Wednesday, April 24, 2013

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

Way back in 1976, someone, whom I have long forgotten, gave me a copy of The Letters of William Faulkner. I never read any such collection, and I could not imagine it would be worth my time. The friend asked me if I had read the book, but I pleaded too much work, too many things to read, but I would get to it. After the third request, I decided to spend a rainy weekend with Faulkner. I was completely surprised at how interesting the letters were. Since then, I have amassed a nice collection of letters – mostly those of writers.

Recently published, Here and Now collects letters exchanged between Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee from 2008 to 2011. I have read a few of Australian writer Coetzee’s works, but only recently discovered Auster. I admire both these writers, and I was thrilled when the book arrived at my door within a day or two of publication.

Paul Auster
J.M. Coetzee receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature

Paul and John – as they address each other – share wide-ranging but similar interests. An extended dialogue on sports was interesting, as were comments on the political situation in the U.S. and other parts of the world. History comes into play as well, since Coetzee was born in South Africa, but now lives in Adelaide, Australia. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003. Auster lives in Brooklyn. He won the prestigious Prince Asturias Prize for Literature in 2006.

The real meaty bits of their correspondence, however, can be found in their discussions of writing and reading. I have added a half dozen books to my wish list, along with a few films.

Coetzee receives a letter from a woman accusing him of anti-Semitism. He asks Auster for advice on how to respond. He wrote, “Do nothing—or something […] write to the woman … and tell her that you have written a novel, not a tract on ethical conduct, and that disparaging remarks […] [of] anti-Semitism, are a part of the world we live in, and just because your character says what she says does not mean that you endorse her comments. […] Do writers of murder stories endorse murder?” (95). I have found myself defending a number of writers over the years in exactly the same way.

Auster also comments on reading, “Isn’t reading the art of seeing things for yourself, of conjuring up images in your own head? And isn’t the beauty of reading all about the silence that surrounds you as you plunge into the story, the sound of the author’s voice resonating inside you to the exclusion of all other sounds?” (177).
Oh, how I long for the days of letters coming from far away! I carried on (and off) an exchange with a pen-pal I got in high school for over 30 years. The onion skin paper, the strange stamps, trying to translate the German to English all held many, many fond memories. I still have the box of letters and small gifts I received. All that is lost in the age of email.

Try this slim volume of letters, and I am sure you will find a whole new world ripe for exploration. 5 stars

--Chiron, 4/14/13

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