programs (imagine getting a degree in writing), there are more poets per square inch than ever before, more poetry magazines, more books of poetry (99% of them published by microscopic small presses), poetry slams, performance poets, cowboy poets — and yet, for all this activity, little of note is being written. The burning ideas that fueled the innovations of the early modernists seem to have been extinguished. No one believes that poetry (or art) can change the world anymore. No one is on a holy mission. Poets are everywhere now, but they talk only to each other.”