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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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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