Here and Now
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Here and Now

Paul Auster, J. M. Coetzee

Although Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee had been reading each other’s books for years, the two writers did not meet until February 2008. Not long after, Auster received a letter from Coetzee, suggesting they begin exchanging letters on a regular basis and, God willing, strike sparks off each other. Here and Now is the result of that proposal: an epistolary dialogue between two great writers who became great friends. Over three years their letters touched on nearly every subject, from sports to fatherhood, film festivals to incest, philosophy to politics, from the financial crisis to art, family, marriage, friendship, and love. Their correspondence offers an intimate and often amusing portrait of these two men as they explore the complexities of the here and now and is a reflection of two sharp intellects whose pleasure in each other’s friendship is apparent on every page.

Review

There’s a moment towards the end of Here and Now: Letters 2008 – 2011 when Paul Auster and J. M. Coetzee complain about the misfortunes of being publically interviewed.

Coetzee on the Jaipur Literature Festival:

‘I was determined not to subject myself to the rounds of public questioning that have become standard feature of festivals nowadays. Interrogation is not a medium I do well in. I am too brief in my responses, where brevity (clippedness) is all too easily misread as a sign of irritation or anger.’

And Auster on a literary festival in Canada:

‘The two of us alone on stage with no intermediary … Some of our remarks will necessarily take the form of questions – each to each other – but not the kind of grilling one associates with traditional interviews.’

It’s an exchange that represents everything that I worried would be dull about this book: two celebrated, senior writers curmudgeonly navel-gazing about what it means to be distinguished. And yet these passages are more telling than that. What Auster writes is, inadvertently, a description of the book itself, and goes some way to explaining why Here and Now is unexpectedly and subtly fascinating.

Here and Now is not really a collection of letters, at least not in the conventional sense. There is nothing posthumous or even unplanned about its composition. This is two writers in their prime, challenging each other to rise to the occasion and say something meaningful on any number of subjects: the Middle East, incest, the criticism of James Wood, sport, literature, travel, etc.

Indeed Here and Now is more like an interview than an exchange of letters, not, of course, a ‘traditional’ interview, but instead a long, double-edged, itinerant, freeform series of open-ended questions. Anyone who is interested in either writer will be captivated. I was.


Will Heyward is a bookseller who works for Readings in Carlton and St Kilda. He is a contributing editor of Higher Arc.

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