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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Leader: The age of Putinism

There is no leader who exerts a more malign influence on world affairs than Vladimir Putin.

There is no leader who exerts a more malign ­influence on world affairs than Vladimir Putin. In Syria, Russia’s military intervention has significantly strengthened the tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad. Under the guise of fighting Islamist terrorism, Mr Putin’s forces have killed thousands of civilians and destroyed hospitals and schools. Syrian government forces and their foreign allies have moved closer to regaining control of the rebel-held, besieged eastern part of Aleppo, a city in ruins, after a period of intense fighting and aerial bombardment. In Europe, Russia has moved nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad, formerly the Prussian city of Königsberg, through the streets of which the great philosopher Immanuel Kant used to take his daily walk.

Across the West, however, Mr Putin is being feted. As Brendan Simms writes on page 30, the Russian president has “annexed Crimea, unleashed a proxy war in eastern Ukraine and threatens Nato’s eastern flank, to say nothing of his other crimes”. Yet this has not deterred his Western sympathisers. In the US, Donald Trump has made no secret of his admiration for the Russian autocrat as a fellow ethnic nationalist and “strongman”. The president-elect’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence is an invitation to Russian expansionism in the Baltic states and eastern Europe.

Mr Trump is far from alone in his admiration for Mr Putin. In France, François Fillon, the socially conservative presidential candidate for the Républicains, favours the repeal of European sanctions against Russia (imposed in response to the annexation of Crimea) and a military alliance in Syria. In return, Mr Putin has praised his French ally as “a great professional” and a “very principled person”.

Perhaps the one certainty of the French election next spring is that Russia will benefit. Marine Le Pen, the Front National leader and Mr Fillon’s likely opponent in the final round, is another devotee of the Russian president. “Putin is looking after the interests of his own country and defending its identity,” she recently declared. Like Mr Trump, Ms Le Pen seems to aspire to create a world in which leaders are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of rebuke.

In Britain, Paul Nuttall, the newly elected leader of the UK Independence Party, has said that Mr Putin is “generally getting it right” in Syria. Mr Nuttall’s predecessor Nigel Farage named the Russian leader as the politician he admired most.

Mr Putin, who aims to defeat the West by dividing it, could not have scripted more favourable publicity. But such lion­isation masks Russia’s profound weaknesses. The country’s economy has been in recession for two years, following the end of the commodities boom, the collapse in the oil price and the imposition of sanctions. Its corrupt and inefficient bureaucratic state now accounts for 70 per cent of its GDP. Its population is ageing rapidly (partly the result of a low ­fertility rate) and is forecast to shrink by 10 per cent over the next 30 years, while life expectancy is now lower than it was in the late 1950s.

Yet this grim context makes Mr Putin an even more dangerous opponent. To maintain his internal standing (and he is popular in Russia), he must pursue external aggression. His rule depends on seeking foreign scapegoats to blame for domestic woes. Not since the Cold War has the threat to Russia’s eastern European neighbours been greater.

How best to respond to Putinism? The United Kingdom, as Europe’s leading military power (along with France), will be forced to devote greater resources to defence. Theresa May has rightly pledged to station more British troops in eastern Europe and to maintain sanctions against Russia until the Minsk agreements, providing for a ceasefire in Ukraine, are implemented. The Prime Minister has also condemned Russia’s “sickening atrocities” in Syria. Germany, where Angela Merkel is seeking a fourth term as chancellor, will be another crucial counterweight to a pro-Russian France.

It is neither just nor wise for the West to appease Mr Putin, one of the icons of the illiberal world. The Russian president will exploit any weakness for his own ends. As Tony Blair said in his New Statesman interview last week, “The language that President Putin understands is strength.” Although Russia is economically weak, it aspires to be a great power. We live in the age of Putinism. Donald Trump’s victory has merely empowered this insidious doctrine.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage