Friday, 31 May 2013

Here and Now: Letters: 2008-2011 by Paul Auster and J. M. Coetzee

I finally had a chance to read Here and Now by two authors I greatly admire: Paul Auster and J. M. Coetzee. A google search shows me that critics aren't crazy about the work, but I think ones enjoyment of it comes out of what one is expecting. For me personally it was a way of getting a closer look at the people behind the books I've read and loved. The letters are spread over three years, and dip into serious philosophical discourses of different topics interspersed with personal anecdotes and exchanges. For me, it greatly humanized Coetzee, whose reputation of being closed off and distanced is often criticized. Auster strikes me as a very funny and thoughtful man. And to be a total modern dork, I have to say that their "bromance" is very touching at times.

What I love about this exchange of letters is the pairing of two authors who at once have so much in common, and yet are so different. This also comes across clearly in their letters. Auster on the one hand, who even mentions at some point that he keeps on talking about himself, but only as a "anybody", and Coetzee on the other who barely brings up really personal accounts. We learn that the authors meet on a few occasions between letters, but what they've talked about in person is never brought up. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall in one of their (and Auster's wife author Siri Hustvedt) meetings. Maybe that would make a good movie?

Some of my favourite quotes from the book:

- "Needless to say, I have spent my whole life exploring and meditating on my own name, and my great hope is to be reborn as an American Indian. Paul: Latin for small, little. Auster: Latin for South Wind. South Wind: an old American euphemism for a rectal toot. I therefore shall return to this world bearing the proud and altogether appropriate name of Little Fart" (Auster, p. 83-84).

- "I don't get much pleasure out of consuming novels.../ I must say that I get impatient with fiction that doesn't try something that hasn't been tried before, preferably with the medium itself" (Coetzee, p. 165). 

One quite playful - the other serious. They reflect the range of discourse between the authors, as they move easily between heavy philosophical ideas to fun and banal musings. It might not work for the critics, but it works for me. If I were still in Uni, I would have loved using these letters as the starting point for a "compare and contrast" of the novels by Auster and Coetzee. Some of the topics they discuss shine light upon their very different approaches to fiction. Characterization, inspiration, the space in/of the novel, their relationships to critics, interviewers and readers, is all discussed. It might make me think differently about their fiction in the future.

As a great admirer of Siri Hustvedt's writing, it was also nice to see the pride Auster takes in her expressed in his letters to Coetzee. Siri's presence is felt throughout the exchange, not only through her one note to Coetzee, but through her constantly being invoked by the two authors.

I wouldn't mind continuing to read their letters. If they were actually emailing each other, I would ask to be added as a CC, but unfortunately the letters are faxed and mailed in the old-school way. Alas.

Now I wish I had a pen pal I could write (or fax) real letters to. Coetzee? Auster? Any of you need one more pen pal? Or maybe I should try Siri.

Oh, and on a side note. Turns out J. M. Coetzee is on his first visit to Norway attending a literature festival. Since I am in his birth country, I could naturally not attend, but my excellent former lecturer went and got me a signed copy of Childhood of Jesus. Could a girl ask for more? And what better way to start the weekend?

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