About five years ago, I traveled to Durban, South Africa. I flew direct from Washington, D.C. to Johannesburg and then a short flight from Johannesburg to Durban. It is a grueling flight–19 hours in the air and plenty more in airports. But during the flight, I read volume one of The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940. I must admit I was enthralled–and may be the only person to have read the nearly 900-page collection in one sitting. Nevertheless, three years later I am now reading volume two ( The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941-1956). Certainly there is a touch of the voyeur in reading another’s letters, and, for me, not a little hero-worship in reading the letters of Beckett as he casually mentions Jack Yeats, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Nora Joyce, etc. (The first letter in this collection is a postcard that he had sent to Joyce, a pre-printed, government regulated correspondence limited to family news because of the war. Beckett sent the postcard from Paris to the Joyces in Switzerland, saying that he and Suzanne were all right. He wrote it on January 12, 1941 and it arrived in Switzerland on the 17th. Joyce never received it, however, having died on the 13th, the day after Beckett wrote it. )
Anyway besides the snoopiness and the adolescent-like hero worship, the letters have me thinking of correspondence in general. Except for writing thank-you notes –a good habit I learned from my father and my uncle–most of my correspondence now is through e-mail. Even the majority of my manuscript submissions are done electronically with the cover letter included in the submission. Yet there is something about letter writing I miss.
A love letter, or any kind of letter for that matter, is so much more intriguing to receive–and more fulfilling to write–than a text or an e-mail. During a 10-day trip to Paris, I once wrote fourteen letters back home to the love of my life. I can still see the thin hotel stationery, the blue, white and red airmail envelopes, the soft lobby light in the ragged hotel under which I poured out my soul. Today, those letters probably mean more to me than to the person that received them. They capture a unique moment in my life, an amber-encased slice of who I once was.
In that sense, I take pleasure in reading letters that I have written or received in the past–they transport me to where and who I was at the time they were written.
(Perhaps the most beautiful love story I have ever read is by an Irish novelist named Niall Williams entitled Four Letters of Love. It is a wonderful novel that revolves around letter writing–as well as around painting, fishing, the Aran Islands, death, heartbreak and redemptive love.)
What about you? Have you given up on snail-mail completely? I worry about the impermanence of all our correspondence, of the ephemeral nature of e-mail and texting. True, they say that every stroke of your keyboard can ultimately be retrieved and that nothing in cyberspace really disappears, but are the biographers and historians of the future going to have access to these? Is the estate of a future Samuel Beckett going to allow some academic to sift through the computer files –deleted and saved–of the person whose name is entrusted to them? I cannot say. But I do know the thrill of opening an envelope, of slipping out a hard-stock card, sheets of creamy stationery, or ripped pages of loose-leaf. Am I simply missing some golden-hazed memory or have we truly lost something special?
E-mail me what you think. Hah!