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An inspired collection of new fiction from some of today’s most celebrated writers, exploring the charm, potency and seductive powers of a classic genre . . . the love letter.
When did you last receive a love letter? Have emails and text messages taken over from this romantic form of communication? Would a love letter by a novelist or poet be better than one written by you or me? How would the literary traits of a writer shape the love letters he or she writes? And might a love letter tell us something about its author their other writing could not?
Editors Joshua Knelman and Rosalind Porter have assembled an exciting and unique collection of new fiction: they’ve asked some of our most celebrated contemporary writers to explore the distinctive form of the love letter to remind us how enticing words can be and perhaps even to resurrect a dying custom. Each of the pieces in this anthology is radically different from the others, each is a testimony to the creative powers of our leading writers today, and each is guaranteed to seduce.
Four Letter Word brings us work from 35 of today’s best writers, including Margaret Atwood, Miriam Toews, David Bezmozgis, Douglas Coupland, Michel Faber, A.L. Kennedy, Audrey Niffenegger, Lionel Shriver, Jan Morris, Jeanette Winterson, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Joseph Boyden, Panos Karnezis, Jonathan Lethem, Graham Roumieu, M.G. Vassanji and Neil Gaiman.
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Joshua Knelman was a founding member of The Walrus magazine. His writing has appeared in The Walrus, Toronto Life, TORO, Saturday Night, Quill & Quire, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He lives in Toronto.
Rosalind Porter is a Senior Editor at Granta Magazine and has written for the Spectator, the Times Literary Supplement, the Financial Times Magazine and Time Out. She lives in London.
On 4 May 2000, I was one of millions of people to open an email with the subject ‘I Love You’ containing an attachment ‘Love Letter For You’. Launched by a Filipino hacker, the love letter virus ‘Love Bug’ first appeared in Hong Kong before quickly spreading to Europe and then to the United States, infecting servers and costing companies an estimated one billion dollars in lost time and recovery.
In the UK, both the House of Commons and House of Lords were hit, leading to a shutdown of email that lasted a few hours. ‘The message was noticed before lunch. It was a message sending love to you, which is the sort of message a lot of us here don’t expect to be receiving,’ claimed the deputy sergeant at arms for the House of Commons at the time. Which begs the question: who are the people who would expect to receive such a message?
Most of us don’t check the post in anticipation of scented envelopes stuffed with locks of hair, though many of us have received a fervent card; a flirtatious email; a suggestive text. Often we save them and reread them to remember a moment in time or a phase of life, even those from relationships long dead.
Over time, a hierarchy to this kind of semantic courting has developed with the ambiguous text at the bottom and the email only a bit higher up. A card may prove a touching example of someone willing to take the time to find a stamp, seek out an address and locate a post-box, but the letter — with all the noble attributes of the card and no space restrictions — is perhaps the supreme medium to befit a message of love. Also, it harks back to a chivalrous age full of men attaching scrolls to pigeons or throwing bottles into the sea and aligns the writer of the love letter with a whole tradition of literary seduction.
Written on something highly flammable and sent precariously by post or slipped underneath a door, there has always been something slightly risky about the love letter. Someone delivering it to the wrong person who then got the wrong idea; letters getting lost and therefore never replied to.
‘How is it that I have just received your seventh letter,’ writes Denis Diderot to his young mistress Sophie Voland in 1762, ‘when you have only four of the nine I have written you, including this one?’ It’s possible to see how the margin for miscommunication here might become so wide that it, not the declaration of love itself, is in danger of becoming the main subject of their letters.
Email may have removed the fire hazard, but has its own set of potentially catastrophic contingencies. Any form of writing, it seems, demands that one worry about practicalities. The speed of the post or the Broadband connection has the power to send a lover into a fit of nervous rage when no reply comes and, even worse, the written word can hang around for ever. Long after the flame has been extinguished, those pleas of passion you jotted down might still be in her underwear drawer. And if you suddenly become famous? What’s to stop him from selling your letters to the library which bought the rest of your papers?
The reclusive writer J. D. Salinger took the poet and critic Ian Hamilton to court when Hamilton tried to quote from various letters of Salinger’s deposited in libraries and archives. Hamilton argued that since the letters were in the public domain it was only reasonable that he be permitted to reproduce them. And although he lost his case and had to resort to paraphrase, anyone can look at Salinger’s letters in their entirety in the libraries and archives. Nothing, it would seem, is sacred.
Unlike a phone call or a conversation, a written declaration of love is a thing: a thing which exists in the world (often for a very long time) with the power to conjure up an emotional disposition, which is why, on occasion, we ask for them back, destroy them, prevent people from publishing them or keep them.
Something that has survived thirteen house moves is a Valentine I was given when I was five. ‘Dear R,’ it reads (his mother, or possibly our teacher, having written out this bit, though the statement itself is in my enthusiast’s own hand). ‘I want to love you. Happy Valentine’s Day, From P.’
I adore this card. I remember P well, perhaps because I’ve had his Valentine for all these years. Sometimes, when I come across it, I feel the urge to write back — I want to clear up the ambiguity, an ambiguity that’s intrinsic to most love letters. ‘Dear P, Does this mean you don’t love me? That you want to, but can’t for some particular reason? Or are you asking my permission to do so and if that’s the case, well then yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.’
In addition to this souvenir I have folders containing hundreds of pieces of correspondence from friends and family; colleagues and tutors. One folder marked ‘random’ holds papers from people I’ve never been particularly close to. Most of them are birthday cards but there are also a few love letters (some of which are intentionally anonymous).
Significant members of my family, good friends and exes all have personalised folders, as do people who fall under the general heading of ‘flirtations’ since I somehow feel it’s worth keeping the artefacts of relationships that never quite happened. Why I’ve been hauling around every expression of even the most vestigial of feelings says something about how sentimental I am but also about how, in this speed-dating age, traditional modes of courtship still have value.
The reasons for keeping bits and pieces from relationships that did happen are more straightforward. Without the pile of junk in A’s folder, I’m sure I would have forgotten, in lieu of more impressionistic memories, that he sent me a postcard every day (the same postcard, in fact), for a month after we first met.
‘This is the third,’ he wrote, ‘in what is fast becoming a series of postcards.’ A few days later, after I’d gone away on holiday, ‘It was GREAT to speak to you last night. I have to admit to missing you, especially when I’m walking down the street’ (?). Later still, ‘I have taken to crossing my fingers in order to simulate your presence’ (??) and, finally, ‘I guess it’s pretty obvious that I miss you . . . Right now I feel emotionally dead.’
Since I don’t have copies of what I wrote back, appreciating these postcards involves an imaginative reconstruction of the early days of our relationship. What was it about walking down the street with me that had been so bloody great? What I do remember is falling for this person not when I first met him, but soon after the postcards began to arrive.
‘Dear R,’ reads a card encased in a large envelope. ‘Wishing you a very happy birthday, Love G.’ In the envelope is a disc containing every email G and I exchanged — something deemed fit for a birthday present long after we’d split up. We wanted, it would seem, evidence certifying that those halcyon, dating days really had existed, but they also — quite unintentionally — serve as a reminder of the quotidian reality that followed as the infatuation stage wore off, expressed through angry emails and unquestionably dull ones too. ‘Here is F’s address,’ reads one. An email containing nothing except a link to a website that does currency exchanges (even though we never went anywhere together) is another.
The folder to which I’ve returned most often is a wad of printed-out emails, postcards and bone fida love letters from L, with whom I had an on-again, off-again relationship.
‘Dear R. It was lovely to meet you last night.’ Then a very long, very charming preamble, ending with, ‘It’s coming up to the anniversary of our having known each other for forty-eight hours. How to celebrate?’
Even during our ‘off’ phases, every letter from L was filed away neatly — every email printed out — because somehow I’d known that a material record of our written communication would be of value to me. I’ve often returned to L’s folder because I sometimes think it holds clues as to why so many things worked out yet, overall, the whole thing didn’t. More than what we said in passing, our letters and emails contain a degree of authenticity about the way we felt because we put some thought into what we meant before setting it down on paper (before beaming it off into cyberspace), offering our words to one another with the awareness that giving them to someone meant forfeiting ownership.
Like any published writer, the author of the love letter can never take anything back. Words — unlike the actual feelings they connote — cannot simply be loaned. L was a journalist, well aware of how permanent the written word is and paid to use language to dress up a story in an alluring way. And he was good. They never failed, these letters, to lift me out of some dark mood or stretch of ennui, even if I did suspect a degree of contrivance to them. Because all writing is an affective art form — the manifestation of a voice meant to move the reader in a premeditated way — which is why love letters can be so exhilarating and so convincing; which is why so many people opened the ‘Love Bug’ email.
Even though he got caught, the Filipino hacker was no dummy. He observed our collective hunger for a demonstration of something so ethereal it’s not always possible to demonstrate it, and with prescience, he lured us to him with a false promise of words. Because with words, anything is possible. Through words, even our most ardent desires can be fulfilled.
Over the past year, Joshua Knelman and I asked some of our most esteemed writers to a...
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Book Description Knopf Canada, 2008. Hardcover. Condition: New. Never used!. Seller Inventory # P110307396762
Book Description Knopf Canada, 2008. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0307396762