Reading letters by writers affords a particular pleasure. They give us access to the functioning of a writer’s mind when it’s somewhere between work and rest. Sometimes they reveal secrets, offer startling revelations about their writers and insights about the times they lived in. Here and Now, an exchange of letters between J M Coetzee and Paul Auster between 2008 and 2011, describes itself as ‘an epistolary dialogue between two great writers who became great friends.’
Accordingly, the theme of friendship runs through the book. It is at first theoretical as Coetzee, in his first letter, reflects on its enigmatic nature. As the correspondence goes on, the men’s friendship cements, helped along by face-to-face meetings all over the world.
The book is understated and thoughtful, led by Coetzee’s observations and questions and Auster’s attempts to answer them. The exchanges show us two curious people intent on understanding things as varied as sport on TV and the 2008 financial crash.
There are interesting insights. Auster is bewildered by a set of coincidences. Coetzee shows exquisite self-awareness when he tells of his inability to remember anything distinct about his travels, wondering why all he picks up are signs that tell me that life is the same everywhere in the world, rather than signs of the distinctiveness of every tiny part of creation?
As the book progresses and the reader gets attuned to the writers’ voices, it takes on a hypnotic rhythm, with references to sports becoming a friendly leitmotiv. By the end of it you feel like you’ve spent time with two intelligent friends.
However, these letters, riveting as they are, seem to be the result of an experiment rather than respond to a need. Now that letters are an optional mode of communication, they have lost their vital nature. When you hear about letter-writing nowadays, it is often preceded by the words ‘death of.’ This means that such an exchange can seem contrived, especially as the letters are devoid of personal revelations or strong opinions about contemporary writers. The writers remain composed throughout and the enjoyment in reading these letters comes from the intellectual exchanges.
Of course, the loss of letter writing is to be lamented and in a way this collection reminds us of what we have lost. It shows us just how important writing was in building a rapport between two people. Letters used to be the only way in which friends living far away from each other could communicate. Everyone got a chance to experience the particular alchemy that happens when you express a thought or describe an event, however minute, in writing. As Paul Auster says, soldiers from the American Civil War used to write better letters than many English professors do now.
So yes, a delightful journey in the company of Coetzee and Auster, but a peaceful rather than a startling one. The tone is never urgent. When the writers discuss the financial crisis or foreign affairs, it is not with an ardent desire to solve these things. Does this stem from the place of the writer in our society, no longer as ‘engagé,’ or from the fact that the two men have reached a placid stage in their life and writing? They are after all established writers, approaching the third stage of a life in art brilliantly described by Coetzee in one of his letters.