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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).

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