Booklove: Dear USSR (and other correspondents)

(Published in the Business Standard, August 27, 2013)

The French had their ‘petit blue’, letter-cards for the tubes of the ‘pneumatique’; Russian yamschiks or postmen were issued knives along with their uniforms, to stave off robbers; and despite the demise of the Indian telegram, the survival of the inland letter card is evidence that we have not yet forgotten how to write each other.

Indeed, we have never stopped, and writers are especially loquacious; their lives are marked with postcards, letters, telegraphs, notes, missives, as three major collections of letters by and between writers demonstrate.

Here and Now: Letters Between Paul Auster & JM Coetzee, collected over a three-year period between 2008 and 2011, are the least revealing and the most redoubtable. Neither sets down a careless phrase or an unformed thought. A letter from Coetzee sets the tone by inviting Auster to meditate on the nature of friendship; what follows will be intimate, open, but never artless.

Coetzee and Auster range far, shifting from sports and Plato to the financial markets, language, criticism, and always, stories. Auster remains respectful, but he also defines his part of the exchange: “Understand: I am not interested in myself. I am giving you case studies, stories about anyone.” Coetzee turns over ideas, inexhaustibly: “In Book 7 of The Republic, Plato asks us to imagine a society in which people spend their waking hours sitting in rows inside a dark cave, staring at screens on which various flickerings are taking place … All accept without question that what they see on the screens is all there is to see.”

If Auster and Coetzee reserve for themselves the privilege not so much of privacy as indifference to the idea that they might be read, Willa Cather had written her letters demanding privacy. The Selected Letters of Willa Cather were finally published after a number of justifications. Chief among these was the assumption that a writer who does not destroy her letters means them to be read—or might not care if they are read after her death.

But then perhaps we are the last generation of readers to assume that privacy is desirable. You trespass when you read letters, and yet there’s a pleasure in reading what is informal, private, and supposedly revealing of the “real” person. (Though this is a specious argument; everyone, especially writers, shapes the stories of their lives and curates their memories. Unedited, most lives are chaotic and boring.)

This volume stretches from Cather’s girlhood to the many rich satisfactions of her writer’s life, and will send you back to her books, especially to My Antonia and Death Comes To The Archbishop. Cather writes with the informality of someone who doesn’t expect to be publicly read, but also with the sharpness of a born conversationalist.

“Now I have written on my manuscript paper, because I can write plainly only on hard paper,” she remarks. Later, you see the nib of her pen dig in, the hard peck at the typewriter keys, as she addresses one Mr Miller: “I am sorry my writing vexes you, and it will continue to vex you! I write at all because it pleases and amuses me—and I write in the way that pleases and amuses me.” So much for the critics.

The letters of Mikhail Bulgakov, just released along with a translation of his diaries, are of a different order. Bulgakov wrote in swift everyday bursts, with the haphazard carelessness with which you might tweet or update a Facebook status. But then the steady persecution—the hate-filled reviews of his work, the confiscation of his books, with The Master and Margarita being published in 1967, a full twenty years after Bulgakov’s death—dripped into his life and leaked slowly into the letters he wrote, to Stalin, to the USSR, to nameless officials.

It is an extraordinary correspondence, this intimate relationship between a writer and his censors. “EVERY SATIRIST IN THE USSR IS INFRINGING UPON THE SOVIET SYSTEM,” Bulgakov wrote in a long, despairing screed to Stalin. And then, in lower case: “Am I thinkable in the USSR?” He begged to be deported, to be banished; he could not change, he said, and “the silent writer does not exist”.

That letter was answered, in 1930, the year in which Bulgakov’s diaries and letters become more sparse. The phone rang; it was Comrade Stalin on the line. Did Bulgakov indeed wish to go abroad, Stalin asked? “What, have we pestered you so much?”

There was no safe answer to that question. Bulgakov hedged, saying that a Russian writer should not leave his homeland. Stalin agreed, and suggested, benevolently, that the writer should apply to the Moscow Art Theatre.

He worked there as assistant to the stage director. In 1939, he held a private reading from The Master and Margarita, for his friends; in a famous letter, Yelena Bulgakov recorded that “everyone sat paralyzed” as he read the last chapters. “Everything scared them.” Bulgakov died in 1940. His biographers record that his writings were preserved by the NKVD, which retained everything, including a painstakingly hand-copied manuscript of The Master and Margarita.





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