“Why waste my time slumped in front of a television screen watching young men at play?” writes one man. “I have an experience (a secondhand experience), but it does me no good that I can detect. I learn nothing. I come away with nothing.” From the other man comes a reply: “I agree with you that it is a useless activity, an utter waste of time. And yet how many hours of my life have I wasted in precisely this way, how many afternoons have I squandered just as you did?” This epistolary conversation about sports continues, touching on the power of familiarity to endure boredom, performance art, heroism, ethics versus aesthetics, activity versus passivity, the “big business” of the NFL against the subsidization of ballet, childhood sexual identification, the visiblity of the human ideal, chess mania, the pleasure of maximum effort, and genre literature versus “the kinds of books you and I try to write.” What kind of books do these men try to write? Being the novelists Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee, they write books, we can safely say, in their very own genres.
We now have a new volume from both Auster and Coetzee called Here and Now: Letters (2008–2011), from which a substantial sports-related excerpt appears on the New Yorker. Though not sui generis like the contributors’ own novels, the book does its part for the current mini-revival of collections of letters between men of letters. (2011 saw a similar French project from Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy. “Who would we end up with?” asked the Observer‘s Tim Adams, imagining a British equivalent. “Irvine Welsh and Alain de Botton?”) Fans of the lauded, private Auster and the highly lauded, intensely private Coetzee surely feel grateful for these new pieces of direct insight into the authors’ personalities, and they can get a little more by watching the reading of Here and Now at the New York State Writers Institute at the top of the post. Do see also Auster’s Big Think clips on what keeps him up at night, the fate of the novel, and how he stares down the challenges of writing (above). As for a solo performance from Coetzee, could we do any better than his Nobel lecture?
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.