Under my byline

Epis-too-late

Posted in Art, Books, Living by Rrishi on 14 November 2009

OVERLEAF 55Clare Boothe Luce and her husband, 1954

When was the last time you wrote a letter? A real letter, in your own hand? Not since boarding school, in my case — although there was one, just for fun, sent to a friend last year. It took 10 days to reach Mumbai. Even India Post seems to have lost its faith in letters. If I become famous in my declining years, even if only by mistake, that friend will have a sample of my state of mind circa 2008 to offer my biographers.

Letters are on my mind of late because recently published volumes offer revelations about three artistic and intellectual greats, via new or freshly translated collections of their letters. I wrote about the publication of Vincent van Gogh’s passionate and excitable letters last week in this column (here); there are also the letters of poet T S Eliot (1888-1965) and political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59), who wrote the famous Democracy in America. Not quite so recently, letters relating to author Roald Dahl (1916-90), and by poet Ted Hughes (1930-98), also have revealed aspects of each writer’s life and nature that had thus far remained hidden to those who knew them only through their published writings and interviews.

In each of these cases, and in many others (letters are an ancient literary genre), readers are interested not chiefly for prurient reasons but because, no surprise, these brilliant artists were nearly as brilliant in their personal communications as they were in their professional work. Even if the subject was mundane — money and material preoccupied van Gogh in many of his letters — when one puts that letter alongside the many others, and then compares them with the artist’s life trajectory, something larger than either emerges: life becomes art, and a legitimate subject of study and fascination. Poor them, wholly consumed by their audience at last, but lucky us.

Where the mere facts are sufficiently striking, even the things we thought we knew for sure are thrown into doubt: was Ted Hughes really so awful to his martyred poetess wife Sylvia Plath? He lived on for decades after her 1963 suicide while opprobrium rained down on him from feminists and academics. Was it all deserved? His letters, published in 2007, suggest not. Was T S Eliot really so foul to his first wife, and was he after all an anti-Semite? Again, his letters, just published, suggest not. And in the case of Roald Dahl, this author of clever, subversive children’s books was revealed last year, via a cache of letters found in America, to have been a British spy in the wartime USA, and to have slept with dozens of women including Clare Boothe Luce, wife of Henry Luce, the pathbreaking publisher of Time-Life-Fortune, all for king and country.

Tocqueville, writing home to France during his travels in America in the 1830s, composed long letters — “The thicker a letter, the less liable it is to go astray” — intended to be read aloud to family and friends, and as travel notes for his own use. (Here are some extracts.) Hughes, on the other hand, told his lover Assia Wevill, who was in the habit of keeping his letters: “I’m foolishly oppressed enough as it is with bloody eavesdroppers & filchers & greedy curiosity, & if you’re going to be sitting on all that for some Suzette suddenly to lay her hands on, then I can’t write freely.” But he did write, truthfully and without artifice. One doesn’t feel awkward reading even the most intimate of his letters. And van Gogh wrote directly, never imagining there would be other readers.

Reader: enjoy this wealth while it lasts. The epistolary age is drawing to an end. Electronic communications, though more numerous, lack the ceremony and pent-up reward of a letter. And what can you learn about the author from a flickering screen? Nothing compared to the many confessions of a handwritten letter.

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