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Joseph Epstein

Here and Now by Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee & Distant Intimacy by Frederic Raphael and Joseph Epstein

June 2013, no. 352

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.

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One morning in late June 2008 I was seated at the breakfast table in Oriel College, Oxford, with a small group of delegates at a conference devoted to Frederick Austerlitz, when a man approached, with a bulging briefcase slung from his shoulder, and asked if he might sit down. It emerged that he had walked from Oxford Railway Station (no mean trek) in order to get to the college in time for the conference’s first session, which he was hoping to attend. Directed to one of the conference organisers, he repeated his tale, was informed he’d be welcome, and was then asked his name. ‘Carmichael,’ he said casually. ‘Hoagy Carmichael ... Junior.’

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