I had gone to the bookstore today to get a gift for someone. Wrong place to go to, when I am trying to buy less books. I got a gift that I think the recipient will like. Unfortunately, I couldn’t resist browsing through the bookstore. I discovered a few ‘must-buy’ books and I held strong and resisted the temptation. When after spending sometime, I still didn’t have anything else in my hand, other than this gift-book, I thought I had finally triumphed against the circumstances ranged against me – that I had finally learnt how to enjoy browsing in a bookstore without succumbing to the temptation of its riches. When I started revelling in triumph, out popped a book from a nearby shelf and as soon as I saw it, I knew that I was doomed. Clearly my feeling of triumph was a false dawn and I hadn’t reckoned with the power of the bookstore. As soon as I picked the book, I heard, in my inner ear, the bookstore laughing at me in triumph. Yes, I had failed again. I looked at the book that had leapt at me. A deep love stirred in my heart and made me feel light and tried lifting me to the clouds. But at the same time a heavy feeling weighed down my heart and tried to pull me down – the heavy feeling of defeat. After a while, the old saying crossed my mind that it was better to have loved and lost – in this case, loved one thing and lost another thing – than not to have loved at all. The heavy sense of defeat continued to sink my heart, but a strong light burned brightly in my eyes - the eyes of an incurable book fanatic. There seemed to be no redemption for him.
Now about the book. It is called ‘Four Letter Word : New Love Letters’ edited by Joshua Knelman and Rosalind Porter. It is published by Vintage Books (one of my favourite imprints and editions). It is a collection of fictional love letters written by today’s leading authors, published for the first time. It has most of the leading writers of today and gives a fair representation to writers from both sides of the Atlantic. The odd South African and Australian are also there. The list of writers includes Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (I got that spelling right!), Lionel Shriver, A.L.Kennedy, Francine Prose, Jeannette Winterson, Michel Faber, Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin, Jan Morris, Margaret Atwood, Audrey Niffenegger (I got that spelling also right!) among others – a total of 41 writers. I read the introduction by Rosalind Porter and found it to be quite beautiful. I read a few letters at the beginning of the book. The blurb on the book cover said that they are ‘ridiculously enjoyable’, ‘delicious’ and ‘seductive’. They are all that and more. The fanatic’s eyes had burned with good reason.
I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the introduction. Hope you enjoy reading it.
On 4 May 2000, I was one of the 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.
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. ‘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 those 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.’
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….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.
Did you like the excerpts?
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