- The Company They Keep
“Friendship,” declared Maurice Blanchot, is “this relation without dependence, without episode, yet into which all of the simplicity of life enters.” Written to commemorate his 22-year personal and philosophical comradeship with Georges Bataille—an alliance based more on letters than on physical contact—Blanchot’s essay pays tribute to an intellectual friendship made possible through the intercession of the word. It also provides a model of sorts for the project that J.M. Coetzee initiated in 2008. After meeting Paul Auster at a literary festival in Adelaide, Coetzee’s adoptive hometown, he sensed that there was more between them than just a shared love for the writings of Beckett and Kafka. He saw Auster as a potential collaborator, and so suggested to him a two-year experiment: an exchange of letters that could function as a kind of workshop for ideas, observations, and reflections. The two years became three, and the fruits of that suggestion are now available for all to see in Here and Now: Letters 2008–2011 (2013).
But if the Blanchot-Bataille precedent stops there—when death approached, in 1962, Bataille made a pact with his friend to destroy the bulk of their correspondence—the Auster-Coetzee “experiment” gets underway with not dissimilar thoughts about the nature of friendship. “[U]nlike love or politics, which are never what they seem to be,” writes Coetzee, “friendship is what it seems to be. Friendship is transparent.” Auster’s reply sets the tone for the rest of the book. He does not think that friendship is transparent (or only on rare occasions), but is rather a matter of “good manners, kindness, steadiness of affect.” Where Coetzee is philosophical, speculative, and often more than a little abstract, Auster invariably comes up with a down-to-earth, observational response. He also cites examples from his own published work, something that Coetzee almost never does. Part of the fascination of Here and Now, then, is this interaction (“clash” is too strong a word) of temperaments, which tends to redeem even the less-interesting colloquies.
One topic of discussion begets the next and so, after a detour through the recent financial crisis, friendship leads to sport, one of the book’s cardinal topics. Both men avidly watch sporting broadcasts (cricket, tennis, and rugby, in Coetzee’s case, baseball and American football in Auster’s); and both lament the countless hours it has taken, and continues to take, from their lives. But if spectatorship is, as Auster puts it, “a useless activity, an utter waste a time,” sport itself possesses for both an unassailable cultural significance. Pinpointing the reasons for that significance occasions one of the liveliest exchanges of opinion. Is it because of the undeniable aesthetic pleasures that sport inculcates? Or is it the ethical demands that it makes of its participants, in the guise of grace, conscience, and heroism? Is a sporting competition a kind of disguised warfare, or an arena for unbridled play? There are more than a few moments when the two writers seem to be engaged in an uncanny dialogue with Steven Connor’s A Philosophy of Sport (2011), which eerily anticipates (or echoes) many of the historical and theoretical questions raised in these letters.
Other works “haunt” Here and Now. The most visible of these is the first volume of Samuel Beckett’s letters, which Coetzee has been invited to review. A request for information about Wilfred Bion, Beckett’s analyst in the 1930s, leads to an intriguing exchange about (in Auster’s words) the “somewhat crotchety behavior” of Edward Beckett, Samuel’s nephew and executor of his estate, and what his possible motives might be. A more implicit intertextual haunting is Coetzee’s 2007 “novel,” Diary of a Bad Year. At least fifty percent of this work is devoted to protagonist J.C.’s “Strong Opinions” and “Second Diary.” There are passages from Coetzee in Here and Now that seem to have escaped from Diary and found a new home. A...