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

Getty
Show Hide image

Are celebrities deliberately messing up their award show performances?

How the "accidental" tumble came to dominate awards season.

The first thing I saw about last night’s Brit awards is that during Katy Perry’s performance of her new single “Chained to the Rhythm” a dancer – dressed as a house – fell off the stage.

This housing crisis is the most meme-able and memorable moment of the entire awards ceremony, but not because it’s anything new. The house follows in the (tumbling) footsteps of Madonna, who in 2015 fell over on the Brits’ stage after a dancer stood on her giant, flowing cape.

If it seems strange that some of the world’s biggest and best known artists are prone to hiring clumsy back-up dancers, it should. Since I’m-so-normal-in-my-$4m-Dior-dress Jennifer Lawrence fell over at the Oscars in 2013, there has been a spate of televised celebrity mishaps.

In 2014, normal-oh-so-normal J Law decided to take another Oscars tumble. In 2015, Perry’s back-up dancer at the Super Bowl, Left Shark, shot to meme fame for its clumsy and out-of-time dance moves. This New Year’s, Mariah Carey gave a self-described “mess” of a performance.

So is this just a coincidence? After all, celebrities have always had live performance mishaps, the most famous being Justin Timberlake exposing Janet Jackson’s breast during the 2004 Super Bowl. But in the late Tens, thanks to social media, mishaps have become the fastest and easiest way to get talked about. After all, when’s the last time anyone on Twitter recommended a mainstream celebrity’s performance because it was “so very touching and good”?

The proof is in the numbers. Left Shark’s dance moves helped 2015 to become the most Tweeted about Super Bowl ever, with numbers dropping dramatically in 2016 (where Coldplay had no mishap other than their continued existence). Tweets and statuses are one thing, of course, and money is another. After her 2015 performance, Perry started selling Left Shark merchandise in her official online store. Mishaps are profitable in more ways than one.

Social media has therefore revolutionised the celebrity mishap, but so too have the phones from which we post our updates. The fact more of us take our smartphones to live shows means that the public can catch mishaps that might traditionally have been brushed under the rug (or cape). It was an audience member, after all, that caught Perry’s falling house on camera.

Short of a shark/house whistle blower, however, there is no definitive proof of this new celebrity conspiracy theory. Yet when it is known that marketers deliberately outrage consumers to drum up publicity, we have to wonder what PR teams wouldn’t do? A small tumble, after all, is a small price to pay to reach new heights. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.