I have to admit, I had misgivings about the collected correspondence of Paul Auster and JM Coetzee, misgivings fed in part by the snarky commentators over at the Guardian. There was a story on there about this book some months ago and beneath, like a great nest of vipers, dozens and dozens of people whinged and moaned about Paul Auster – the general gist being how could Auster, being a second rate [insert insulting comparison here], have the temerity to write to Coetzee, who (the majority of Guardian snarks agreed) was a kind of unassailable literary God. As a Paul Auster fan, the volume of noise was such (and in the main generated by people who were saying things like ‘I haven’t read him for years but I’ve heard [insert insulting comment about diminishing powers etc]’) the only sensible thing to do was back away and leave the baying hordes to their baying. But damn those Guardianistas, their comments rankled and stayed with me.
When I started reading Here & Now some weeks ago, I was struck, at first, by a sense of unequal partnership – Auster is the more garrulous of the two, the one most willing, it seemed to me, to over-explain his point, to use three examples when one would do. I found myself reading a letter or two and then stopping, staring out of the window, wondering why the correspondence had been published – what had each writer decided the merit of it all was? There is a sense (a sense that prevails throughout the book) that we are being guided somewhat through ruminations, with a certain portion of more personal commentary excised (even though some personal commentary has been left in) – a good example is James Woods’ essay on Auster (which was collected recently in The Fun Stuff) which Auster thanks Coetzee for commiserating with him about – we don’t see the commiserating note just the letter/fax that followed. Auster admits to Coetzee early on that he realises he often responds to Coetzee’s questions with stories about himself, somewhat disingenuously (it seemed to me) saying ‘I am not interested in myself. I am giving you case studies.’
And yet, these doubts subside. There is a bit of back and forth about sport (both Auster and Coetzee are sports fans of different stripes – Coetzee likes tennis and cricket and football, Auster baseball), about language, the way the world is changing (and not for the better! – Auster and Coetzee can be grumpy old men when they choose to be), the experience of being interviewed (neither are what you would call fans), food, politics, films, books, travel, ebooks and ageing, amongst other things. It took this reviewer in the region of 100 pages to shake off the feeling that the book was private and shouldn’t have been shared – and by that point I felt as if I was sitting in the company of two very interesting gentlemen, one of whom was a writer I had followed for twenty years and one of whom was a writer I had never quite warmed to but who was, I discovered, someone who I should perhaps take another look at.
‘This kind of relationship with an author [Coetzee writes of libraries] – extremely tenuous and highly indirect, conducted perhaps through a dozen intermediaries – will be less and less possible in the future. Whether such relationships have any value seems to me an open question, as is the question of whether it is better to own a physical copy of a book than to have the power to download an image of its text.’
The point came – midway through a discussion of Israel, Auster and Coetzee’s ‘tangled’ views never anything less than thrilling – when Here & Now gripped. It was a Sunday morning. The world receded. I read and read (imagining myself, in a pub, the two of them either side, Auster smoking one of his little cigars – in my dream pub you can still smoke inside – and Coetzee nodding, perhaps, speaking less, but choosing his words carefully). It felt a curious privilege to hear Coetzee talking about Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost, Auster talking about the documentary Man on a Wire. Similarly, hilarious asides on the etymology of the word basket, admissions about the most you can expect from government (essentially non-violent succession), brief glimpses into work in progress (admittedly this is only from Auster’s side, Coetzee plays his cards close to his chest) and notions of fallibility (both Auster and Coetzee self-doubt in their own way) make Here & Now a fascinating ride.
Any Cop?: Screw the Guardianistas and roll on the next collection of correspondence…