“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.”
Neither writer, it turns out, much likes reviewers, and one prominent critic is particularly despised. Coetzee sums up the trade as essentially “saying clever things at other people’s expense,” while Auster notes that reviewers “always seem to praise for the wrong reasons, just as they condemn for the wrong reasons, which disqualifies them from serious consideration as arbiters of literary merit.”
Oh, well. One does try.
Both writers are troubled by the rise of e-books, Coetzee in particular. “But, aside from sentiment, what can justify such dismay? A hunger for the real in a world of shadows? Books are not real, not in any important sense. The very letters on the page are signs, images of sounds, which are images of ideas. The fact that what we call a book can be picked up in one’s hands, has a smell and a feel of its own, is an accident of its production with no relevance to what the book conveys.” Nonetheless, he feels deeply attached to the book as a physical artifact and worries about “turning into Gramps, the old codger who, when he embarks on one of his ‘Back in my time’ discourses, makes the children roll their eyes in silent despair.”
To which Auster wryly responds:
“The truth is, griping can be fun, and as rapidly aging gentlemen, seasoned observers of the human comedy, wise gray heads who have seen it all and are surprised by nothing, I feel it is our duty to gripe and scold, to attack the hypocrisies, injustices, and stupidities of the world we live in. Let the young roll their eyes when we speak. Let the not so young ignore what we say. We must carry on with utmost vigilance, scorned prophets crying into the wilderness — for just because we know we are fighting a losing battle, that doesn’t mean we should abandon the fight.”
Later, Coetzee takes the prospect of “losing battles” into a more serious realm: “What interests me at the present juncture is the question of how and when failing power will announce itself. One can’t go on writing forever; and one doesn’t want to sign off with an embarrassingly bad product of one’s dotage. How does one detect that one just doesn’t have it in one anymore to do justice to a subject?” Writing is, after all, “a matter of giving and giving and giving, without much respite.”
Auster doesn’t respond to this directly, but instead mentions that E.L. Doctorow, Robert Coover, DeLillo and Roth — all of them in their 70s or 80s — are in “remarkably good form, busy with projects, cracking jokes, eating with healthy appetites.” Playing off the title of a Charles Willeford mystery, he says their example gives “New Hope for the Dead. Meaning: New Hope for Us.”
If you enjoy “Here and Now,” and you should, you might want to seek out other volumes of literary correspondence. It’s a delightful genre, especially for bedtime reading. Try, for example, “The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh,” the authors being among the wittiest writers of the past century. And if you should be an Anglophile, don’t miss “The Lyttelton/Hart-Davis Letters,” six volumes of curmudgeonly literary gossip between a London publisher (Rupert Hart-Davis) and his former Eton master (George Lyttelton). Not least, “Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya” chronicles the friendship and rivalry between critic Edmund Wilson and novelist Vladimir Nabokov, both of whom are deeply opinionated and ferociously, magnificently stubborn.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
HERE AND NOW
By Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee
Viking. 248 pp. $27.95