Book review: Here And Now: Letters 2008-2011, by Paul Auster and JM Coetzee

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THIS could have been, and at times very nearly is, a most touching book: a correspondence between two men, one in his sixties, the other turning 70, both highly regarded novelists (one having won the ultimate accolade, the Nobel Prize), striking sparks off each other, shedding light on their work and becoming friends in the process.

Here And Now: Letters 2008-2011

Paul Auster and JM Coetzee

Harvill/Faber, £20

There are quite a few problems, though. For a start, the whole exercise lacks spontan­eity. It is a construct, and these days no correspondence by letter (Auster has no email) can be anything but self-conscious. They begin, naturally enough, with friendship. “Can men and women ever be friends?” asks Auster. “I think so.” One ap­preciates the modesty here, 
the reluctance to make the grand statement, but, frankly, anyone shelling out 20 quid in the hope of eavesdropping on wisdom might legitimately come away feeling a little shortchanged.

How to solve the economic crisis? Coetzee is pessimistic. “I am proposing no less than the discarding of the old, bad economic system and its replacement by a new, good one… This is a project which our present leaders have neither the aptitude nor the will nor indeed the desire to bring about.” End of letter.

The letters do get more interesting, and moving, and ­Coetzee’s thoughts on apartheid-era South Africa are fas­cinating. Disappointingly, though, their thoughts on their favourite writers – even ones who have provided inspiration, if not models, for their own work, such as Beckett and ­Kafka – are not particularly insightful.

Although the letters are largely good-humoured, there is little humour in them, no scandalous jokes, no jokes at all, come to think of it. They do, however, get animated when it comes to critics, and Auster tells a good story about bumping into one who had savaged him. (Auster behaved with saintly good grace; the critic’s face turned white.) The critic, says Coetzee, “becomes like the child lobbing pebbles at the gorilla in the zoo, knowing he is protected by the bars”. «