Four Letter Word
Original Love Letters
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.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Title: Four Letter Word
Author: Joshua Knelman; Rosalind Porter
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 apply their skills to the form of the love letter — to resurrect this dying custom and remind us of how seductive words are. The brief was purposely simple. Each piece had to be addressed to someone (or something) and concerned with a heightened state of emotion. The result is a montage of sorts — a picture of what love looks like in the twenty-first century; a collage of methods and moods.
You won’t find a lot of high romance here, although we certainly didn’t discourage this. There is quite a bit of humour, a fair dose of sarcasm and a mountain of grief. We were hardly surprised by the degree of darkness in some of the letters, but were slightly amazed by how many typify love as a feeling that evolves through absence, rejection or death. A few of them don’t even involve another person; a number take on the form of an apology.
What they do have in common is that all are works of fiction, although some may have been inspired by actual events. Each is unique, evidence not just of the incredible creative diversity of our leading writers today, but also of the intricate sophistication of love, and each — I suspect — will have the power to move you.
I am writing to tell you to give up. You may already be a winner, the kind of winner who wins by losing, rolling on your back and showing me your soft parts, letting me tickle and lap and snort at your supplicant vitals. Perhaps I should put this more forcefully: GIVE UP. You stand no chance. Resistance is futile, futility is resistant, reluctance is flirtatious, relinquishment is freedom. I love you and I am better than you in every way — grander, greater, glossier, more glorious, more ridiculous, energetic, faster in foot races and Internet dial-up speed, hungrier, more full of sex and fire, better-equipped with wit and weaponry. I’m taller than you and can encircle you with my lascivious tongue. Admit this and admit me. By opening this envelope you have been selected; from among the billions upon trillions of amoebic entities, you’ve been plucked up from the galaxy’s beach like a seashell by a god. Something in you sparkled for a moment (terribly unlikely it means anything much in the scheme of things); absurd that noticing you squeezed somehow on to the agenda of one such as me. But I was amused — don’t ask me why, it’s practically random, like a lottery. Yet you’ll never be able to spend the wealth of my love, to run through it and waste it like the hapless lottery winner you are. Though you may try, you’d never spend it in a dozen profligate lifetimes. My eyes settled on you in a weak moment, and you’ll never see another. No, I’m an edifice, an enigma; to one such as you my science is like magic. Don’t delay, act now, give up. You have been selected by a higher being from another realm to be siphoned from among your impoverished species to join me, to be seated in the empty throne beside me (only because I’d never troubled to glance to one side before to notice a seat existed there — not, somehow, until my gaze lit on you) where none of your lowly cringing fellows has ever resided. You’re unworthy but you’ll be made worthy by the acclaim of my notice. I say again, I’m superior to you. You’re tinsel, static, a daisy, a bubble of champagne that went to my head and popped, and I don’t even know why I want you and you’d better not give me the chance to think twice. You’ll find I’ve anticipated your responses and attached them below (see attachments, below). They’re feeble and funny, helpless and endearing, and you’ve already blurted yes take me yes how can I resist yes I give up yes. So do I as I say now. You’ve already done it, you’re in my arms like an infant, a ward, a swan. Give up, you gave up already, you’re mine.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
That round-mouthed surprise a woman shows (is supposed to show?) when a man proposes has always annoyed and puzzled me. Surely a couple whose relationship is strong must have talked about marriage instead of following the script of the silly ‘ambush question’ from the man and then the woman’s response of grateful surprise as if she were receiving a glorious gift she had never imagined would be hers. Are you smiling reading this? It’s not funny-oh! So, really, why was I surprised when you sent me that ridiculous text? We had talked about marriage, hadn’t we? Well, you had mostly. Still, reading your — do you think we can begin to discuss the possibility of getting married soon? — I felt first surprised, then amused, then frightened and then this stupid crazy joy that I still feel.
You know, you’re wrong when you say that it’s remarkable how similar we are. Of course we are similar — except for the little fact that I am significantly more attractive — but it isn’t remarkable at all. Many other children of Nigerian academics read Enid Blyton and wondered what the heck ginger beer was; read every single book in the Pacesetters series; and read every James Hadley Chase. These are not at all proof of how right we are for each other — if they were, then you would be right for one out of every two campus-raised women I know. Your father graduated from Ibadan only two years before my father did. If your family hadn’t left Nigeria just before the war we might even have grown up together in Nsukka and maybe all of this marriage talk wouldn’t be going on because we would have known each other too well, you would have been my brother Okey’s friend from secondary school and you would always see me as Okey’s scrawny little sister. So no, there’s nothing remarkable about our shared interests. But the day you told me that your favourite part of Mass, the only reason you still go to Mass sometimes, is when the priest says ‘as we wait in joyful hope’, I was startled. I didn’t tell you then because the coincidence seemed a little too pat but it’s my favourite part of mass too. O di egwu!
So since your text came yesterday, I have been recalling the ways we are different, how you like beans and macho novels and the rainy season and I don’t. It’s suddenly important to me that we not be too similar. You know I have always been suspicious of anything close to perfection, anything too neatly put together. Always wanting to find bumps in smooth surfaces, as you tell me. It frightens me, how easily I now speak in the first-person plural. Yesterday, just before you sent the text, Aunty Adaeze called me and asked whether I would get leave for Christmas to go to the village. I said that we were hoping to get time off until after New Year’s so we could go to Uche’s wine-carrying and return to Lagos in January. She started laughing and said, ‘Ah, I asked about you and you are telling me “we”.’ After I hung up, I began to think about how used to you I am and began to wonder how many other times I had said ‘we’ without even realising it.
Yesterday, too, I realised that I have never told you how much I like you — this before your text, by the way. Love is different. Love is ridiculous. Love can just happen, as it did to you when you saw me and asked Ifeanyi to introduce us (exactly seventeen months and three days ago) and to me as you tried to charm me with your watery knowledge of Achebe’s work, but like requires reason. And yesterday I marvelled at how much I have come to like you. I like that you know when to leave and quietly shut my door and that when you do I never worry that you are not coming back. I like your cooking (I have never complimented you because I keep imagining those silly women who over-praise men for cooking, and those silly mothers who like to say, ‘My son can cook-oh, so no woman will use food to tempt him’). I like the way your butt looks in your jeans, that flat elegance that you don’t like me to point out, and I like that you make futile attempts at the gym to grow muscles we both know you never will and I like that you underline sentences in books to show me. I like that you like me and that your liking me makes me like myself.
I will, by the way, never write anything like this to you again. So smile all you want now, atulu. I remember when I was a kid, reading books in small dusty Nsukka, and often encountering characters eating bagels. It was an elegant word, bagel. I wanted desperately to have a bagel. Years later, in New York City (on our first visit to America as a family), I was flattened to discover that a bagel is a dense doughnut. I imagine you saying ‘From where to where with this story?’ as you read this. Well, my point is that I never wanted marriage and so perhaps it will turn out to be something good, unlike the bagel which I wanted and which turned out to be remarkably boring.
I have been reading your text over and over since yesterday and I have never felt so alive. So, yes, I suppose we should begin to talk of the possibility of getting married soon.
From the Hardcover edition.