Tell me how you love me; Passionate prose about a topic close to heart
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 15 January 2008)

Since it's well known that "love" is the most dangerous of the four-letter words, we can hardly be surprised that murder raises its head almost at the beginning of Four Letter Word: Original Love Letters (Knopf), edited by Joshua Knelman and Rosalind Porter.

This often delightful and always surprising cluster of imaginary letters leaps nimbly from one bizarre kind of love to another, but the business about homicide takes a familiar form: It purports to be written by a silly, love-crazed man proposing adultery.

Adam Thorpe, a British poet and novelist, imagines a letter written by a solicitor in rural England. At the local arts festival he falls for a beautiful American woman, the wife of the town's capitalist. He convinces himself, on no evidence, that she returns his love, so he works out a clever way of getting a letter to her. Unfortunately, the letter falls into precisely the wrong hands, those of the husband whose cuckolding our solicitor happily anticipates. From there things go downhill.

Knelman and Porter set out to create a book of imaginary love letters, another way of organizing a themed collection of fiction. They persuaded 41 writers from a dozen or so countries to share their enthusiasm, making the rules of the game as liberal as possible. In this context "love letter" means any letter involving love, written to anyone or any thing. Some letters go from adult to adult but most writers choose uncommon objects of desire. Fictional correspondents write to Santa Claus, Franz Kafka, a house in Wales (Jan Morris is the author there) and a mountain range, the Scottish Highlands.

Margaret Atwood's piece takes the form of an ad brochure by a scribe who ghostwrites love letters. The scribe has the gift of eternal life and changes back and forth from man to woman. He (or she) meets clients at the Bar Mercurio in Toronto and sometimes visits the nearby Bata Shoe Museum to dwell on happy memories by examining footwear from previous eras -- ancient Roman sandals, pointy toes from Renaissance Florence, etc. Business is not good for this scribe, who notes with disdain that nowadays some lovers believe an appropriate form of seduction is a text message reading, "URAHOTTEE."

Jeff Parker, who teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto, makes comic use of earlier digital language. His character is a fellow unable to impregnate his wife. Low sperm motility, says the lab, but he knows that two earlier women in his life had abortions. He remembers loving the first one, back in the 1980s, when they were ambitious young HTML (Hyper Text Mark-Up Language) coders in the pioneering days of the internet.

He emails her, mentioning that he loved it when, in moments of high passion, she would scream, "Open carrot, div, align equals right, close carrot, indent, open carriage, image, space, source equals "

Alas, she emails back that she hated HTML and did that just to please him.

Sam Lipsyte, a novelist who teaches at Columbia University, imagines a chimp writing to someone he calls Miss Primatologist Lady. He loves the dainty way she picks burrs and bugs from his scalp while talking to him. Some of the book's most memorable lines are asides, like the remark of a gay man (in a piece by Damon Galgut of Cape Town) who loyally follows his lover to a Buddhist retreat and then decides: "There's something so egotistical about people trying to lose their ego."

Several letters are grounded in historic moments and their human effects. Sweden's Carl-Johann Vallgren deals with the melancholy consequences of a woman's escape in 1942 from the Finnish-Soviet war, and David Bezmozgis writes a letter from a woman prisoner in 1918 Moscow who has failed in her attempt to assassinate Lenin. Francine Prose's letter goes to Kafka from Felice, the on-again-off-again fiancee who suffered more than anyone else from Kafka's neurosis. (She accuses him of lying even to his diary.)

At times, readers may feel we're watching a cuteness competition, but the best of the stories have a vivacious buoyancy about them. There's only a little standard love prose ("I have never felt so alive," etc.) and almost nobody makes the mistake of trying to cram profundity into this format. When a writer deals with horror, domestic or political, the style is crisp and distanced, like Chekhov's.

As it happens, Chekhov's Uncle Vanya becomes part of Valerie Martin's contribution. She has an actress writing about her nervous, possessive husband, "it's hard on him when good things happen to me." She's just won the part of Elena and her husband's well-practised jealousy flares up when he learns her former boyfriend is playing Astrov, who loves Elena and shares two onstage kisses with her. Readers of Martin's piece may guess fairly early that he has good reason to worry, and his wife has good reason to seek romance elsewhere.

Geoff Dyer has his character write a collective letter to "several possible recipients," all of them women he mistreated in the 1980s. He conveys a general apology. "I'm sorry I was such a jerk." He seems particularly remorseful over the woman he abruptly dropped because her appreciation of John Coltrane's tenor-saxophone solos was inadequately nuanced. Michel Faber, a much-published and much-admired writer in Scotland, uses the familiar device of the unreliable narrator: A Ukrainian woman, engaged to marry a man in the United States, writes a letter explaining why she needs yet another $500 to make the trip. Hisham Matar, who was born in Libya and lives in Britain, has a 13-year-old Egyptian teenager writing from his English boarding school to his stepmother in Egypt. Matar wants us to understand that the boy doesn't realize he's in love with his father's wife but that his father does, and doesn't approve.

That story, like many others, makes us realize that love is only one of the book's two important subjects. The other is literary ingenuity, as demonstrated by how much a writer can imply, insinuate, allude to, suggest or whisper in a few pages. In almost every piece, some part of what matters is hidden, or only hinted at. Four Letter Word could be described as a detailed essay on the subject of the subtext, but an exceptionally entertaining one.

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