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Pen Pals

When famous authors write to each other

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty

The best correspondences, like the best friendships, have a plot. Or, if not a plot, some elements of one: a little tension, a climax or two, a surprising reveal.

James Joyce’s smutty letters to Nora Barnacle, the Dublin chambermaid-turned-mother of his children, have many climaxes, most of them unprintable. “My sweet little whorish Nora,” one letter begins, “No use continuing! You can guess why!” ends another. Less pornographic, but still suggestive, are the letters between Hawthorne and Melville, which include some of the finest sentences either author ever wrote. Reading them, one senses, uneasily, an asymmetrical affection, and thus, implicitly, a story. The very funny correspondence of Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson ends abruptly, with a fight about Wilson’s negative review of Nabokov’s translation of Eugene Onegin.

Besides inherent drama, another quality these epistolary collections share is posthumous publication. This makes sense, of course; publishers and fans want more “work” from successful and beloved authors after they’ve departed. But there are more complicated matters at play when living writers publish their correspondence.

When I think about the “correspondence” I’ve generated over my life, I can sift it into a few embarrassing categories: adoring, inarticulate drivel to my boyfriend; unforgivably cruel jokes made in confidence to friends; whiney pleas unanswered by my parents; incensed threats to managing editors who owe me $300. Looking back, the number of non-humiliating e-mails I’ve sent over the course of my entire life could not exceed 30. To publish all this chaff would be an act of immense and delusional hubris.1 But when a famous writer does it, and does it before they die, there’s an implicit assertion taking place: my everyday thoughts are worthwhile. 

The letters sent between Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee, recently collected and published under the title Here and Now, span three years, multiple continents, and zero conflicts. That both writers are still very much alive, and presumably pleased that their private correspondence is now public, is alternately mystifying and maddening. Though one does not get the cynical impression that these letters were written with the intention of one day being published, they might as well have been. The correspondence feels artificial and oddly painstaking for something that was done for fun.

The two novelists, both longtime readers of each other’s work, did not meet until 2008. Shortly after, Coetzee, the Nobel Prize–winning South African (now an Australian citizen) suggested they become pen pals. He and Auster—American, seven years his junior—proceed to respond studiously to one another: answering queries mostly in order, formally inquiring after each other’s families, and taking up philosophical considerations ranging from the aesthetics of athletics to the odd frequency of incest in literature. Plato’s Republic is invoked, as are Shakespeare’s sonnets, Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and Bach’s oratorios. The letters can be cartoonishly stodgy.

Both authors have aphoristic moments of charm and good humor, though. In a discussion about sports, Coetzee offers that, “a team of heroes is an oxymoron,” and after Coetzee returns from a trip to India, apologetic that he isn’t a better travel writer, Auster responds, "much better to read about [the relations between human beings and animals] than to be told the color of the cup poor people drink from." Italians, according to Coetzee, run public events "without fetishizing efficiency," and Auster identifies the paradoxical reciprocity of friendship, as being a case in which, "You are both giving more than you receive, both receiving more than you give." 

But they agree on too many topics. Coetzee writes that the critic is "like a child lobbing pebbles at the gorilla in the zoo, knowing he is protected by the bars," while Auster defines him as "the sort of person who makes a living by saying clever things at other peoples' expense." Both adore the work of Beckett and Kafka, despise technology ("stupidity has increased on all fronts"), have a romantic view of their work ("Writing,” Coetzee explains, “is a matter of giving and giving and giving, without much respite"), and compose in almost identical styles, though Coetzee is a whiff more scrupulous. Occasionally, they disagree about certain aspects of films that they both ultimately appreciate. In general, the lack of conflict—paired with the relatively artificial conditions under which the letters were written—makes the collection feel unmotivated.

Francisco Leong/AFP/Getty Images
Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee together in 2008.

Insight into the secret lives of authors is a valid reason for reading correspondences; ideally, letters provide a kind of cipher to the work—thematic preoccupations might appear in casual allusions, favorite joke structures could materialize. Here and Now doesn’t yield much of this sort of joy. But when the writers’ fictional enthusiasms reveal themselves, it’s particularly potent. In one letter, Auster writes a protracted account of meeting, and then re-meeting, and then re-meeting again Charlton Heston. The report would seem completely senseless were it not for Auster’s career-long obsession with serendipity, coincidence, and ambient paranoia. His anecdote is saved by his art. Likewise, Coetzee’s anti-Apartheid novels and public political views on the subject mean that his extended discussion with Auster about Israel is more than just topical news-rally. This pleasure is infrequent though.

It feels wrong to judge a correspondence according to the conditions under which it began, but the spontaneous start to Coetzee and Auster’s communication is the reason why, paradoxically, it feels so calculated—their ruminations lack not only friction, but also personal context. The petty squabbles, dirty words, and vulnerable avowals that animate the best correspondences are nowhere in these pages.  

Airmail, which gathers almost 300 letters written over almost three decades between the poets Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer, is a superior exemplar of what a correspondence can be. Their letters are less theoretical, more urgent, and marked with what Tranströmer refers to as “insidious old telepathy.” That they translate each other’s work—Bly is American and writes in English; Tranströmer, who is also a psychologist, composes his verse in Swedish; they correspond in both languages—automatically imbues their letters with a mild and charming locking of horns. They correct one another’s diction and provide delightful explanations of common objects (for example, how bullion cubes are shaped in Scandinavia, complete with diagram). 

The correspondence, most of which documents the editing of each other’s work, satisfies the conventional urges most readers secretly harbor: a need for exposition, a desire for character development, an understanding of motive. Labor—the work of writing and translating—is the conceit of this correspondence. And while appreciating its pretense feels philistine, it’s impossible to ignore, especially in contrast with Here and Now, which could benefit from fewer abstractions and, generally, less notional subject matter. 

When they aren’t advancing the story of their work together, the letters in Airmail—which both poets punctuate with an abundance of exclamation marks—are rich in observational detail and charisma. Bly’s son has a “majestic scowl”; Tranströmer’s pet guinea pig is named Tyra. Bly describes Joan Baez’s voice as “dark and well-like”; Tranströmer refers to a particularly grueling March as the end of a “godawful wolf-winter” and to Englishmen as “chubby little rascals.” They get in tiffs—about astrology at one point—and incessantly compliment each other’s wives. Bly makes bold declarations—“Believe me, Susan Sontag is the greatest bore in the world”—and candid confessions—“I am very much in the doghouse in N.Y. now, but it’s a cozy doghouse, I don’t mind!”2 

The poets’ specificity of language and commitment to what the novelist Norman Rush has called a “permanent intimate comedy” is what makes their correspondence so readable. It’s also what mitigates the political gloominess that frequently worms its way into the letters, especially the ones written during the Vietnam War, which both writers vehemently opposed. “The professional leftists,” laments Bly in 1967, “haven’t written or done a single memorable thing on the war.” Tranströmer responds two weeks later, between a congratulations to Bly for his new baby and draft of a new poem: “The present degradation of the official U.S.A. torments me as if I were an American myself.” 

A work of fiction should not be read for the ideas it peddles—if you are interested in ideology, there are more efficient ways to get it. And the same is true with letters. Airmail succeeds for its relative smallness, its fastidious thinking, and the granularity of its details. Here and Now fails for lack of the same, and for promoting theoretical discussions in lieu of lifelike conversations. 

Maybe one day soon you'll be able to PayPal some young blogger $15 for a zip drive that gives you access to their radical (or radically boring) e-mails and Gchat transcripts. Maybe within a year of that, Jonathan Franzen’s publisher will urge him to do the same. But until then, epistolary books will remain a mostly anachronistic genre—a vanity of the living or an indulgence of readers whose literary heroes are dead. Which is regrettable. Writing well, after all—with expressive honesty and inventive humor—to people you are not romantically pursuing is one of the most undervalued methods of improving daily life.

  1. Per Andy Warhol: “Dying is the most embarrassing that can ever happen to you, because someone’s got to take care of all your details.”

  2. Tranströmer is bemused to learn that in the U.S., “a clear distinction between boys’ and girls’ clothing is made after one year” and tells of giving a feminine outfit originally bought for an American baby instead to “a little Swedish hermaphrodite.”