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?

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

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.