Readings — From the March 2013 issue

Alphabet Cities

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From Here and Now, a collection of letters exchanged by novelists J. M. Coetzee and Paul Auster between 2008 and 2011, out this month from Viking.

24 august 2009

Dear Paul,

I have been thinking about names, about their fittingness or unfittingness. I would guess that names interest you, too, if only because of having to find good, “right” names for your imaginary persons. Neither of us seems to go in for calling characters A or B or Pim or Bom.

I was brought up within the linguistic orthodoxy that the signifier is arbitrary, though for mysterious reasons the signifiers of one language won’t work as signifiers in another language (“Help me, I am dying of thirst!” will get you nowhere in Mongolia). This is supposed to be doubly true of proper names: whether a street is named Marigold Street or Mandragora Street or indeed 55th Street is supposed to make no difference (no practical difference).

In the realm of poetry (in the widest sense) the doctrine of the arbitrariness of the signifier has never won much credence. In poetry the connotations of words — the accumulations of cultural significance around them — matter. “Mandragora,” via Keats, calls up bliss and death. “55th Street,” which at first sight seems anonymous, turns out to connote anonymity.

Through a supreme act of poetic power, Kafka has given a letter of the alphabet allusive force. Roberto Calasso’s recent book is called simply K. We look at the jacket and we know what it will be about. I once called a character K (Michael K) as a stroke to reclaim the letter of the alphabet that Kafka had annexed, but didn’t have much success.

Few of us write novels, but most of us, one way or another, end up producing offspring, and are then compelled by law to give our offspring names. There are parents who accept this duty with joy, and parents who accept it with misgiving. There are parents who feel free to make up a name as they choose, and parents constrained (by law, by custom, by anxiety) to choose a name from a list.

Parents with misgivings try to give the child a neutral name, a name without connotations, a name that will not embarrass it in later life. Thus: Enid. But there is a catch. Name too many daughters Enid, and the name Enid comes to signify the kind of child whose parents reacted with misgiving to the duty of naming a child and thus gave their girl child as anonymous a name as they could. So “Enid” becomes a kind of fatality awaiting the child as she grows up: diffidence, caution, reserve.

Or someone far away, someone you have never heard of, disgraces your name. You grow up in the Midwest of the United States, and everything is fine until one day someone asks you, “Are you by any chance related to Adolf Hitler?” and you have to change your name to Hilter or Hiller or Smith.

Your name is your destiny. Oidipous, Swollenfoot. The only trouble is, your name speaks your destiny only in the way the Delphic Sibyl does: in the form of a riddle. Only as you lie on your deathbed do you realize what it meant to be “Tamerlane” or “John Smith” or “K.” A Borgesian revelation.

All the best,
John

august 29, 2009

Dear John:

First, allow me to pounce on 55th Street — “which turns out to connote anonymity.” For the sake of argument, let us assume that the 55th Street in question happens to be located in New York, the borough of Manhattan to be precise, East Side or West Side not indicated, but Midtown Manhattan for all that, and then anyone who lives in this city will be able to conjure up vivid mental pictures and a flood of personal memories about that street whose name is not a word but an anonymous number. You write “55th Street,” and I immediately think about the Saint Regis Hotel and an erotic encounter I had there when I was young, about taking the French writer Edmond Jabès and his wife there for tea one afternoon and seeing Arthur Ashe enter the room in his tennis whites, about lunching there with Vanessa Redgrave and discussing the role she was about to play in my film, Lulu on the Bridge. The numbers tell stories, and behind the blank wall of their anonymity they are just as alive and evocative as the Elysian Fields of Paris. Mention to a New Yorker the following streets, and his mind will swarm with images: 4th Street (Greenwich Village), 14th Street (the cheapest stores in the city), 34th Street (Herald Square, Macy’s, illuminated Christmas decorations), 42nd Street (Times Square, “legitimate” theaters, “Give My Regards to Broadway”), 59th Street (the Plaza Hotel and the grand entrance to Central Park), 125th Street (Harlem, the Apollo Theater, Duke Ellington’s song about the A train). Just two blocks up from 55th Street, on West 57th, there is the building in which my grandfather used to have his office (intense childhood memories of going in there and being allowed to play with the typewriters and adding machines), which happens to be the same building that for many years housed The New York Review of Books (intense memories from early adulthood of sitting with Bob Silvers as we discussed the pieces I had written for him) — so that the mere mention of 57th Street will summon forth for me an entire archaeology of my past, memories layered on top of other memories, the primordial dig.

Just the other day, when Siri and I returned from Nantucket (that is, before I had read your letter), the taxi driver from the airport took a shortcut through a Brooklyn neighborhood I was not familiar with, and as we rode down Ocean Parkway, we traversed cross streets named after the letters of the alphabet, from Avenue Z to Avenue A, and I remember thinking that none of this meant anything to me, that unlike the Avenue A in Manhattan (the East Village), which I know and therefore have a personal connection to, the Avenue A in Brooklyn is a complete cipher. I found myself pondering how boring it would be to live on a street named Avenue L. On the other hand, I also thought: Avenue K wouldn’t be bad (for all the reasons you mention), and other interesting or tolerable letters would be O, X, and Z — the nothing, the unknown, and the end. Then I walked into the house, which is also on a street designated by a number, and read your fax about K and 55th Street. Perfect timing.

The first book published by George Oppen, the American poet I am so fond of, was called Discrete Series (circa 1930) — a mathematical term, as I’m sure you know, and the example Oppen always gave to describe a discrete series was this: 4, 14, 23, 34, 42, 59, 66, 72 . . . at first glance a meaningless collection of numbers, but when you learn that those numbers are in fact the station stops along the IRT subway line in Manhattan, they take on the force of lived experience. Arbitrary, yes, but at the same time not meaningless.

Many years ago, when I wrote my novel Ghosts, I gave all the characters the names of colors. Yes, I wanted to give the story an abstract, fable-like quality, but at the same time I was also thinking about the irreducibility of colors, and that the only way we can know and understand what colors are is to experience them, that to describe blue or green to a blind man is something beyond the power of language, and that just as colors are irreducible and indescribable, so, too, are people.

We grow into the names we are given, we test them out, we grapple with them until we come to accept that we are the names we bear. Can you remember practicing your signature as a young boy? Not long after they learn how to write in longhand, most children spend hours filling up pieces of paper with their names. It is not an empty pursuit. It is an attempt, I feel, to convince ourselves that we and our names are one, to take on an identity in the eyes of the world.

In some cultures, people are given new names after reaching puberty and at times even given a third name after committing a great or ignominious deed in adulthood.

Some people, of course, are saddled with atrocious names, deeply unfortunate names. The most pathetic one I have ever run across belonged to a man who married a distant relative of mine: Elmer Deutlebaum. Imagine walking through life as Elmer Deutlebaum.

My Canadian-born grandfather, the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants, out of some incomprehensible loyalty to the British crown, named my mother Queenie. It took her many years to grow into that one. When she was eight or nine, after years of teasing from her classmates, she decided to change it to Estelle.

Needless to say, I have spent my whole life meditating on my own name, and my great hope is to be reborn as an American Indian. Paul: Latin for “small, little.” Auster: Latin for “South Wind.” South Wind: an old American euphemism for a rectal toot. I therefore shall return to this world bearing the proud and altogether appropriate name of Little Fart.

Write again soon.
Yours ever,
Paul

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