The recent publication of Willa Cather’s letters caused a stir in the United States. The American author, surprisingly underrated here, had explicitly and repeatedly said she did not want her letters made public. Some believe her wishes should be respected; others say the demands of history are greater than those of a long-dead individual.
This, of course, points to part of the allure of reading the private letters of famous people. Through them, we glimpse multiple facets of personalities that have been airbrushed by publicists: the grumpy and the affectionate, the outrageous and the encouraging, the truly intelligent and the superficially smug. We get flashes of insight into political and artistic decision-making and delicious celebrity gossip. Half of it would be actionable if everyone involved were not already dead.
Reading such letters has all the transgressive frisson of eavesdropping, wrapped in reassurance that the pleasure is legit because officially sanctioned. Once upon a time a house guest didn’t seal letters left out for the post, because that would imply his hosts were not honourable and might read the contents on the sly. Etiquette turned on the fact that privacy was treasured.
All of which pushed the scepticism button when a small volume of letters between Bernard-Henri Lévy and Michel Houellebecq, titled Public Enemies, crossed my desk in 2008. Were these two friends? What was the connection between the shinily dressed, incessantly self-promoting philosopher cum political activist and the notoriously slovenly misanthrope? Sure enough, it was a gimmick, dreamed up precisely because of the incongruence. ‘Has it come to this?’ I thought, before opening to the first page and getting hooked. The French penchant for unselfconscious philosophising set the left-wing activist and the politically incorrect libertarian on a fascinating collision course, ameliorated – a genuine surprise, here – by the hidden emotional depths they eventually brought out in each other. Well, in Houellebecq, anyway.
Now we have two more collections of writers’ letters –none of them written spontaneously and unselfconsciously or collected after the event in the old-fashioned way.
Prize-winning South African-Australian novelist John Coetzee and the bestselling American Paul Auster had apparently read each other’s work for years but only met in 2008. Soon after, Coetzee wrote to Auster suggesting they exchange letters regularly and ‘God willing, strike sparks off each other.’ Really? People who find each other simpatico usually just start writing – impromptu. The back cover gives a clue: ‘Here and Now is the result of that proposal: an epistolary dialogue between two great writers who became great friends.’ That’s definitely marketing speak. If only the result were as grand as it sounds.
Much of the exchange is nice enough in a ‘who cares?’ kind of way: an unexceptionable conversation between two people, neither of whom, strangely enough given who they are, seems terribly worldly. Do we need to pay money to read this? No interesting names are dropped, there is a lot of travel housekeeping, and some of their lengthier discussions – Coetzee on economics, for example – are disappointingly slight.
Their most interesting exchanges, predictably, are about writing. Coetzee says, pace creative-writing courses, that he has no idea of the back stories of his characters. He explains that he doesn’t use electronic devices in his novels because they preclude the characters reading non-verbal signs. The two of them compare the effect on different generations of incest and paedophilia in books. They could, of course, have written this kind of thing in any number of conventional venues. I would have preferred to read the ideas in an essay, wrapped in a well-written and insightful feature, or in a Paris Review Q&A.
People who find each other simpatico usually just start writing – impromptu
As you would expect for such a studied exercise, boundaries must have been set in advance. Coetzee’s partner only gets cursory mention when, for example, Auster says he is looking forward to seeing them at some literary festival or other. Coetzee is famously private – good luck to him, he gives us his books, which is more than enough – and his guard isn’t dropped here. But that only heightens the artificiality of the ‘epistolary dialogue’.
The warmest parts of the book, in fact, are the constant references, the love and admiration shown, by Auster for his wife, the writer Siri Hustvedt. You can feel his heart tug when he describes her rolling up her sleeves at a seminar at Sorbonne and saying, ‘I love fighting about ideas.’ You can sense how intimately their lives are intertwined, professionally and personally, in the way her biography has become his. Mind you, if they separate in a blaze of lurid headlines, we’ll only have ourselves to blame for being selective in what to believe.
The Raphael–Epstein outing at least acknowledges its purpose. In the very first letter, Raphael puts the proposition to Epstein, apropos of the Lévy–Houellebecq book:
Primo, have you seen it by any chance? If not, you might enjoy it, but it ain’t over yet, because here’s what puts the ouch in the kicker: might there be some fun, not to mention $$$ etc., in a year’s (say) correspondence between ... you cannot have guessed. Well, might there? Chicago, Chicago and how cookies do crumble ...
The result runs to three hundred exhausting pages. The punning never lets up. It’s like back-to-back episodes of the BBC’s My Word on speed. Eventually, the smart-arse locutions and the intellectual one-upmanship palls. As the mutual admiration and the character assassinations persist, one yearns for a glimmer of generosity or sincerity – some humility even.
Epstein is an American journalist and essayist; Raphael, a British novelist and screenwriter, most famous perhaps for the screenplay of Darling, the 1965 drama starring Julie Christie and Dirk Bogarde, which he mentions once or twice. Both have been jobbing writers all their working lives; their output has been prodigious and their craft highly polished. By the end of this exchange – strangely undated, so one can’t place the public affairs they allude to – they still had not met. As their distant intimacy begins (you can’t say it grows, because it wasn’t there to start with), there is one poignant exchange on whether their friendship would survive their meeting in the flesh, a flash of insight, perhaps, into the danger of proximity to venom.
Everything else is far from poignant. Almost everyone in the literary world is a creep or a conman, including some one might not want to hear slandered: Isaiah Berlin, Seamus Heaney, Harold Pinter, Frank Kermode, Jeffrey Meyers, George Steiner, Edmund Wilson, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Samuel Beckett, Lionel Trilling, Elton John, and many more.
No woman except Arendt even rates the dignity of a professional cut down. Did they really have to write about Helen Mirren’s ‘tits’ and keep up a running commentary on the looks of almost every woman they meet, including those of ‘Lady Novelists’ and the wives of people actually under discussion? Talk about pots and kettles: they’re not exactly Brad Pitt and George Clooney themselves. Conversely, the good looks of Susan Sontag, Hannah Arendt, and Mary McCarthy, Epstein writes, ‘helped all these women to make dents in the tin-foil intellectual life of their time’.
Half the English-speaking population, at least, will find the sexism rife in this book seriously annoying. French people, too, might be offended by ongoing references to ‘Frogs’. And how can two people so tone-deaf and bat-blind to one kind of prejudice, sexism, be so sensitive to another kind, anti-Semitism? They are ‘always on the qui vive for anti-Semitism’, as Epstein puts it. But they try to have their cake and eat it too, constantly and casually commenting on Jewishness on nearly every page (‘Hollywood seems to bring out the Jew in everyone’), cracking Jewish jokes and then complaining when anyone else notices that they are, yes, Jewish. Enough with the kvetching already.
Neither of these books is satisfying, and they are unsatisfying for the same reason. They simply don’t deliver what we want from personal letters, because the letters are not private. They are just more pieces of public writing by professional writers and, as such, break trust with their implicit promise. Coetzee and Auster struggle to be discreet, and it takes the fire out of their prose. Epstein and Raphael struggle to deliver a bang for the reader’s buck and succeed – if you like that kind of thing. But while nastiness may be revealing if it is discovered – that frisson of eavesdropping again – it’s just plain nasty if it’s intended to be seen.