I bought my friend The John Lennon Letters for his birthday, which is a few weeks off, and so I am frantically reading through the book before I wrap and post it. (He doesn’t read this blog, so no spoilers.) The more I read John’s letters, the more I want to keep the book for myself – does that ever happen to you with a present you’ve bought for someone? It is a joyous collection of letters and postcards and scribbles, memos and lists and doodles that have, somehow, been assembled from the recipients, collated, and some narrative added to further illuminate them. Actual copies are reproduced, so one can see that many of the notes appear to have been dashed off, they are flawed, awash with blots and spelling mistakes and words scored out, but almost all of them have an unmistakable whiff of laughter inked in. John’s heart always seems light, whimsy in every word. In one postcard, he drops the last word of each sentence in a manner that is both economical and charming. “Having a wonderful. The weather is quite. The food is.” One letter to his cousin – written in 1975, from him in America to her in England – is, in retrospect, desperately sad because what he wrote ought to have come true. “My diet is very healthy. Lots of whole food stuff…pumpkin seeds etc… vitamins… fish… meat…but not always…we try to avoid any ‘junk’ food especially sugar. I’m healthy as a bull… I do yoga exercise (nearly) every day. I bet I live till a ripe old age. I know I will!” Four years later, in another letter to the same cousin (Liela), these tragic lines jump from the page. He tells his cousin, “I’m 40 next year – I hope life begins – ie I’d like a little less trouble and a little more – what? I don’t know –” Forty years on, and a lot more than John Lennon’s letters have kept his memory alive, although the letters are a marvellous addendum to the music. Moreover, I always think there is something about seeing handwriting than can evoke the writer’s voice in one’s mind.
The other letters I’ve been reading lately are some of those written by Lucia Berlin. She was an American writer, mostly of short stories, and half of her book, Welcome Home, is memoir, the other half, letters she has written to friends. It is within a letter that Lucia reflects on the art of the letter, concluding that one benefit of the form is that “only one person can talk at a time” – which is patently true, it is as if you are interviewing yourself on behalf of the other person, and, depending upon the relationship, who knows what will emerge when interviewing oneself?
Letters are often more thoughtful than conversation. We can chat and do something else at the same time – de-shell boiled eggs, iron pillowcases, fill the ice-tray – but we cannot write and multi-task, at least I can’t. We are (perhaps) less likely to say things we don’t mean in a letter; we have time to make considered responses as previous questions from the correspondent have time to rest and be reflected upon. Then, like those of Lucia Berlin and John Lennon, letters can be kept in a box, slid up into the attic or into a desk drawer and put to sleep for years, whereas unwritten words exchanged in a phone call are forgotten within days. Step away from the matchbox, never ever burn them. Save those letters.
The Letter, Charlotte Brontë (abridged) WHAT is she writing? Watch her now, How fast her fingers move! How eagerly her youthful brow Is bent in thought above! Her long curls, drooping, shade the light, She puts them quick aside, Nor knows, that band of crystals bright, Her hasty touch untied. It slips adown her silken dress, Falls glittering at her feet; Unmarked it falls, for she no less Pursues her labour sweet. Her soul is in th' absorbing task; To whom, then, doth she write? Nay, watch her still more closely, ask Her own eyes' serious light; Where do they turn, as now her pen Hangs o'er th' unfinished line? Whence fell the tearful gleam that then Did in their dark spheres shine? The summer-parlour looks so dark, When from that sky you turn, And from th' expanse of that green park, You scarce may aught discern.