Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011 by Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee; Viking, 248 pages ($27.95). It’s very simple, as J.M. Coetzee writes Paul Auster about the economic calamity of 2008. There was no “plague of locusts” that devoured the crops. Nor was there a continuing drought or an invasion by a foreign army pillaging, in his words, our cities, capturing our treasure-hoards, carting away our food stores and turning us into slaves.
All that happened was that “certain numbers changed. Certain numbers that used to be big suddenly became low and as a result we are poorer.” Therefore, says the only Nobel Prize winner who was once a UB English professor, “if nothing has really happened, if the numbers reflect no reality but on the contrary simply refer to other numbers, why, I ask, do we have to accept the verdict that we are now poorer and must start behaving as if we are poorer? Why not, I ask, throw away this particular set of numbers, numbers that make us unhappy and don’t reflect a reality anyway and make up new numbers for ourselves, perhaps numbers that show us to be richer than we used to be?”
It’s unlikely that anyone but a supremely gifted novelist would ever have such an irresistible notion (i.e. treating our numbers as the fiction that they are). That’s why it’s a prime example of what makes this book such a nourishing and continuous pleasure. Coetzee and Auster were aware of each other’s work but didn’t actually meet until an Australian literary festival in February 2008. Coetzee initiated the correspondence thinking Auster would be an ideal partner to return his serves and volleys with challenging serves and volleys of his own.
And so it is with the two of them writing about sports, Charlton Heston, literary critics they both don’t like (it’s best, they agree, to do nothing in retaliation – unlike Norman Mailer who smacked one in the nose and Richard Ford who punched another in the stomach) and a large menu of other subjects that makes our eavesdropping for 248 pages the pleasure that it is.
It’s obvious when you read it that both had one eye on eventual publication as they write each other. But then it’s certainly our pleasure that they did.
– Jeff Simon