“Sometimes,…our ignoble desire to read private letters is matched by a letter-writer’s ignoble desire to be read.”

I used to send my first ex-boyfriend postcards from each new city I visited, for quite a while after we stopped seeing each other  – unsigned, of course; a dramatic moment never passes me by.  I’d usually get a coy text message in response, “someone’s been sending me mail, I wonder who that could be…”

Cute, right? Vomit inducing. But I still wonder what happened to those postcards, even now nearly a decade on – are they tucked away in a drawer somewhere? Were they read and chucked straight in the bin? Were they even read, and I mean read, those short lines I’d imbued with so much meaning?

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A postcard I sent to my parents from NY. It still holds pride of place on their fridge.

And there is meaning in hand-written communication; the particular weight that time, thought, and effort offers up, that can’t be replicated by any other means – emails and text messages are but pixels; even a typed, printed letter doesn’t quite have the same power as something hand-written.

imageIt’s this power that John O’Connell explores in his book, For the Love of Letters: The Joy of Slow Communication, published 2012.

I don’t generally like light history books; I tend to find them a bit toothless in both content and analysis, and a bit forced in their attempts to be airily amusing. The blurb on For the Love of Letters’ dust jacket made it sound like just that kind of book, but I’m glad I worked through my initial cringe and read it anyway. O’Connell is not only genuinely witty and deeply knowledgable about the history of letters, but the deeply personal context of the book set it apart for me.

The book opens with O’Connell preparing to pen a reply to a letter of condolence, hand-written and sent by a friend following the death of O’Connell’s mother; and closes as he completes his reply – a copy of which is included as an epilogue, a touch which adds a particular legitimacy to the narrative. What happens between is an agile trip through the history of letters, from the rhetorical theory set out by Isocrates around 400 BC, the origin of the modern postal system, to famous letter writers and styles – love letters, advisory letters, letters confronting death.

It’s light history, light philosophy, and light humour, but it’s the personal and charming elements of the book that make it a satisfying read – it feels far more like having a conversation with an old friend than anything else.

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I’m always interested in how people attempt to shore up their lives against time, the kinds of precautions we all take to safeguard our experiences against the unsympathetic eye of reality and history, so I am likely the kind of reader O’Connell imagined appreciating his book.

…the reason we write letters is the main reason we write anything: to convert the chaos of our lives into solid, time-locked narrative.
The writing of narrative, any kind of narrative, helps us stay sane by convincing us that we are stable, autonomous individuals moving smoothly through the world. (p. 22)

Perhaps I’ll spend this holiday season writing some letters of my own.

“Tainted. It’s a funny word, isn’t it? Is it like fruit, rotten a bit? But not completely spoiled?”

I’m not much into romances (doomed or otherwise), and I have little time or sympathy for self-pitying men (fictional or otherwise), so Alfred Hayes’ 1953 novel In Love is not the kind of book I would usually be drawn to, much less enjoy. I’m glad I put those doubts aside and ordered a copy anyway  – it might only be the end of July, but I think In Love may be my favourite read of 2016.

In Love begins with a man of nearly 40, propping up a bar mid-afternoon in New York, telling a pretty young thing about the decline of his last affair. A fairly dreary setting, for a fairly dreary protagonist. Despite the man’s poetic reminiscences, it’s a largely unsatisfying relationship for both of them, once lust and convenience are both discounted – he is “often bored… with absolutely nothing to say to her” (p. 28), she is “frequently depressed” (p. 28), lonely and self-conscious. With no desire to commit to her in any kind of way, the protagonist’s interest is only really piqued once she leaves him, for a (somewhat) more reliable, and richer, man.

Men are never more interested in a toy than when someone else wants to play with it.

… the temporary possession of her had given me the illusion that it [my life] was not, while I had her, barren; now that she was gone, the barrenness that she had temporarily helped conceal lay exposed. It was because we thought so much that love could save us, that having nothing else but the dry labor of our work we looked so anxiously toward love. (p.60)

Had Hayes been a less skilled writer, In Love could have quickly descended into either sentimental dreck or tedious whining, but Hayes’ prose is simply glorious – it’s the reading equivalent of slipping into a warm bath.

She always insisted that she could remember every detail of the very first evening we were together; how, for example, there was snow falling, and how the taxi meter, a little yellow glow above it, ticked, and how she felt, excited, in the interior of the heated cab, touching hands, but sad too, sad inside, the way you feel when you like a man, and when you know that with him it will happen, and you’ve made up your mind even before it happens so that he doesn’t really have to ask you, it’s something… you feel and he feels, a pleasurable tension between you, a silken tightness, waiting to get to a place, his apartment or yours or a friend’s room or a hotel, or even a deserted country road, so that you sink into a trance of waiting, a deliciousness that’s somehow sad, too, and you feel, because of the sadness both there and not there, inside the cab and holding hands and not inside the cab at all and not holding hands at all. So that there must have been, for her, a momentary pang of something lovely, something that the hush of whiteness and the somnolent heat of the cab gave her. Perhaps it was the anticipation, that moment sustained by the drive home, when one is in a taxi with a stranger who is about to be transfigured into a lover, and there is an interval, as in music, when the chord of desire has been struck, and the chord of the fulfilment of desire hasn’t; when everything remains suspended and anticipatory, and the snow falls through the air of a city whose ugliness is temporarily obscured, and the cab itself seems to exist inside a magical circle of quiet heat and togetherness and motion; and, I suppose, for that moment, it is beautiful: the snow, and everything. (p.20-21)

I do so love a good unreliable narrator, and despite gestures towards self-awareness of his own faults, the narrator of In Love is neither reliable or particularly likeable. The unnamed female love interest is far more interesting, and far more sympathetic. That’s despite some of the more bitter commentary:

And I thought, suddenly, that all these women, accompanied or unaccompanied, alone or on the arms of men, going somewhere now on the street, must be enacting within themselves little dramas of copulation as equally calculated as hers. That, really, the city was nothing but a huge bedroom, with some office buildings attached, as they said in the army, for rations, and that for each of these women there was an absolute conviction that the universe was arranged for only one end: her in bed. (p. 111)

It’s a great pity that Hayes isn’t more well known, and In Love isn’t considered an American classic. I feel like the speed at which both cultural attitudes and literary trends changed in the 1950s meant In Love might have seemed unappealingly outdated soon after its publication, but good things never really go out of style.  I feel like I’ll be coming back to In Love time and time again.

I suppose no evening is ever again like the very first evening, the nakedness ever again quite the nakedness it is that first time, the initial gestures, hesitant and doubtful and overintense, ever again what they were, for nothing we ever want ever turns out quite the way we want it, love or ambition or children, and we go from disappointment to disappointment, from hope to denial, from expectation to surrender, as we grow older, thinking or coming to think that what was wrong was the wanting, so intense it hurt us, and believing or coming to believe that hope was our mistake and expectation our error, and that everything the more we want it the more difficult the having it seems to be… (p. 23)