Paul Auster and John Maxwell Coetzee met for the first time in February 2008. The moment clearly sparked a fast friendship because by July that year they had begun an epistolary exchange that would range across three years and ultimately comprise this book of letters.
That they met so late in their careers is surprising, given how small a world it must be for authors of their stature – Coetzee's Nobel Prize for Literature and Auster's hallowed status in contemporary American fiction. There are affinities beyond these professional reputations, on and off the page: they have used themselves, or pseudo-selves, as characters in novels, they share an interest not just in "what" the story is but "how" it is being told, and have an undying love of sport to which they continually return: baseball and American football for Auster; cricket and football for Coetzee; Roger Federer for both.
The earlier letters have a faltering stop-start quality. A talking point is introduced by one writer and ignored by the other (Coetzee seems to do most of the ignoring). We wonder if the letters will limit themselves to a formal exchange of ideas and end up talking only to themselves, or bloom into something more truly collaborative. It seems initially as if it will go the way of the former. Parameters seem to have been set to edit out, or avoid, the too personal and private – perhaps an inevitability, given Coetzee's famed guardedness.
They begin with a self-conscious discussion on friendship. Coetzee ponders Ford Madox Ford's idea that men sleep with women in order to become friends with them. Auster analyses the taciturn nature of male bonding. Coetzee seems the more inflexible. Auster is softer-spoken, but just as imaginative. In fact, if his recent fiction shows signs of fatigue, his agility of thought here redeems him as an elegant essayist.
Auster seems to shed his inhibitions before Coetzee does, and also the anxiety to define the aims of their endeavour that he shows at first, in his offering up possible discussion points. It is when they have both loosened up that they reveal much more of their minds. Then, the exchanges are free-flowing intellectual reflections mixed with observation mixed with "grumpy old men" repartee. This last aspect is forgivable, even entertaining, because of their self-awareness.
As they express dismay, from writerly gripes to the tyranny of the mobile phone, Coetzee observes: "How does one escape the entirely risible fate of turning into Gramps, the old codger who, when he embarks on one of his 'Back in my time discourses', makes the children roll their eyes in silent despair?" Auster begins the next letter with the words: "Dear Gramps". Flashes of wit give these letters a wonderful humanity. In another moment, Auster reveals how he was tempted to punch a hostile critic and adds the fantastic detail that the critic looked as if he were fully expecting to be punched.
The calibre of serious discussion varies: they are good on the effect of the mother tongue on writers, on Kafka's eating habits and the hermeneutics of sport, though not so penetrating on the Arab Spring or the financial crisis. The most moving passages are ones in which they discuss ageing, and death. Coetzee's sadness is in not being able to bequeath the imagination that he has spent decades harnessing. Auster's is in the loneliness of losing those with shared memories. Yes, these are old Gramps putting the world to rights, but uniquely insightful, unfailingly interesting, men of letters too.