Talking Headshttps://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/web/talking-heads-5/

Talking Heads

Two writers reveal their personalities through letter writing.

Two writers reveal their personalities through letter writing.

There is,first,the difference in modalities. Paul Auster types his letters on his old-fashioned typewriter and sends them off,presumably with stamps duly affixed,by snail mail. J.M. Coetzee composes his on his computer and faxes them — or at a crunch,emails them to Auster’s wife,the novelist Siri Hustvedt,so that she can print them out. So is accumulated enough correspondence for this remarkable book,Here and Now. And given Auster’s habit of writing and sending letters without the assistance of computers and the internet,you have to wonder how his idiosyncrasy (though he betrays no inclination to see it like that) brought a thoughtfulness to the correspondence by slowing it down. This is not a conversation that could have been conducted on email.

Auster is the Brooklyn-based American author of such outstanding novels as The Brooklyn Follies and The New York Trilogy. Coetzee,the South African novelist now based in Australia,is the Nobel prize-winning author who is not only the only person writing in English to match Philip Roth’s body of work in its intensity and importance,but is also,for most of his readers,comparatively fierce in maintaining his privacy. This volume of three years’ worth of letters (July 2008-August 2011) is,therefore,a rare and valuable look into the working and distractions of two favourites.

For long stretches,that conversation is on sport. Both are avid viewers/spectators and it is as much a delight as it is an instruction to see how seriously they take the games they watch. What is it that draws us to sports,Coetzee ventures: “Identifying the desire to be held in esteem as one of the primary forces in the soul yields valuable insights,it seems to me. For instance,it suggests why athletic sports — activities with no parallel in the rest of creation— are so important to human beings,men in particular.” It could be,he says,part of the human need to be bound by being held in “mutual admiration”.

But what of the guilt that inadvertently attaches itself to the spectator? After watching the third day of a Test match between Australia and South Africa,and neglecting his intended reading for that time,Coetzee wonders what draws one back to the TV set,for there are only so many moves the players can make: “By the age of 30,any serious spectator must have moments of déjà vu… And justifiably so; it’s all been done before. Whereas one thing you can say about a good book is that it has never been written before.” So the (obviously rhetorical) question: “Is sport simply like sin: one disapproves of it but one yields because the flesh is weak?” 

Auster confesses to embarrassment over the number of hours given over to watching sports,but he’d call it pleasure,not sin. He says his way of tracking sports is to track specific teams so that: “One’s involvement becomes deeper when each player is a familiar figure,a known quantity,and this familiarity increases one’s capacity to endure boredom,all those dreary moments when nothing much of anything is happening.” It all turns on “the narrative component” of games. 

Coetzee later takes the inquiry further: “You seem to treat sport as a mainly aesthetic affair,and the pleasures of sports spectatorship as mainly aesthetic pleasures. I am dubious about this approach,and for a number of reasons. Why is football big business,while ballet — whose aesthetic attractions are surely superior — has to be subsidized?… What the aesthetic approach ignores is the need for heroes that sports satisfy.” And as any sports fan would appreciate,he concedes that the aesthetic approach explains those moments when to watch what transpires on the field of play is to be filled with pure awe,with a sense that one has been blessed just by being a witness. But his primary fascination is heroism. And for him,heroism reveals itself most intensely by teaching us what it does about losing,about how to inflict defeat and how to take it.

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The correspondence meanders through many subjects — Palestine and Israel’s increasingly indefensible tactics,the now questionable centrality of the novel in our cultural landscape,friendship,e-books and the need to stock deadwood editions in libraries,mean reviews,fictional representation of real-life characters. It shows,endearingly,Auster’s reluctance to be in disagreement with his friend,as too his tendency to complement Coetzee’s theorising with personal anecdotes. But through it all,with the letter-writers returning so often to sport,it sets you off to work out your own relationship with the games that interest you. That’s a blessing too.