We readers are marked forever by great authors—they are never really dead. We carry them around with us.
I write them letters.
The next few Fridays will feature eight of the twenty letters in Diane Joy Charney’s forthcoming book, Letters to Men of Letters, published later this year by the European Review Press.
Despite being married to the same man for decades, I confess to having some unusual pen-pals with whom I am quite in love. Among them are Franz Kafka, Gustave Flaubert, and Vladimir Nabokov. Not to mention Albert Camus and Marcel Proust, with whom I am in constant communication by letter. And lest you think I only fall for long-dead guys, I’ll add the already-married Andre Aciman, who had me from the first line of his essay, “Lavender.” Further, let’s not forget Christo, who gifted me with an enormous, well-wrapped tube of signed posters, in thanks for the poem I wrote about him, “Willing to Take the Wrap: Christo Comes to Tea.”
I’m old enough to have met some of the great authors of the previous century. I’ve often kicked myself, because there were some I was too dumb to realize that I could have met; others I did meet during the formative year that I lived in Jean-Paul Sartre’s childhood apartment. An advantage to being an old dinosaur is that I remember the excitement of receiving an actual letter, and in my teaching I am constantly reminded that literature is full of examples of everything hinging on a letter.
Writers like Franz Kafka and Flaubert express and reveal themselves differently in their letters. In pre-email days, I had always been a dedicated letter writer, and a friend, who liked what I wrote, regularly threatened to send my letters to The New Yorker. I’m not sure what they would have made of them, but I have decided to “out” my own letters to men of letters.
This book features letters, both real and imaginary, that I have written to literary figures with whom I have an intense relationship. Although always passionate about these authors, I was shy about approaching them. And to do so would, in several cases, have required time travel, as most of them are no longer physically with us.
Because I teach French Literature, many of the writers are French. Each letter is part memoir, part intellectual coming-of-age, part reaction to having read, loved, studied, and taught the work of these timeless writers. Libraries are full of essays and literary studies about these authors, but a letter is more personal and intimate. These letters reflect my own relationship with the authors--what they have taught me about myself, but also what they can offer the reader.
We are marked forever by great authors—they are never dead. We readers carry them around with us. I write them letters. It may sound odd to be writing a letter to a dead person, but it isn’t really, because they are still with me. The “conversations” I have with them have made me who I am. I can put a flower on the grave of Camus, but he’s not dead to me.
In this era, when the humanities so often come under attack, dismissed as off-putting and irrelevant, my book of Letters to Men of Letters aims to be accessible, and to prove that truly great writers do not have to be intimidating. They can be approached and reconsidered at any age.
Letters bear witness to how one can have lived multiple lives within a lifetime. And not just in terms of chronology or different phases of life, because a deep epistolary connection transcends time and place, permeating everything, via memory. It can be easy to delude oneself that things may be as we remember. But letters hold a truth of their own.
I felt this when going through a cache of my own youthful letters, from a seven-year relationship with someone who later became a public figure. This was in service to the current writing project of my friend, a historian, who is trying to piece together and make sense of a complicated life that took more than one strange turn. It feels a bit uncanny to be simultaneously the recipient of a letter and to stand outside it.
Maybe letters remind us that we are all like a puzzle composed of many pieces that may never actually reconnect to become a whole. Some will have gone missing. Others may have worn away here or there, and no longer seem to fit.
Perhaps after reading the above, you will understand why I have found it difficult to use a chronological through-line—what the French call un fil conducteur—to embrace my letters to men of letters. Although I can pinpoint a first contact with an author, they regularly reappear. Or to put it more precisely, once having appeared, they are always with me. In fact, I seem to have known them even prior to their official appearance. It's as if author André Aciman, with whom I continue to share many "correspondances" (here I am using the French spelling and meaning of the word) read my mind, when he said, "Great books...always let us find things we think are only in us, and couldn’t possibly belong elsewhere, but that turn out to be broadcast everywhere we look. Great artists are those who give us what we think was already ours."
I've reached an age when it's time to consider more closely the Big Questions—whether to go gently into the night, having poured my soul into painstakingly-crafted emails to friends, or to aim for something in another form. In my field of French literature, I find sobering the image of bookstore remainder tables filled with hard-won works of scholarship by my famous colleagues, who have (as a dear friend who died the week I wrote this essay, put it) "cast their lot with the profession." In using that phrase, she had been referring to a particularly ambitious and briefly successful (before they burned out) wing of the independent scholarship movement. What does it mean that our own little New Haven Independent Scholars' Group, of which I was once president, which has always had more modest aspirations, is still going, even if my friend is not?
It’s been tricky to try to explain, even to close friends, what this book is about. A college friend, who is an artist in many media, wrote to say that she had finally framed and hung examples of her best work on the walls of her home—a type of self-juried retrospective. In congratulating her, it occurred to me that, in writing this book of letters, in which I am assembling a lifetime of thoughts and experiences with literature, I am doing something similar. As I write these letters to the authors who have marked me throughout my intellectual life, I am working at figuring out what they have been saying to me and perhaps to others—a kind of taking stock of where I’ve been, where I am, and where I might be going next.
I have been haunted by the image of a famously talented writer who was said to have "wasted her brilliance writing copy for cereal boxes." An inveterate clutter-bug (my family is missing the throw-away gene), I have come to recognize my unfortunate tendency to hoard everything—including my own words. Time for a change? This letter to you, Dear Reader, is part of that effort.