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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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon