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People of the Book 101: Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee

Mitchell Abidor
January 14, 2013

"Correspondence" or Correspondence?

by Mitchell Abidor

It’s a sad truth that nevermore will we have access to the drafts of great novels, since almost all are now written on computers, which swallow up the old once it’s revised. Nor will we ever again have the likes of the five thick volumes of Flaubert’s correspondence, or the twenty of Voltaire’s. Letters have been replaced by phone calls and e-mail, and it’s hard to imagine a collection of the collected e-mail of any literary luminaries.

Paul Auster, the author of dozens of novels, just might be an exception to these technological shifts. He hand-writes the first drafts of his novels in magnificent French Clairefontaine notebooks (like the one I used in writing this), and, as we learn in Here and Now (Random House, 2013), a new collection of correspondence between Auster and the South-African born J.M. Coetzee, he still uses a typewriter.

There’s a certain charm in the idea that one of the most successful post-modern novelists holds fast to such anachronistic methods. Who doesn't love the sound of a pen or pencil moving across a page at the speed of thought? For people above a certain age — Auster was born in 1947 — the act of writing is ideally accompanied by the clacking of the typewriter keys, the bell that sounds at the end of the line, the click-crash of the lever being pushed as the roller shifts across and up . . .

Nevertheless, there's also a large part of affectation in remaining faithful to these old technologies — affectation that spills over into the correspondence itself. The letters in Here and Now, written between 2008-2011, seem to have been crafted for publication, not primarily for communication.

The joys of reading correspondence can be found in the incidental. When Flaubert wrote to Maxime du Camp, they were the letters of a friend to a friend. Flaubert was sharing his thoughts and experiences as they occurred. They weren't written expressly to turn beautiful phrases or express important ideas (although they contain these elements). What you hear in them is a human being's voice.

When Kafka wrote from Prague to his fiancée Felice Bauer in Berlin, his letters were revelatory precisely because they were not written so that posterity could understand his fears, anxieties, hesitations and doubts, but rather so that one woman, hundreds of miles away, could get to know him. Kafka, who labored so long and hard to ensure that his texts were perfect, would certainly have been horrified to learn that his private thoughts, thrown on the page, would become a key element of his literary oeuvre.

The correspondence in Here and Now is far too concerned with large issues, generalized discussions, and great thoughts to be accepted as real communication between two celebrated writers. Both are playing to the crowd, and this playing causes strain.

The book begins with reflections on the nature of friendship, certainly a worthy topic, and one writers have dealt with since antiquity, though the discussion reached its highest point in Montaigne’s essay on his friendship with Etienne de la Boetie and his simple explanation of their relationship by the lapidary phrase “because it was he, because it was me.” Would that Auster and Coetzee were so concise.

Since the authors are obviously straining to be significant and not simple and direct, heartfelt words are only occasionally found here. Their discussions seldom rise above the level of a dorm-room bullshit session, as they prattle on about how men are unable to discuss their feelings, with Coetzee saying (with some perspicuity) that "male friends in the West don’t talk about how they feel about each other," to which Auster responds — with the greatest pseudo-profundity — that "I would take this a step further and add: men tend not to talk about how they feel, period." Pearls like these, delivered as if they had never occurred to anyone before and which would embarrass Dr. Phil, can be found in almost every letter, whether the discussion is sports or the Middle East.

Coetzee pontificates on bat-and-ball sports, saying that "once the primitive contests have been reconceived as rule-governed recreations and victory has been given an abstract, numerical definition . . . they are welcomed into modern life." This is perhaps true and might be worthy of an essay, but it’s all but impossible to accept as a passage in a letter exchanged between friends. Couldn’t he just have said that sports only matter to people when there are rules and someone can come out the winner without all the bloviating verbiage? And do friends really write to each other about such matters?

Auster is invited to Israel, which sets off an exchange on Middle Eastern politics that gives rise, again, to simplistic ideas not worthy of being preserved. Auster tells us that "[i]f instead of Arafat there had been a Middle Eastern Gandhi to frame the political discourse, I am convinced the Palestinians would have had a country of their own twenty or thirty years ago." This condescending dig is followed by a line from the Israeli playbook whose stupidity never ceases to shock: "Then too there is the repulsive hypocrisy of the surrounding Arab countries, countries so rich from their oil revenues that they easily could have sent vast amounts of money to help build a viable prosperous society there. But they stand by and do nothing, preferring to let the Palestinians suffer as a propaganda tool against Israel" — as if Saudi oil could purchase the water the Israelis deny the Palestinians, or halt the settlements the Jewish state has allowed to metastasize across the land they conquered and occupy.

What is ultimately irksome is that as Auster and Coetzee jam discussions on these and other topics into 250 pages, the correspondence nowhere breathes of life and shared passions, even when they discuss personal matters. The book feels like a series of homework assignments, or a unending nightmare episode of "This American Life." They succeed as neither letters nor essays.

Something is unintentionally revealed in these pages, however. Paul Auster has long represented himself as Brooklyn writer, the borough figuring heavily in his novels and appearing in the titles of two of them, Sunset Park and Brooklyn Follies. And it can't be denied that Auster, who moved to Brooklyn in the 1980s, made it acceptable for literati to cross the East River. However, the shallowness of this identity is revealed in one of his letters, in which he describes a trip from the airport where he goes "down" Ocean Parkway (he is actually going up the avenue) and describes the emptiness of the names of the twenty-six cross-streets named after letters; streets, he claims, that run from Avenue A to Avenue Z. He says it would be "boring to live on a street named Avenue E," and that "Avenue A in Brooklyn is a complete cipher." In fact, it would not only be boring to live on Avenue E, it would be impossible, since there is no such avenue. Avenue A is a cipher in the truest sense: it, too, does not exist, that alphabetic spot being called Albemarle Road. Even more, from the letters A-G the avenues have names, not letters, and aren’t any more boring than any other street names: Beverley Road, Cortelyou Road, Ditmas Ave . . . What’s especially striking about this ignorance is that Auster lives only two miles from Ocean Parkway and Albemarle Road, which means that in his decades in Brooklyn he’s never taken even a long walk to the area of Brooklyn below Prospect Park. His Brooklyn-ness, like that of most of the hip living in the newly-hip borough, is revealed to be barely skin deep. It’s an impoverished, diminished thing, consisting of a swath of the borough located within easy subway distance of Manhattan. Auster, in one letter, talks about how he "prefer[s] to tend my own little garden in Brooklyn." In fact, his little garden appears to be the entirety of his Brooklyn. The rest of it isn’t worthy of his notice.

Mitchell Abidor is a contributing writer to our magazine and a translator, musician, and actor living in Brooklyn. He is author of Communards: The Paris Commune of 1871 as Told by Those Who Fought For It.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.