Here And Now

Paul Auster and J. M. Coetzee
HERE AND NOW Letters 2008–2011.

By Terry Eagleton

J. M. Coetzee, 2004, and Paul Auster, 2001 Photograph:© Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images (left); © Richard Cannon (right)
It is a Romantic delusion to suppose that writers are likely to have something of interest to say about race relations, nuclear weapons or economic crisis simply by virtue of being writers. There is no reason to assume that a pair of distinguished novelists such as Paul Auster and J. M. Coetzee should be any wiser about the state of the world than a physicist or a brain surgeon, as this exchange of letters between them depressingly confirms. In fact, there is no reason why authors should have anything particularly striking to say about writing, let alone about Kashmir or the Continuity IRA. Their comments on their own work can be even more obtuse than those of their critics. If T. S. Eliot really did believe that The Waste Land was merely a piece of rhythmical grumbling, as he once claimed, he should never have been awarded the Order of Merit.
Coetzee’s comments on the current economic crisis are not only wrongheaded but fatuous. Nothing has really happened to the world economy, he writes airily to Auster, other than a change of statistics. It is unlikely that the Bank of England, not to speak of those who have had their homes or livelihoods snatched from them by financial gangsters, would be over-impressed by this argument. Neither, judging from his circumspect reply, is Paul Auster, though he is too respectful of his renowned colleague to say so outright. Mysteriously, Coetzee goes on to suggest that putting this right requires an entirely new economic system, a piece of logic that his correspondent wisely leaves untouched. The truth is that neither man knows anything about economics, and there is no reason why being skilled in handling a metaphor should grant you such insight. Only those who have inherited a belief in the artist as sage, prophet and visionary are likely to feel discomfited by the fact that neither of these bien-pensant liberals has much that is profound or original to say about the body politic. Indeed, Coetzee’s most piercing insight into the subject is to realize that he ought to shut up. “At this point”, he announces, wryly comparing himself to the demented Ezra Pound, “I think I should quit my role as commentator on economic affairs.” Yet why then allow his absurd speculations to be published in the first place? Auster, too, finally concedes that “It is a subject I am ill qualified to talk about”, though not before talking about it rather too much.
Coetzee does in fact have a good many valuable reflections about his native South Africa, but apart from a few suggestive asides he doesn’t give voice to them here. Instead, the two men chat about e-books, the films of William Wyler, the pleasures of the typewriter, Auster’s wife’s curious failure to prepare boiled red cabbage for their Christmas dinner, and the fact that Auster ran into Charlton Heston no less than three times in a few days. “What am I to make of this, John?”, he breathlessly inquires of these mysterious encounters. “Do things like this happen to you, or am I the only one?” To which the answers are respectively “Not much” and “Of course not”. There is nothing wrong in writing to a friend about red boiled cabbage, cycling uphill or dreams of having sex with one’s mother; what is truly astounding is the assumption that all this is bound to grip the attention of total strangers because one happens to have written a number of successful novels. In this sense, the book exploits the paradox of all literary biography: we are interested in what kind of gowns Mrs Gaskell wore because she was a well-known author, yet what gowns she wore bears no relevance to her literary career at all.
One might excuse talk here about the idiomatic meanings of the word “basket” or whether the entire population of Israel should be transported to the state of Wyoming, if it simply cropped up as a set of asides in an intense communion of artistic souls. This, however, is far from the case. Those who turn to this book for literary illumination (and what else would one turn to it for?) are likely to be sorely disappointed. There is probably more in the volume about sport than there is about fiction. Both men are sports fanatics; both fail to recognize that sport these days is the opium of the people; and both keep trying to stop talking about it while suffering severe bouts of recidivism. In fact, no sooner have they launched out on some other topic than boxing or baseball returns like some ghastly King Charles’s head to dominate their discourse. There is some buddy-like talk of sport as breeding heroism and nobility of spirit. Rather nerdishly, Auster even sends his friend a photocopy of a page from The Baseball Encylopedia, and a photograph taken of him at the age of five in his football kit.
Coetzee sees sport as, among other things, a precious form of male bonding, which is not a bad way of describing part of what is afoot between these covers. There is a vein of rather distasteful back-scratching: Coetzee, an austere, laconic man hardly given to extravagant compliments, speaks of the “pleasure of having [Auster] visit our living room”, and goes on to admire his “enviably considered, just, and well-formed sentences”, rather as though he has just been conversing with an unusually intelligent computer. He also expresses “a certain fraternal tenderness for you and your dogged, un-appreciated bravery”, a bravery which turns out to be no more exacting on Auster’s part than sitting alone at his desk all day. There have been more illustrious acts of courage. Auster, in his more emotive American style, is the more ingratiating of the two, declaring his “unbounded faith in [Coetzee’s] work” and sounding mildly distressed at the prospect of having to disagree with him. There is not the faintest chance that either author is going to submit the other’s work to a rigorously critical analysis. They would no more think of doing so than of mercilessly anatomizing each other’s wives.
There are really only two passages in the volume of interest to literary types. One of them is a quirky, slightly tongue-in-cheek reflection by Coetzee on the role of the mobile phone in literature. Since the traditional plot tends to depend on keeping characters apart as well as bringing them together, how is this changed by a world of instant, constant accessibility? How, for example, might this affect the novel of adultery, a practice that has had to adapt itself in reality to new forms of communication? There are also a couple of absorbing letters by Coetzee, small gems on which postcolonial critics are bound to swoop, about his complex relation as an Afrikaner to the English “mother tongue”. Many contemporary writers and intellectuals, he points out, “have a remote or interrogative relation to the language they speak and write”. While growing up, he remarks, he always thought of the English language as the property of the English, never as his own possession. “The English made up the rules of English as they whimsically chose … [while] people like myself followed at a distance and behaved as instructed”. By the age of twenty-one, and living in England, he was pretty sure that he could speak and write the language better than most of the natives, but found himself betrayed as a foreigner as soon as he opened his mouth. Auster chips in with some rather less subtle remarks about his Jewish émigré grandparents and his Norwegian wife.
Like a good many writers, these two novelists share a predictable distaste for critics. The more eminent the author, the less accustomed he or she usually is to negative comment, and thus the more prickly and thin-skinned when it comes along. Auster remarks of a notoriously abrasive assault on his work by the critic James Wood that it felt like being mugged by a stranger, a simile which those who have been coshed over the head and robbed might well regard as a touch hyperbolic. (How many people are mugged by friends?) The critic, Coetzee grumbles, is “like the child lobbing pebbles at the gorilla in the zoo, knowing that he is protected by the bars”. Apart from being untrue – critics have actually been punched by irate writers, as Auster himself concedes, or savaged by their wrathful responses – the zoo image is unwittingly revealing. Are all critics really infantile, and all writers helpless, lumbering victims of their poisoned shafts? Auster himself isn’t averse to a spot of character assassination, deploring the “arrogance, self-importance, and single-minded, all-consuming vanity” of a deceased friend, though this, admittedly, is for private consumption only.
Self-criticism, however, is a different matter. Among other things, Auster’s role as the emotive, affirmative American is to bolster the bleakly self-deprecating South African, a man who has chosen to live “on the very fringes of the known universe” in Adelaide. Coetzee doesn’t have much faith that his work will endure, confesses that he can never remember anything he has ever said in an interview and acknowledges the paucity of his visual imagination. Auster’s job is then loyally to demur. Auster himself is less self-accusatory, more of a name-dropper and more of a sentimentalist, with the annoying American habit of heaping lavish praise on his own wife.
The fact that Coetzee is the better novelist is reflected in the difference between two men’s epistolary styles. Even in a casual letter, Coetzee writes a sculpted, disciplined, meticulous prose, in contrast to Auster’s more garrulous, loose-jointed brand of English. (The latter speaks at one point of certain Norwegian landscapes as being “literally” not of this earth). There are times when the precisely worded South African sounds more like the author of a legal textbook than a spinner of imaginary worlds; but he has a current of subdued ironic humour largely lacking in his interlocutor, who cracks one good joke and two or three abysmal ones. Perhaps it is no coincidence in this respect that Auster is also given to high-flown cliché, such as “We crave friendship because we are social beings” and (toe-curlingly) “I am an ardent believer in universal happiness”. He also produces such sententious, Boy Scoutish tags as “There is pleasure in the new, but also pleasure in the known” and “The idea [in sport] is not to win but to do well”. When Coetzee indulges in some wry self-criticism, deriding his own role as an elderly moaner at the ills of modernity, Auster overlooks the sardonic tone and earnestly exhorts the two of them to “carry on with utmost vigilance, scorned prophets crying into the wilderness”. The air of self-importance is distinctly un-Coetzeean.
“This book fills a much needed gap”, a legendary, perhaps apocryphal review is said to have begun. The same, regrettably, can be claimed of this one too. Fans of baseball might find it more rewarding than friends of fiction. It threatens us with a whole new genre in which readers will relish Martin Amis’s thoughts on chartered accountancy simply because they are the thoughts of Martin Amis, or queue to hear a talk by Bono on tropical diseases just because he has played so many gigs. One is relieved, however, to learn that both Auster and Coetzee hold that the proper response to negative criticism is to maintain a proud silence, not to slug the critic in the stomach. For this reviewer, it is one of the most gratifying features of the entire project.

Terry Eagleton is Distinguished Visiting Professor in English at Lancaster, Notre Dame and the National University of Ireland. His How to Read Literature is published this month.

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