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

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game