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The (almost) lost art of letter-writing

Darrel Bristow-Bovey
The (almost) lost art of letter-writing

All my life, I’ve wanted to be a correspondent. I don’t mean a foreign correspondent or someone who goes to wars – I mean someone who writes letters to someone and receives letters back: long letters and quick notes; letters written in leisure and in haste at writing desks or on the backs of suitcases at foreign train stations; letters that arrive on writing paper or hotel letterheads or cheap Asian onionskin bearing the creases and stains of the other’s life; letters with scrawled PSes up the margins and last-minute greetings to loved ones; letters funny and self-indulgent, angry and sad, bored and moody and funny; letters that stitch together to trace the shape and meaning of a life.
          When I was ten years old I was a pen-pal with some kid in Denver, Colorado. Their school had been paired up with ours, and each of us was randomly allocated a name from a list. I hoped for a girl but I was given William and I wrote him a long, mannered letter enlarging upon life in Africa and showing zero curiosity about life in Denver, Colorado. I remember dilating upon on the fearsome African wildlife and the Big Five and their tendencies to roam the suburbs of Durban. I reasoned America was nothing special to him – he saw it on TV all the time – but a little exoticism would surely make him write back for more.
          I imagined a long, fine written friendship that would flourish as we grew to our separate manhoods. Perhaps there would be visits. Maybe I’d go to America. Maybe he’d come here, in which case I’d need a cover story to account for the shortage of animals in my street.  Perhaps poachers. Maybe one day we would meet halfway – Morocco, say – both dusty and well travelled and we’d drink beers and have adventures, my American friend and me.
          Some months later I received a desultory return note, one paragraph long on a page unlovingly torn from a school notebook, too clearly written under the pressure of a teacher’s eye, saying nothing and ending with the words ‘You don’t have to write back if you don’t want’.
          I was deflated, but the prize of an American pen-friend glimmered just too bright. I wrote back a stirring account of my day and my uncertainties about my lovelorn pursuit of Caron Priestley and some exoticism about cricket. Surely he must be intrigued by cricket. Cricket must be as foreign to an American kid in Denver, Colorado as lions and elephants. Just in case I was dealing with a narcissist, I prudently thought to ask him about baseball in return. Then out of politeness I echoed his salutation. ‘You also don’t have to write back if you don’t want to,’ I wrote. Then I added, wide-eyed and winningly: ‘But I hope you do.’ I never heard from him again.
         As I grew older and started feeling the first stirrings of literary aspirations – like hunger or a sand-worm – I craved correspondence with a writer. A writerly friendship seemed to me to be about the finest thing a man could do with his time. I don’t mean a literary correspondence of the sort you get from, oh, say J.M. Coetzee and Paul Auster, which is about as turned and lathed and unupholstered as you’d expect an actual conversation with either of those gentlemen to be: a lot of intelligence and parsing and praising with not enough ribbing, laughing, gossiping, loneliness, self-doubt or love. You read each of their letters with a sense of relief that it wasn’t written to you, so you don’t have the chore of thinking up something equivalent to write back. Auster and Coetzee exchanging their wooden opinions about baseball and cricket made me instantly forgive William his long silence. William, I now realise, was a man of taste and discernment.
          But perhaps I’m being too harsh. There seems to be some genuine warmth and affection between them, and it’s nice to see older gentlemen making new friends. It is not very entertaining to eavesdrop on their letters, and that’s only a problem because their letters were so clearly written to be eavesdropped upon.
          I prefer a more private written friendship, like the letters between Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. They were pals at university long before fame, and after Larkin had moved away to Hull and Amis to Wales and then to London, their long-distance letters traced a lifelong friendship that is wild and funny and jagged and intimate. They weren’t written for anyone else’s eyes so they’re conducted with the self-revealing, self-conscious honesty that makes friendship worthwhile. They are petty, scatological, childish, envious and scabrous about friends and contemporaries. They affirm each other and seek affirmation. They’re self-confident and insecure. They are the meaningful privacies that give dissolve the loneliness of the lonely people sharing them.
          The written friendship I most envy was between Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller. Durrell wrote Miller a fan letter about Tropic of Cancer when Miller was forty-three and living in Paris and Durrell was twenty-three and unpublished. He gushed and Miller responded, and they continued to write to each other for another forty-five years. They shared views about writing and art and life, about sex and marriage and friendship, about places they’d seen and the business of publishing. Once they’d met a few times they exchanged gossip and memories, they grumbled and reminisced. For the first twenty years or so, before Durrell starts to publish the Alexandra Quartet, he is the willing pupil, receiving advice and assistance and encouragement. For the next twenty, as his star waxes, he is the one offering advice and consolation, encouraging Miller, chiding him against the sin of despair. They criticise and praise each other, worry about each other and love each other very purely. Both their lives are given shape and dimension and a great deal of pleasure by a distance-annihilating friendship that took place between Corfu and Paris, Egypt and California, Argentina and New York.
          I was on the lookout for someone still living I could write to and praise and become his epistolic friend. There were living writers I admired, but it never seemed to be a good fit. Robertson Davies was eighty years old, Paul Theroux seemed too grumpy, Tim Winton was Australian, Lorrie Moore might think I was just some creepy kid hitting on her. I would have written to Clive James, but how could I possibly compliment him in a way that he hadn’t done for himself already?
          Maybe the real problem was the fear of disappointment. What if I wrote to my Henry Miller, and they didn’t write back and engage in personal conversation that would one day end with us spending sunny French holidays in the Loire together? Or what if they did, but they turned out to be no Henry Miller? Worse: what if I was no Lawrence Durrell?
          I don’t suppose I shall ever have the pen-pal I dreamed of when I was young. I do have friends who live in faraway places and I write them emails from time to time and I send postcards when I travel, but it’s not the same. It’s not just that the world has changed and no longer writes letters; the act of not writing letters has changed the world. The casual, flawed intimacies of opening your heart to a single other on a page feels old-fashioned now, and awkward; instead social media connects us with two thousand people at a time. Public sharing is easier than personal, and it makes no personal bonds. The social media, at its very best, is made of gestures and politeness and things that don’t matter. And that’s splendid, but it’s no match for loneliness.


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User Comments:
Re: The (almost) lost art of letter-writing - by Smibby
September 10 2013 15:41:57

I love your columns!
Have you possibly considered that someone may look to you as their Henry Miller in some hypothetical correspondence?
I will say that though e-mail does not have the sensory interest of real letter writing, with effort one can maintain a meaningful correspondence over time via e-mail which has little to do with the impersonal nature of social and digital media.

Re: The (almost) lost art of letter-writing - by biobot
September 11 2013 09:55:39

I have a friend who lives in Australia now, and we write hand-written letters to each other. There's something about hand-written letters.

Re: The (almost) lost art of letter-writing - by Kerry
September 11 2013 15:49:00

I had a pen friend in high-school - he was a friend of a friend of a friend, and he was in the Air Force Band, I a high school girl. I knew him only as "Animal" for most of our written friendship, but looked forward to his almost weekly letters, which came on a variety of mediums - including an airplane sick bag (unused, fortunately).
I met him once, and didn't like him in person at all. But we carried on writing nonetheless, long after he left the army, and became Johan who worked for Telkom in Klerksdorp.
I was heartbroken when he was killed in a car accident - his brother found my letters in his room after his death, and wrote to me to tell me what happened. I'm now in my 40s, and still have all those letters. I completely hear you on the magic of a written friendship.

Re: The (almost) lost art of letter-writing - by Darrel
September 11 2013 16:14:35

Kerry, I think that's lovely and sad. I'm glad Animal had a pen-pal.

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