The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

There are times in this job when a re­viewer doesn’t give me quite what I asked for and I get a lit­tle an­noyed. I some­times later tell my­self to be more for­giv­ing. Well, such thoughts are ban­ished from mind af­ter read­ing Hunter S. Thompson’s let­ter to An­thony Burgess when the English nov­el­ist, ow­ing a “think­piece” to Rolling Stone, wrote from Rome to say he was strug­gling and per­haps the mag­a­zine would pre­fer to run an ex­tract from a just-fin­ished novella, “all about the con­di­tion hu­maine etc”. Thompson opened his re­ply by lament­ing the mag­a­zine didn’t have an “In­ter­na­tional Gib­ber­ish Desk” be­cause that’s where Burgess’s let­ter be­longed. He fired the other bar­rel — “What kind of lame, half-mad bull­shit are you try­ing to sneak over on us?” — then reloaded, fired (“… your limey bull­shit”), reloaded, fired (“You lazy c..ksucker”), reloaded, fired (“cheap­jack scum”), un­til his con­clud­ing salvo to the feted nov­el­ist of A Clockwork Or­ange to “get your worth­less ass out of the pi­azza and back to the type­writer’’. “Your type is a dime a dozen around here, Burgess, and I’m f..ked if I’m go­ing to stand for it any longer.’’ Wow. I don’t think hu­man re­sources will let me use any of that in cor­re­spon­dence with re­view­ers. It’s also worth remembering Thompson shot him­self. Even so, one bit I wouldn’t mind bor­row­ing, in sen­ti­ment if not in lan­guage, is this: “When Rolling Stone asks for ‘a think­piece’, god­damnit, we want a f..king Think­piece’’.

Thompson’s 1973 let­ter to Burgess is one of the pearls in Shaun Usher’s More Letters of Note (Canon­gate, 384pp, $59.99), a beau­ti­fully pro­duced com­pi­la­tion of cor­re­spon­dence be­tween fa­mous peo­ple, from Mozart to Marge Simp­son. It is a fol­low-up to Letters of Note of 2013, a book that has lin­gered on the bed­side ta­ble for dip­ping pur­poses. There are 122 letters in this sec­ond vol­ume, each pre­sented as a fac­sim­ile of its orig­i­nal, with a trans­la­tion where hand­writ­ing re­quires one. Read­ers will grav­i­tate to the names that in­ter­est them, which is why I read the literary and Hol­ly­wood ones first. But it’s worth mak­ing time for the out­liers, too. Had I not, I would never have learned that Ayn Rand was a sub­scriber to Cat Fancy mag­a­zine. “I sub­scribed to Cat Fancy pri­mar­ily for the sake of the pic­tures,’’ she tells its editor. I also like David Bowie’s mod­est let­ter to his first Amer­i­can fan. “… my real name is David Jones … I hope one day to get to Amer­ica.’’

Mod­esty is not the first trait that comes to mind when we think of Richard Bur­ton, but there’s a cer­tain self-deprecating hon­esty in his 1973 let­ter to El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor af­ter she gave him his march­ing or­ders (the first time around): “You’re off, by God! I can barely be­lieve it since I am so un­ac­cus­tomed to any­body leav­ing me. But re­flec­tively I won­der why no­body did so be­fore.’’ Mod­esty I do not de­tect in Al­dous Hux­ley’s 1949 let­ter to Ge­orge Or­well, writ­ten af­ter re­ceiv­ing an ad­vance copy of Nine­teen Eighty-Four. I may be read­ing it un­char­i­ta­bly, but it seems Hux­ley thinks Or­well has writ­ten a fine book, al­beit one that was an­tic­i­pated and re­fined by Brave New World 18 years ear­lier. “… I feel that the night­mare of Nine­teen Eighty­Four is des­tined to mod­u­late into the night­mare of a world hav­ing more re­sem­blance to that which I imag­ined in Brave New World.’’ My dystopia is big­ger than yours?

To fin­ish with the anti-Thompson, we have Kurt Von­negut’s 2006 let­ter to a high-school class that had asked him to visit. The then 84year-old “geezer” didn’t make the trip, but his let­ter is won­der­ful. “I don’t make public ap­pear­ances any more be­cause I now re­sem­ble noth­ing so much as an iguana … What I had to say to you, more­over, would not take long, to wit: Prac­tise any art, mu­sic, singing, danc­ing, act­ing, draw­ing, paint­ing, sculpt­ing, po­etry, fic­tion, es­says, re­portage, no mat­ter how well or badly, not to get money and fame but to ex­pe­ri­ence be­com­ing, to find out what’s in­side you, to make your soul grow.’’

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