Rod MacKenzie
Rod MacKenzie

Accusation and failure: The JM Coetzee – Paul Auster correspondence

In the correspondence between the writers JM Coetzee and Paul Auster in Here and Now (Letters: 2008-2011) we encounter a Coetzee largely unfamiliar to readers. Coetzee converses, even chats, in letters with another writer arguably of the same stature (certainly in Europe) in a manner sometimes bordering on the confessional. Coetzee is famous for his terse responses in interviews, and his monkish avoidance of the public. This is his right, and should be defended. But others have a similar right to wonder what this has to say about the writer who wants a large audience but, for the most part, doesn’t have the courtesy to make himself available to that audience.

After all, his fans have taken the trouble to buy his books, write about them and create a Coetzee literary industry. His book of interviews and essays, Doubling the Point, is perhaps an exception. But there the correspondence was with the intent of making those interviews available for public consumption. They are thus guarded, and do not catch the man in his bathrobe and slippers, so to speak.

The epistolary interviews in Doubling the Point were vetted by Coetzee and the entire book given a literary polish that has whiffs of censorship. Coetzee decided what went “in”. This makes Coetzee’s kind of interview a sub-genre: the essay-as-interview which mimics interview without giving us his immediate, even knee-jerk response to questions, which can be more illuminating. It is the “off the cuff’ material that is more honest and perhaps we find that in Here & Now, an unputdownable exchange between these fascinating writers.

At one point Coetzee laments the idiotic slight of a reader who accuses Coetzee of being anti-Semitic. This is based on a remark one of his characters in Slow Man makes. Any fool knows that the words in a character’s mouth cannot be put into the author’s mouth. Nevertheless Coetzee is here in his bathrobe, primly adjusting his belt, shaking his head, making heavy weather of the accusation over two longish letters to Auster: ” … The real question [on the anti-Semitism charge], however, is not whose hands are clean and whose are not. The real question arises out of the moment of being thrown onto the defensive, and out of the sinking feeling that comes next, the feeling that the goodwill between reader and writer has evaporated, the goodwill without which reading loses its joy and writing begins to feel like an unwanted, burdensome exercise. What does one do after that? Why go on, when one’s words are being picked over for covert slights and heresies?”

For Coetzee, this is garrulous. If he were accused in this way about anti-Semitism in public he would not — going by his public character — even entertain an answer. But here we have a slightly petulant, even childlike tone of voice where accusations do matter deeply to him. He is also sensitive to racism — as most South Africans are, anally so — and laments the loss of goodwill between writer and reader. Here Coetzee touches on one duty of responsible writing: that it ought to cultivate courtesy in reader and artist alike, and should remind us at a deep, even unwordable level of our humanity. There are a number of moments like these in the book which entice one to contrast the novelist, the academic and the reluctant interviewer with the more vulnerable, wordy (can you believe it) letter-writer. One example is his fear of whatever novel he is writing being a “palpable failure”, and often barely having the faith to continue writing it. That passage is also vulnerably written and heartening to read for wannabe novelists.

In terms of PR, Paul Auster is more of a public, open kind of guy than Coetzee. He is more down to earth. This is also clear from his memoirs, such as Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure, with its somewhat picaresque excursions, including working among hardened, boozy deckhands and stevedores on ships in his early life. So in this correspondence the contrast between the writer in public and the letter-writer is not as stark and is therefore not quite as memorable as Coetzee’s.

One of Auster’s subjects is incest and other sexual taboos. In these letters he and Coetzee discuss incest. For example, the term incest is limiting because of the variety of relations possible in these forbidden acts. “Incest” does not differentiate between say, sister-sister, father-daughter, mother-son and so forth. Incest underpins Auster’s recent novel, Invisible. An adult brother and sister have their way with each other over a period of time, which is the brother’s version of what happened. It was another chuckle-worthy delight in the correspondence to find that Auster was — reading between the lines — surprised and even disappointed at not being the misunderstood artist, the genius ahead of his times, the lamentable victim of public accusation for those incest scenes. To his surprise (dismay?) that aspect of the novel does not make much of a ripple in reading circles.

These insights into the responses of these formidable writers to their own writing and what it says about their own intentionality (if any) when writing, makes Here and Now worthwhile reading.

Another preoccupation in Auster’s novels is failure and uselessness. This is what at times makes bondmen of himself and Coetzee: artists at times misunderstood and accused or, regrettably, not accused. He writes to Coetzee on the conjunction of art and uselessness: “ … the best argument for the importance of art lies precisely in its uselessness, that we are most deeply and powerfully human when we do things for the pure pleasure of doing them … ”

The correspondence covers the usual smorgasbord of subjects to which they bring their (at times flawed) erudition, making the book all the more publishable. But, to echo my comments on Doubling the Point, one wonders how much was edited out or “polished”. That is one of the many things that fascinates me about those competing and somewhat mingled discourses: History and Fiction. It’s the stuff that disappears through the cracks that may have mattered a lot.

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  • 3 Responses to “Accusation and failure: The JM Coetzee – Paul Auster correspondence”

    1. Jeff #

      Very intriguing. I wonder if there’s a relationship between Coetzee’s previous reluctance to speak outside the context of his work and the fact that his work itself is sometimes so self-referential.

      He reminds me of Philip Roth in that respect: more or less forcing readers of his fiction to ask how much of what they’re reading is autobiography, and then getting indignant when they start to draw the obvious parallels. I think a novelist can’t really get away with that approach. If you’re going to write fiction in which you give your own name to one of the characters (as Roth and Coetzee have both done), you’re better off keeping completely mum when people ask you what you meant. I think Coetzee’s mistake here is that he’s published the Auster correspondence at all, not that he edited it with a heavy hand.

      I love Auster’s work too but I hadn’t heard about “Invisible”, and about the public’s failure to read the incest theme as drawn from his own experience. I’m afraid I had to laugh when I saw that… he was obviously hoping for the scandalized reaction that Roth got from “Portnoy’s Complaint”, which Roth has always denied he meant to produce. But since no one was shocked enough by “Invisible”, it didn’t work

      March 15, 2014 at 8:43 am
    2. Candice Holdsworth

      It reminds me of the quote from Michel Houellebecq: “As soon as I begin to speak about myself, I start to lie.”

      March 15, 2014 at 12:46 pm
    3. Isabella van der Westhuizen #

      JM Coetzee must be one of the most over hyped pseudo authors of the post modern era.
      His prose is laboured and slow moving, his characters lack depth and his philosophy of life devoid of any meaning. How he has ever convinced the academic world of his merit is beyond me

      March 18, 2014 at 9:50 pm

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