Letters by Paul Auster and J M Coetzee: “Do things like this happen to you, or am I the only one?”

In 2008 J M Coetzee wrote to Paul Auster suggesting they begin an exchange by mail and, “God willing, strike sparks off each other”. Did they manage it?

Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011
Paul Auster and J M Coetzee
Faber & Faber, 256pp, £20

Writers have always corresponded with one another, but it’s rare for their correspondence to be made public while both protagonists are still alive. According to the jacket copy of Here and Now, this particular epistolary friendship was initiated when J M Coetzee wrote to Paul Auster (a letter bafflingly absent from this collection) suggesting they begin an exchange by mail and, “God willing, strike sparks off each other”.

Were the letters always intended for publication? And does the speed with which they’ve been passed to a wider audience undermine the apparent intimacy of their tone? It doesn’t help that both men have in their novels engaged in a kind of post - modern chicanery, in which Paul Austers and J M Coetzees proliferate, gleefully undermining the house of realism. Are we expected, having been schooled in scepticism by these very authors, to take seriously the spectacle of two big beasts of the literary jungle engaged in conversations on a series of self-consciously large subjects, from the state of Israel to the nature of male friendship?

Apparently we are. The early letters, in particular, come almost unleavened by irony, and their tone threatens at first to repel the (unintended?) reader. Early on, Auster unfurls a story about a sequence of encounters with Charlton Heston. They first meet at the Cannes film festival 50th anniversary dinner, at which many meticulously itemised gran - dees are also in attendance. Soon after, he runs into Heston at a book fair and again in “a small, elegant, very expensive” hotel in Manhattan, where Auster is lunching with Juliette Binoche. Stunned at this coincidence, he asks Coetzee: “Do things like this happen to you, or am I the only one?”

This light-hearted heedlessness to privilege is a small thing but it resurfaces more unpleasantly in Coetzee’s patronising attitudes to women. “What athlete would want to be complimented for his grace on the field?” he asks. “Even women athletes would give you a hard look.” Later, on the subject of great works of art: “yet it was done by a man (now and again a woman) like me; what an honor to belong to the species that he (occasionally she) exemplifies!”

Luckily, these irritants are counterweighted by two things: the brilliance of both correspondents and the evident genuineness of their friendship. The latter grows increasingly affecting as the acquaintance deepens. Auster, in particular, lays bare his liking. “You have become what I would call an ‘absent other’ . . . I discovered that I often walk around talking to you in my head, wishing you were with me.” He worries over Coetzee’s insomnia and teases him about his absent-mindedness. They exchange movie recommendations and in one enjoyable sequence become mutually fascinated by the origins of the term “going to hell in a handbasket”, batting back and forth origins discovered in slang dictionaries.

It’s a spectacle that engages both spectators and participants: there’s something of the tennis match here, a game that is itself a subject of scrutiny. Subjects lob back and forth; an occasional ball rolls into the grass. A rather woolly conversation about the financial crash is discarded, but themes of language, war and sexuality are revisited across the years.

Throughout, there is a touching preoccupation with obsolescence. These are real paper letters, for the most part, though Coetzee often faxes his (he’s based in Australia, Auster in Brooklyn, but both travel frequently, on a pan-European merry-goround of literary festivals and film juries). Both are leery of technology. Coetzee refuses to allow email into his novels, while Auster doesn’t own a mobile and writes on a typewriter (“a little flat job with a zip-up canvas carry case – in this case, a blue case with a black stripe down the middle” – a very characteristic instance of novelistic detail).

Lurking behind this nostalgic fondness for the near-obsolete apparatus of the 20th century is a deeper wistfulness: for an era in which writers played a serious role in the intellectual life of the nation – indeed, for a time in which one could speak unironically of a nation’s intellectual life. “Something happened, it seems to me,” writes Coetzee, “in the late 1970s or early 1980s as a result of which the arts yielded up their leading role in our inner life . . . we are the poorer today for that failure.” No doubt he’s right, and yet how gripping it is, to watch these two thoughtful, articulate men grappling with a world that hasn’t quite turned out how they expected.

Auster and his interlocutor become fascinated with the phrase “going to hell in a handbasket”. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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Pedro Almodóvar: "I do wake up and feel that the world is coming to an end"

Mark Lawson talks to the director about hope, despair and why he wants to make a sequel to Deadpool.

When Pedro Almodóvar’s characters are in crisis, grief or even comas, they tend towards an optimistic view of the human condition. The Spanish film-maker confesses that this reflects his temperament but reports that he is cur­rently struggling to maintain his enthusiastic world-view off-screen.

“I have to be optimistic, because it’s the only way to survive,” he says, on a trip to London to launch his 20th feature film, Julieta. “I want to think that next month or next year will be better than now. But . . .”
He switches at this point from his near-fluent English to Spanish for translation by Maria Delgado, the Anglo-Spanish academic who is present at his request to act as his interpreter. Modest and wry, suggesting a rare combination of genius and sweetie, Almodóvar uses his home vocabulary for complex issues: in this case, the xenophobic politics, fuelled by fears of terrorism and immigration, that have engulfed European cities, including Madrid, where he lives on the exclusive west side, close to the home of his partner, the actor Fernando Iglesias.

“In Spain, the situation is awful,” he says, backcombing his trademark frizz of now grey hair with one hand. “We are on the edge of the third general election in a year and this is very bad for the country. The country doesn’t actually recognise itself in its institutions: the monarchy [and] the parliament have lost their identity.”

If Spain were to have an EU referendum, would it result in (as it were) Spexit?

“I think we would vote to stay. Brexit has served as an example – I’m sorry to say this – of what shouldn’t happen. And I say that with full respect for the decision taken.”

It’s not just Spanish politics that is challenging his usual equilibrium. “I do wake up and feel that the world is coming to an end. I pray each and every night that Donald Trump does not become US president. And my prayers are actually more significant in this respect because I’m a non-believer, so imagine how heartfelt they are!”

Although Julieta was completed before the Spanish elections, Britain’s EU referendum and the Republican presidential nomination, it is prophetically attuned to the serious mood of the news. Such is the shift in gravity from Almodóvar’s last film, I’m So Excited! – a musical farce set on a jet – that it is as if the Zucker brothers had followed the success of Airplane! with an adaptation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler.

“I did set out to approach Julieta with as much sombreness as possible,” he says. “So it really was a matter of rejecting the habitual characteristics of my own cinema, the way I’m identified. I have made 20 movies now and so if there is a possibility to change in the 20th, then it is very welcome . . . There aren’t that many opportunities to change, because one carries on being oneself!”

He became himself 66 years ago in ­Calzada de Calatrava, a Castilian village of a few thousand souls. From his parents – a winemaker father and a mother who wrote and read for uneducated local people – it is tempting to see an inheritance of the sensual pleasure and literary intelligence that mark his films. His early efforts to make cinema were frustrated by the closure of the Spanish national film school in Madrid by Francisco Franco, but the constitutional monarchy that followed the fascist dictator’s death allowed him to start producing work – reflecting his liberal, gay, atheist, male-feminist sensibilities – that would have been unthinkable under the military regime.

Even after more than three decades of creative freedom, Almodóvar feels he needed to have made so many films and accumulated so much life experience before being able to deal with the depth of emotion in Julieta, the story of a character who is unable to communicate with her mother, because of Alzheimer’s disease, or her daughter, from whom she is estranged. Although it tones down the comic warmth of his signature films and eschews their fantastical sequences, Julieta is recognisably the work of a great original. For instance, a potentially crucial meeting between two characters, which in a Hollywood version might last half of the film, simply does not appear here.

What Almodóvar also does is fill each film with images that could hang in the Prado. Even by his standards of painterly cinema, the tableau in which Julieta dresses her bedridden mother and brings her outdoors is extraordinary: the carefully chosen tones of the wall, the clothes and the food on a table would have thrilled Velázquez. “In dresses, in colours, in wallpaper, there is a dramatic intention, even if it is not necessarily obvious to the viewer,” he says. “Colour is one of the best instruments to convey emotion.”

As a writer-director, he doesn’t consider the “look” of his films until he has finished the first draft of the script, and does not visualise characters when he is writing – though there have been exceptions when he was working with Carmen Maura, Antonio Banderas and his long-time muse Penélope Cruz. With Julieta, he could see no role for any of his “family of actors” and so threw the casting net wider, dividing the old and young parts of the title role between Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte, both newcomers to his movies.

Linguistically, he is less adaptive. Hispanic directors such as Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón have taken on anglophone projects in Hollywood, but Almodóvar has refused numerous offers.

Directors are usually wary of revealing the successful films they might have made, but he does say that he was “very close” to doing Brokeback Mountain (it was eventually directed by Ang Lee). “They were very patient waiting for me,” he tells me. “But, in the end, I thought that my way of shooting wasn’t right for it. I’m accustomed to a freedom, an independence that I don’t think the production system of Hollywood would ever allow me.”

Yet he unexpectedly reveals an ambition to direct a Deadpool movie, following Tim Miller’s recent blockbuster about a superhero with healing powers. “I’d love to do that, but the script would have to be by Quentin Tarantino, who would be prefect for this movie. I’d like to co-direct that script with him. That would be a real possibility, if he wanted to do it.”

Even the big franchises are reaching out to unexpected directors – Sam Mendes for Bond, Paul Greengrass for the Bourne movies – so would Almodóvar take a call from the producers of either?
“These sorts of films, they are really in the hands of second-, third- and fourth-unit directors and post-production – but in my films, everything you see, I have had contact with,” he says. “Many of the elements in the film are actually mine: I buy things and then use them in a movie, or bring them to the set from my own home. And I couldn’t give up that control.” 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser