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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

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

What strikes me the most about this short collection of letters is how discreetly it came and went through the literary radars, and how little notice it received from reviewers.  I must admit that the entire volume strikes as (for the lack of a better term) fabricated, but this is something that is openly accepted on the dust-jacket summary of the book.  Paul Auster (the great, white Jewish one) approached J.M. Coetzee about engaging in open-ended letters, topics as varied as the open world and not limited to literary matters.  Thus begins a conversation between these two literary giants that is at once trivial as it is insightful.  I know, I know... the typical polite self-contradictory description used by many when they cannot commit themselves to make an assessment resembling either/or.  Yet, the more I read, the more engaged I became.  Rarely does one see a collection of letters of varied topics such as the nature of sports, incest in literature, death and living, parenthood, statistics, art, politics and history in the Middle East, etc.  I found many of the discussions trivial, yes, but the real revelatory moments more than made up for the investment.

What happens in collections of letters is that the reader 1) expects a long period of correspondence, and 2) correspondence that in some ways encapsulates the events of the day, at that time, as they are occurring.  My last experience with "the letters of..." was that of "The Collected Letters of James Wright," a book I often refer back to, looking randomly at underlined passages for their powerful content, and mere brutality of description.  I don't foresee myself the same with "Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011" but I am glad I got to read something new by Paul Auster (sorry, Mr Coetzee) because he's the one and only for me.  I don't engage in hero-worship, not in sports or politics or history, and certainly not in literary matters (with the aforementioned exception, of course).

One passage that struck me as perhaps the most important is that of Paul Auster explaining his reservations about electronic readers.  Auster is honest about being a technophobe, and at the same time not being against electronic readers due to the fact that they promote the act of reading, and anything that does that should be encouraged.  Where things go awry (and I confess that, as an opponent of electronic readers, I never looked at it this way) is the flexibility of the technology to "destroy" the impermeable, hard object.  Auster explains: "On the other hand, I do have certain fears. (Fears, by the way, already borne out by the destruction of the music business. How I miss browsing in record shops!) Amazon, which has so far cornered the market here, is selling books at too low a price, is in fact taking a loss with each book it sells in order to woo the public into buying the machines. One can foresee dire consequences in the long term: the collapse of publishing houses, the death of bookstores, a future in which every writer is his own publisher. As Jason Epstein pointed out in an article in the New York Review [of Books] some months ago, it is absolutely essential that our libraries be maintained, since they are the bedrock of civilization. If everything went digital, think of the possible mischief that could ensue. Erased texts, vanished texts, or, just as frightening, altered texts."  This last prediction was one I never thought about.  It is, indeed, frightening.  As for Epstein's plea about the libraries, the same thing goes.  I used to believe that libraries were exempt from the threat of electronic text/readers until I visited the newly restored main campus library at the undergraduate college I graduated from.  The library is not almost entirely stripped of books in the second and third floor.  There are all sorts of "reader friendly" areas but most people are engaged in the use of computers rather than the act of reading itself.  I was waiting for a friend who was attending a class at the time and went for a walk, an investigating journey to see what the library had been transformed to.  My shock was severe when I entered the third floor to notice all the periodicals (peer-reviewed journals and popular magazines) were gone, scanned in part and now available in micro-strip.  I cannot recount the hours I spent there as an undergraduate when, left alone on campus with nowhere to go during breaks, I would pick random bounded volumes of "Time Magazine" from the 1920s and just past the pages (as well as the hours).  The third floor currently houses a great number of pseudo-offices (more like encapsulated cubicles) for para-professionals offering tutoring services, and, housing support professionals with important sounding titles like "Assistant Director of Student Achievement."  But I digress.  Imagine an electronic text of "Moby-Dick" in which the thinly-veiled homo-erotic scene of Ishmael and Qeequeg tossing in bed at the Nantucket inn is turned explicit by someone with a hyper-sexual imagination bordering on the pornographic... or a "Crime and Punishment" where Raskolnikov is able to make it to America as a stowaway and works himself through the ranks of Wall Street and into American financial "respectability."  Hard to imagine that happening?  Really, just browse Wikipedia for an hour and see for yourself.

I don't expect to agree with Paul Auster on every topic.  Even with my admiration of his work, I know enough to separate the man from the artist.  I confess I find his excessive criticism of conservatism (here in America and in Israel) a bit on the simplistic side.  That is to say, at the point where the subject is broached, Auster sounds like a blind liberal, a person that as soon as the term "conservative" or "right-wing" is mentioned in conversation, all bets are off and the engagement on ad hominems and hasty generalizations of all sorts is fair game.  I hold that type of liberalism and conservatism at a distance.  I've been on both sides of the political spectrum, and find myself disgusted by both in ways that are both irreparable and final.  What I see happening in political discourse is painful (even more painful when it comes from someone as intelligent as Auster)... the whole idea that someone will find Fox News irritating, despicable, dishonest and nauseating but just as well find MSNBC the pinnacle of intelligence and decorum makes me weep in silence for the idiocy of this country.  I don't watch television and only collect news items from the international press.  The American press is a cesspool of misinformation and unethical brain-washing on both sides of the political spectrum.  Those who see evil at the mention of George W Bush are the same sheep who can find no fault with Barack Obama despite his many violations (many of which, the overseas use of drone, is far worse than Bush... but of course, I will be accused of being a victim of right-wing propaganda).  Nobody is perfect, but both sides are equally rotten.

J.M. Coetzee is an enigma to me.  I believe I've read a few of his essays but none of his books.  I am eagerly awaiting my next trip to the bookstore.  Certainly his most famous titles are in order.  If anyone could recommend a title to start off with, please let me know.  I am more than intrigued.  I find him sensible and deeply honest in all and any of the topics these two giants engage in in the course of their correspondence.

It's a short and almost predictable little book, but "Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011" will not disappoint.

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At 6:08 PM, Blogger Bleets said...

J.M. Coetzee: Disgrace (1999) Booker Prize winner, pre-Nobel

At 5:44 PM, Blogger A Cuban In London said...

I must admit that I have had Coetzee in my to-read list for many years but I still can't bring myself to read it. Recently I watched a movie with John Malkovich. The film was based on one of his novels. Whilst the movie left no lasting impression on me, I must say that the fact it was inspired by a book by Coetzee has re-awakened my interest. Thanks for your post. I'm intrigued as you are. Glad to see I'm not the only one. :-)

Greetings from London.


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