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The Best Literary Letter Collections

recommended by Lucas Zwirner

The next release in the ekphrasis series from David Zwirner Books is Oscar Wilde's The Critic as Artist, including an introduction by Michael Bracewell and a colour portrait of Wilde by Marlene Dumas. Head of Content Lucas Zwirner talks to Five Books about the inspiration he's drawn from literary letters and how they inform the editorial direction of the publishing house.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

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Letters are idiosyncratic by definition. Why have you made this particular selection of literary letters? What do they have in common? And how have they inspired your work in putting together the ekphrasis series for David Zwirner Books?

The interesting thing about letters is that they’re rarely the first thing an author publishes, and in fact are often published last, or even posthumously. A writer becomes well-known for a body of work, and then, eventually, if there’s interest, the letters become a topic of focus. For the ekphrasis series, I’m looking for works by great writers that are ekphrastic in nature, which, loosely understood, is about visual art or visual culture in some way. Letters can be particularly illuminating as a prism for the visual culture of a time. It’s possible to find material by great writers that has not been translated or published before.

The letters from the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke to the young artist Balthus are a fine example of this. Discovering them was a real surprise. Written in French, these letters are in the public domain, but they hadn’t been translated or presented in a proper edition, in spite of the high standing of the correspondents. I happened upon them quite accidentally, reading a book by Rachel Corbett called You Must Change Your Life, about the time that Rilke was working for Rodin as his secretary. Rilke’s letters to Balthus were mentioned in a footnote toward the end of the book, and I couldn’t believe that I had never seen them before. One thing led to another: there was a very small print run edition that was at the Columbia Library in French; they hired a great French translator. So it all came together.

These are letters from one of the most important poets of the twentieth century, not just German, but outright. Rilke has become very much an international voice of poetry, of lyricism in general. While Balthus, who Rilke was writing to—now perhaps more divisive than he once was because of his interest in femininity at a certain age—was nonetheless one of the more important painters of his time.

It was striking that you could find an undiscovered gem like this and be the first to publish it in English in this series, which looks for out-of-print, under-explored but highly important pieces of writing. That was a real coup, and so I would say letters are a great example of a genre for what we want to do at David Zwirner Books with the ekphrasis series, which is find writing of art historical or cultural significance, but which is perhaps overlooked, and to bring it to the reading public.

In the United States at least, Rilke is better known for his Letters to a Young Poet, which interestingly, he wrote when he was quite young. His second set of letters arguably presents a somewhat more seasoned view. He’s writing to a very young painter; Balthus was a teenager at the time. These two collections of letters are almost like bookends to Rilke’s extraordinary life: in the first, to the aspiring poet Franz Xaver Kappus, Rilke’s writing is full of grand proclamations about life’s big questions. In the latter, many of these questions are still present, but they’re framed in a more personal way. One of the things I loved about reading these in sequence is catching a glimpse of artistic genius effectively being transmitted or passed on from generation to generation.

Letters to a Young Poet I think will always remain the more obviously inspiring volume because it seems to me it’s much more self-conscious. You get the sense that there’s an awareness of those letters as a sort of manual for artistic achievement and creativity for a large audience.

What I like about the Balthus letters is their super personal tone. In 1919 Rilke was reunited with an old friend Baladine Klossowska, a Polish-born artist who was living on her own with her two sons Pierre and Balthasar. It was Rilke that coined the nickname for Balthus, a precocious artist. And maybe for the first time in his life, Rilke took on the role of father and mentor to his adoptive family. The household included a cat, an Angora stray named Mitsou, which ran away. In his distress, the 14-year-old Balthus drew a series of illustrations that begins with him finding the cat on a park bench and ends with him in tears.

“Letters can be particularly illuminating as a prism for the visual culture of a time”

Rilke was so impressed by his protégé’s work that he arranged to have the drawings published with a preface he wrote himself. They co-authored this volume, and that’s how years of correspondence began. Rilke’s standing assured that the volume got its due, collecting royalties and making sure that the publisher was doing the work that he was supposed to. Over time, his correspondence to Balthus essentially became a series of birthday letters, eight letters in total from the ages of 14 to 18.

They feel really warm and compassionate, and not performative at all. There’s this great sympathy, compassion, love, and support for this child that on some level he need not have any concrete connection to. Rilke died soon after writing the last of those letters. He was moved to make this connection by a young person in his life who was not his own child but someone else’s, his protégé, and someone he wanted to inspire with his words.

And so, there’s an incredible way in which, at the end of his life, Rilke seems to have really understood what human beings need in order to be encouraged, to feel encouraged. His experience working as Rodin’s secretary was bittersweet. He learned a lot, but he maybe took some of Rodin’s advice too closely to heart. It was only later that Rilke realised that Rodin engaged actively in “extracurricular indulgences.” As Rilke gets older and wiser, he becomes aware that the personal is as important as the productive, if not more so. In these endearing letters to Balthus, what we have is more like a window into a relationship as opposed to a kind of self-help guide. Letters to a Young Poet has arguably become a kind of “how-to” manual for every creative adolescent in the world. I like that these letters to Balthus by contrast have a kind of off-the-beaten path intimacy.

In the literary letter selections you made, we find the correspondents asking themselves how to live, or perhaps where to find one’s muse. How is it that one finds inspiration in life? The editor of the Alice James selection, Ruth Yeazell, practically calls death Alice James’s muse. Towards the end of her life, James writes, almost as if it were a professional calling, “I am working away as hard as I can to get dead as soon as possible.”

An artist who we work with at David Zwirner, Raymond Pettibon, loves Henry James’ late novels, as do I, the ones that were dictated and have that sort of crazy syntax. I was talking with him about our shared interest, which led to a discussion of William James’ pedagogy. He countered by saying that the great genius in the family when it comes to observation and self-observation is not Henry, nor William, but Alice James. Pettibon, whose work is inflected with literary references, enjoined me to read these letters, in which he’d found more inspiration than from any of the writings of either of Alice’s more famous brothers.

There is this intent in her letters, which can come across as very neurotic, as it probes the questions of how to live. She was arguably a professional hypochondriac, always ill, obviously very sickly. That study of herself and study of death, as it were, becomes the very material for her life. As it is lived, and as it is written about. Not unlike Proust, James is making a statement with her own kind of frailty. You have this lesser-known member of that very literary, very famous family who had turned self-study into a really high art form, one which was only ever captured in her letters and only ever captured privately. Alice did not have the intention, it seems, to have her letters published.

Here again, I’m drawn to letters because the act of writing seems so direct and un-self-conscious. I really enjoy reading letters that don’t feel self-aware, that feel very much like they’re trying to communicate something about the self to another. Of course, there are those correspondents whose letter writing can feel very performative. Then, I’d rather read the published work. I’d rather read something that’s not masking but revealing intimacy.

It’s remarkable that Alice James’ letters were only published in 1964. Like the letters that Kafka wrote to his love interest, Felice, they came to light only many decades later. They bring Alice and the other Jameses very much to life, while giving a glimpse of what life was like in upper-class nineteenth-century Boston and London. And also the differences between the sexes. I mean, you’ve got Henry, who became a famous novelist; William, a distinguished psychologist; and Alice, who was kept at home and was a Victorian hysteric.

One gets the feeling that had she had the opportunities for creative outlet that her brothers had, Alice’s illness might not have been as severe as it was. What you’re seeing here is a very creative and gifted individual stunted by circumstances, who has nonetheless managed to have her sublimated talent expressed in the only form readily available to her. Emily Dickinson, for example: if she’d had the opportunities that someone like Ralph Waldo Emerson had, it might have been a very different story.

Interestingly, Kafka actually made his illness into a career but, in a way, to spite himself. You see how deeply distressed he was—personally—through his letters in a way that you don’t always see in the work itself. You often intuit his personal pain from the stories and the novels, whereas in the letters his neurosis is plainly visible. Franz Kafka met Felice Bauer in August 1912, at his friend Max Brod’s, and she was everything he was not: practical, life-affirming and full of energy. Living in Prague and Berlin, respectively, theirs was an epistolary courtship. The more than 500 letters Kafka wrote to Felice, almost daily, lasted through their eventual breakup, a second engagement in 1917, and their final farewell later that year as Kafka was succumbing to tuberculosis.

With Kafka, these letters, the diaries, the journals—which were also published much later, only appearing in Germany in 1967—give an incredible insight into the kind of existential terror that was really motivating him. It’s a constant tug-of-war between a desire for connection and the solitude of his craft. They are pervaded with what feels like fear of everything and completely overthinking other people’s reactions, this hyper-speculative mode of being in the world where everything is being read into with intense questioning, or even outright paranoia. It is often delusional, but also incredibly powerful and poetic because he has cathected everything. Everything has been imbued with a life that’s really not its own. It’s Kafka’s weird inner life that has been transmuted into the people and things that populate his prose.

I was lucky to study with a really committed Kafka scholar named Rüdiger Campe. He was obsessed with all the paraphernalia around a writer’s life, so we would read the stories, but what he really wanted to focus on was all the stuff along the margins of a writer’s life, so the letters were a great focus, the letters and what they revealed about the story.

It’s fitting somehow that in Kafka’s correspondence to Felice, only his half of the correspondence has survived. So, it’s almost like we’re witnessing a sort of monologue of somebody who was clearly caught in an echo chamber of his own very, very vivid neuroses.

They’re painful to read. He writes letters and letters about why he hasn’t received more letters and then letters why he doesn’t deserve the letters that he hopes to receive. Deeply unsettling, but I suppose it gives us a window into his peculiar genius.

It’s unlike the correspondence of Lowell and Bishop or Heidegger and Arendt. It’s not balanced. It’s uni-directional. At the same time that I was reading these letters to understand his psychology, and in particular the famous letter to his father—perhaps the single most important non-fictive document that Kafka wrote—at around this time I was being introduced to Heidegger by a professor named Karsten Harries. A wonderful philosopher aesthetician. He taught Being and Time in German, which is sort of hard to believe. We’re talking not that long ago at an American university, that I had the opportunity to study Being and Time in German.

I happened to drop into Harries’ office on Valentine’s Day. “Oh, Valentine’s Day”, he remarked, “you should really read Heidegger’s letters to Hannah Arendt.” I thought he was making a joke. What I discovered was that there is an intense amount of real affection in the letters between the two of them, very emotionally charged. Made all the more so by their circumstances.

There was a very real initial intimacy when Heidegger was a professor and married man of 36, and Arendt his 18-year-old student. Then came years following a dramatic separation as Heidegger rose to academic prominence in Germany during the Nazi regime, while Arendt fled to America. In the postwar years, they reached the height of their popularity as thinkers, and kept up the correspondence. There is much profound philosophical thinking here, but also an incredible space of almost poetic intimacy. I mean, there was the break, which had to do with their mutual friend Karl Jaspers and Heidegger not defending him, but prior to the break, Hannah and Heidegger did have this kind of quite intense relationship on many levels.

I would group Kafka and Alice James on one side as almost solipsistic correspondents, and Lowell and Bishop and Heidegger and Arendt on the other side as letters that express love and closeness. Lowell and Bishop’s letters I came across later, and I hadn’t been as moved reading letters since I’d read Heidegger and Hannah Arendt. Less for their psychological insight, and more simply for being emotionally powerful.

It was a relief, a salve to the soul to dive into this almost florid exchange between Arendt and Heidegger after reading Kafka.

They didn’t ever have the relationship that their letters suggest they wanted to have. Heidegger lifted this Latin phrase from Augustine, “I will that you are or I want you to be.” I was always drawn to the fact that, given his particular personality, in the love letters, the love should be characterised as non-possessive. It’s not about taking; it’s more about giving you space to be the person you are. Heidegger writes: “we become what we love and yet remain ourselves. Then we want to thank the beloved, but find nothing that suffices.”

“I would group Kafka and Alice James on one side as almost solipsistic correspondents, and I would group Lowell and Bishop, and Heidegger and Arendt on the other side as letters that express love and closeness.”

I think when you look at it in today’s light, and you see all of that, of course, exists on a presupposition—that it’s the male’s right to express possessive love. In an ideal world, you’ve got a much more balanced dynamic, and hopefully, we are approaching that world; culturally, things may be moving in this direction. But the fact that Heidegger would give up possessiveness at the outset felt like a powerful and deeply romantic gesture to me at the time when I was reading these. Of course, now I think everyone can see the difficulties there.

This comes across very strongly in the letters of the American literary giants Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. At one point in the correspondence, Lowell writes, “Please never stop writing me letters. They always manage to make me feel like my higher self for several days.” This sense that I’m incomplete without the other’s participation in this dialogue.

Here is a relationship the height of whose intimacy was in the letters. You feel that when you read them. I was moved to tears reading some of those letters. There’s an honesty about how difficult it all is. These are incredibly powerful admissions of real closeness.

Their styles are very different, and yet, from the day they meet at this literary party in 1947, they complement each other completely in spite of . . . on the one hand, his rather muscular and locomotive style and her much more self-effacing approach to poetry. But it almost makes them the ideal mutual critics for each other’s work.

Lowell was in many ways the kind of quintessential male writer of that time. He was good-looking, well-educated, dashing, with a command of Greek and Latin, and came from a good family, too. Bishop, by contrast, decided to live most of her life off the beaten track. She spent her latter years with her Brazilian lover, who committed suicide late in their relationship. Both poets had their streak of tragedy, with Lowell’s recurring depression. In addition to finding a kind of critical sounding board, they clearly found solace in one another, as well.

There must have been some part of each of them that really valued the other’s attentions, because they were so different. So, if you’re that retiring, off-the-beaten-path poet, there’s something thrilling about this completely opposite type being drawn to your work and drawn to you as a person. Meanwhile, if you’re the kind of grandstanding, quite forceful, out-there male poet, there’s something probably quite comforting that this grounded person that you deeply respect is there for you, even as you wonder yourself whether you might be a phoney. Literary life unfolds in such privacy, in such intimacy and closeness, that to be a public figure like Lowell must have brought with it feelings of inauthenticity. These would have been assuaged by someone like Bishop, whose attentions suggested to the contrary that Lowell had real depth, the kind of depth as a poet that touches people not just on the surface but deep down. You might say there was this literary co-dependence there, too.

Looking at those four collections–Alice James and Kafka on the one hand, and Bishop/Lowell and Heidegger/Arendt on the other—the interesting thing about the Rilke’s letters are the way they combine elements of both the monologue and the true exchange. His letters have the intimacy of these pairs, Bishop and Lowell and Heidegger and Arendt, but also at times the one-sidedness of what we see in Alice James and Kafka. Ultimately, there might still be this sense that it is about Rilke giving the advice and not about an exchange. Rilke probably liked the idea of being the advice-giver, while in the case of both Bishop and Lowell, and Heidegger and Arendt, there’s a real listening happening.

We’re talking about really voluminous exchanges. Nearly 500 letters in the case of Kafka, and Bishop and Lowell. They describe another world historically, but the sheer volume of the long correspondence itself seems like a fading reminder of a golden age of letter writing. What’s the fate of letter writing in the age of Twitter?

Handwritten letters are clearly a sort of relic, but maybe email is, too! It’s funny to talk about email as an old-fashioned medium, but with all these other messaging systems like Twitter, WhatsApp, Slack, and other professional tools that allow people to communicate at work . . .

My daughters tell me email is desperately old-fashioned.

Exactly! Email ends up being very close to the handwritten letter for still having a salutation, body paragraphs and a final closing. So, interestingly, I have a sense that people are still conducting serious exchanges. Only these are happening via email. I cannot wait to look at some of the great writers writing today and their emails. In my own case, I love the email correspondence I’ve had with writers that I respect, people like Joshua Cohen, or even the exchanges I’ve had with Harold Bloom, who was my teacher at Yale. So, it’s not happening the same way, but I think it’s very much still happening.

What’s next for the imprint?

With our recent distribution deal with Simon & Schuster, we can really publish anything. I would love for David Zwirner Books to publish a novel. Either a reprint of a novel out of circulation, or something new, something that is out of our typical comfort zone but which chimes with our artistic vision. We’ll see how that unfolds, but Five Books readers, please take note! I am actively looking for that, and people should feel ready to reach out. I envision us becoming a sort of publisher that is releasing titles at the high end of all sorts of different disciplines, whether they’re visual, reprint and historical, nonfiction, or fiction. And of course, I have a soft spot for literary letters . . .

Interview by Romas Viesulas

August 8, 2019

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Lucas Zwirner

Lucas Zwirner

Lucas Zwirner, Head of Content at David Zwirner Books, joined the gallery in 2015 to oversee the editorial direction of the gallery’s publishing house. At David Zwirner Books he began the ekphrasis series, dedicated to publishing short texts on visual culture by artists and writers, rarely available in English. He has also written on numerous contemporary artists and translated books from German and French. Since June 2018, Lucas has hosted the audio series Dialogues: The David Zwirner Podcast, which is an open-ended conversation between two extraordinary artists or cultural leaders from the worlds of art, architecture, film, and music about how art shapes, elevates, and shifts our point of view—and the often surprising twists and turns of the creative process. Season two of the podcast will launch in September 2019.

Lucas Zwirner

Lucas Zwirner

Lucas Zwirner, Head of Content at David Zwirner Books, joined the gallery in 2015 to oversee the editorial direction of the gallery’s publishing house. At David Zwirner Books he began the ekphrasis series, dedicated to publishing short texts on visual culture by artists and writers, rarely available in English. He has also written on numerous contemporary artists and translated books from German and French. Since June 2018, Lucas has hosted the audio series Dialogues: The David Zwirner Podcast, which is an open-ended conversation between two extraordinary artists or cultural leaders from the worlds of art, architecture, film, and music about how art shapes, elevates, and shifts our point of view—and the often surprising twists and turns of the creative process. Season two of the podcast will launch in September 2019.