If there were an award for the strangest book of 2013, it might go to Here And Now – Letters: 2008-2011, by Paul Auster and J M Coetzee. Who would have thought that, while the rest of us worried about money, emails and cricket, these two giants of contemporary fiction were discussing the same subjects? With Auster playing curmudgeon to Coetzee’s mystic, their unexpected, occasionally bizarre, correspondence intrigued readers of their novels when it appeared in the spring. By calling Here And Now “strange”, I don’t mean that it was weird or incoherent; rather that it achieved the quality of unfamiliarity which makes a book linger in your mind.
The same cannot be said of the memoirs that Auster has published either side of Here And Now. Last year’s Winter Journal was a blur of recollections as the author of The New York Trilogy addressed everything from bodily functions to his favourite candy. Now comes Report from the Interior which is, like its predecessor, narrated in a second person “you” voice: “Your purpose is to chart the workings of your young mind, to look at yourself in isolation and explore the internal geography of your boyhood.” Whether he’s remembering being the kid who was disappointed that his father didn’t fight in the Second World War or the poet who said he’d rather go to jail than Vietnam, Auster’s “you” is so annoying that I considered adopting it for this review. But I decided that it would be kinder to spare you.
Speaking of kindness, Auster presents himself as a young Tom Joad figure in the book’s first part. “You worried about the unfortunate ones, the downtrodden,” he says, as he recalls collecting rent from his father’s poor, black tenants. He feels less sympathetic towards a friend’s mother who was “always in her bathrobe and slippers, hair dishevelled, chain-smoking”. When this “scary, witch-like character” sends her son to a birthday party without a gift, Auster saves his friend from shame by giving him the “prettily done-up package” that his own “conscientious mother” has prepared. He doesn’t idealise 1950s New Jersey, where he witnessed racism and encountered anti-Semitism, but his childhood’s social context is swept under a fluffy carpet of self-congratulation.
Auster says he ignores reviews of his work but Report from the Interior reads like he’s heeded some criticisms of Winter Journal. The “you” is interrupted when the film summaries that comprise Part Two create the illusion that the book has shifted to third person narration. This is welcome, and skilfully done, but The Incredible Shrinking Man, which dealt young Auster “a philosophical shock”, doesn’t warrant 25 pages of exposition. In the lengthier description of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang - “the second cinematic earthquake” – Auster interprets the 1932 film’s prison setting as both a reminder of slavery and a premonition of Nazi death camps. This political glimmer is also welcome because perhaps, by discussing “barbaric punishment”, Auster is indirectly condemning 21st-century America’s incarceration epidemic.
Part Three is about “the strange doubleness of being alive” – a recurrent theme from early autobiography (The Invention of Solitude) to later novels (Man in the Dark) – as Auster revisits letters he wrote to Lydia Davis, who would become his first wife and a celebrated author, while studying in Paris in the late-1960s.
Like Auster and Coetzee, Auster and Davis make an odd duo; unlike Coetzee, Davis receives reams of pretentious, insensitive complaint. The warts-and-all publication of these “love letters” commands respect but, like the film summaries, their purpose is unclear beyond showing how sad young literary men say silly things to impress women: “I think, in some profound way, that I have fled from the real.”
Back in New York, Auster translates French poetry and gets arrested during student protests. The text culminates in a long letter to Davis, the book’s high point, in which he tours boardwalks and burlesque clubs, offering a vivid record of artistic promise, the end of the Sixties. It’s unfortunate, then, that Part Four epitomises the complacency that’s dogged his recent output. The jacket copy hails this album of period photographs – diners, Buddy Holly, film stills – as a “unique climax” where “the book breaks away from prose into pure imagery”. It’s padding.
What would the ambitious, young author of the letters to Davis make of Report from the Interior? He’d balk at the cover price and return to his Mallarmé. It’s difficult also to square Coetzee’s thoughtful correspondent with this scrappy memoir. Like Winter Journal, it concerns events which Auster feels driven to write about, so perhaps the hero of The Incredible Shrinking Man speaks for him when he says: “I was telling the world of my experience, and with the telling it became easier.” But does he ever consider his reader? You have to wonder.