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Letter collection an eccentric map of friendship itself

J.M Coeztee (left) and Paul Auster have released a collection of their letters to each other.


Here and Now
Paul Auster, J.M. Coetzee

Though both are known primarily as writers of fiction, Paul Auster, the American author of The New York Trilogy, and J.M. Coetzee, the South African-born, Australia-based author of Disgrace, share a restlessness with regards to form. Poetry, essays, criticism and memoirs have emerged from their collective desks, and, with the arrival of Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011, we can now add correspondence to this litany of genres.

Auster and Coetzee, long admirers of each other's work, met and became friends in February of 2008. So Here and Now was formed in friendship, and friendship constitutes the book's first topic. In his inaugural letter to Coetzee, Auster suggests that mutual admiration is essential to any friendship, and never at any point in Here and Now is there any reason to doubt the depth of admiration these men feel toward each other. From there, the letters become a wide-ranging conversation.

Both men write evocatively about their wives, their childhoods, their writing and reading habits, their ailments and some of the more peculiar events that mark their lives. Chance, which plays a pivotal role in Auster's work, seems equally forceful in his existence: He tells a fascinating, funny story about running into Charlton Heston, of all people, three times in three different cities over the course of a week.

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From Coetzee, there is less of a sense that life still brings surprises. Though he travels a great deal and participates in public events, his letters are generally more focused on the life of the mind, on thought experiments and ideas. One gets the impression that Coetzee, now in his 70s and seven years Auster's senior, has become increasingly less engaged with the world. Both men find reasons to fret over aspects of modern life, but only Coetzee seems to teeter on despair.

None of this is to fault Coetzee for being the more depressive correspondent; on the contrary, a part of what makes Here and Now a dynamic reading experience is the fact that these writers have fundamentally different sensibilities, and this difference can serve as a platform for consolation and support. This book is the story of a friendship.

(If only it were an illustrated story of a friendship. I really wish Here and Now featured reproductions of the many items referenced as being included in the letters: the ticket stub or the Xerox of a film encyclopedia page on William Wyler, or the photo of Auster as a child wearing a football uniform. The book is document of their correspondence, so why not share all the contents of this correspondence?)

Here and Now possesses both a pleasing looseness and a certain formality. Auster and Coetzee allow themselves to follow tangents while always being careful to address each other's propositions and present considered counterarguments with an almost flamboyant cordiality. Whether discussing cinema, incest, sports or the Middle East, both men exude good manners. Which makes it that much more touching when, near the book's end, Auster confesses that he has had a revelation regarding the effect of their correspondence: "I discovered that I often walk around talking to you in my head, wishing you were with me…" He says how much he would love to take Coetzee to his favourite Brooklyn sandwich shop, just to listen to the convivial conversations of the regulars and staff together.

Coetzee reciprocates with a similar admission: He often tries to imagine Auster's workspace, which he has never seen. Coetzee's image of it is almost penally austere, like something out of a fable – a space as blank as a virgin page. It is a contradiction to Coetzee's preceding claims that he has a poor visual imagination, and thus evidence of the ways in which these men use correspondence to coax each other into new ways of thinking and being, even as they comment on the weariness of aging. As Coetzee writes in this volume's final, surprisingly optimistic lines, "We keep learning."

José Teodoro is a Toronto-based critic and playwright.

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