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

Photo: Getty
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At last, Jeremy Corbyn gets the biography he deserves

Liam Young reviews Richard Seymour's Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics.

Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics is the fullest and fairest account of Jeremy Corbyn’s rise released to date. In avoiding much of the rhetoric espoused in similar accounts focusing on Corbyn’s early career this book provides a frank account of how the unlikely leader took charge of the Labour party. It is a very readable account too. Richard Seymour writes plainly but effectively and his writing is both accessible and incredibly informative.

Seymour attempts two monumental tasks in this piece: first he attempts to account for Corbyn’s rise and then he attempts to predict where such a rise will take him, the Labour party and the wider left. Zoe Williams wrote that Rosa Prince’s Comrade Corbyn was an account of “ex-girlfriends, the state of his flat” and featured “very little ideological insight”. Seymour does the opposite. In simultaneously engaging with Marxist and Gramscian theory, Seymour provides readers with something of academic value in the place of such gossip.

For any supporter of Corbyn, the first few chapters are a trip down Memroy Lane. Reading of the last minute rush to get Corbyn on the ballot paper sends the heart beating once more. While perhaps a niche political event, supporters know where they were the minute Corbyn’s place on the ballot was confirmed. The fact that we know the outcome of the uncertainty that surrounded the leadership election doesn't detract from the reading.

Seymour’s work is not simply the polar-opposite of Prince’s hit-job though. It would be wrong to suggest that it is a positive, self-fulfilling account of Corbyn’s rise. In many ways it is a hard hitting and realistic look at what lies ahead. For supporters of the Labour leader much of Seymour’s analysis will be discomforting; indeed the writer concludes that it is likely “labourism” will outlive “Corbynism”.

Such a view is hardly surprising though. Seymour’s repertoire of anti-establishment work suggests that it was always unlikely he would find a comfortable home in an establishment party. In this sense it suffers from being an account written by an outsider looking in. While the Marxist analysis of the Labour party is thought-provoking it seems too lengthy and seems to fit with an orthodox view surrounding the inevitable death of the Labour party.

Seymour’s concentration on “movement-building” is pertinent though. Utilising Jeremy’s own words on such a phenomenon is an effective tool. In drawing this distinction Seymour pokes at an open wound on the left asking exactly where all of this fits. It is about time that frank discussion on this topic was had. While there is a range of different opinions on the matter, Seymour’s intervention is an important initial step. It is an awkward conversation that the left can put off no longer.

The criticism levelled at the media is also well founded and long overdue. Seymour’s take on long established journalists who refused to accept Corbynmania makes for entertaining reading. On a more important note the fact that he credits social media as a central part of Corbyn’s campaign is interesting. The importance of this often overlooked element has been a point of debate within “Team Corbyn” and Seymour is right to poke at it.

Seymour’s work is, on the whole, a refreshing take on the events of last summer and a thought-provoking piece on the future of the Labour party. It is important to note that rather than viewing this book as an account of Corbyn’s campaign it should be seen as a review of the context surrounding Corbyn’s victory. Given that context is open to interpretation it is only fair to add the caveat that it should be read with an understanding of Seymour’s ideological foundation. Though I disagree with his conclusion concerning the Labour party’s future, I found it an important read. With an accessible yet authoritative tone Seymour manages the task of providing an academic insight into Corbyn’s election. Such analysis is far more valuable than words wasted on rumour and gossip – Seymour does well to avoid this and should be proud to have done so.

Liam Young is a commentator for the IndependentNew Statesman, Mirror and others.