The novel I just finished reading last night is what we used to call an epistolary novel. The People in the Photo is a story told not only through letters but through emails and text messages exchanged primarily between two people whose parents appeared in a photograph in a newspaper clipping from 1971.
Last week I received in the mail a different kind of fiction. It was epistolary in the old-fashioned meaning of the term, and the amazing thing is that I had written all of the letters. The earliest dated 1973, the letters were some of them enclosed in the same envelopes in which they had originally been mailed. Most, though, were the simple pages of stationery still folded the way I had readied them for mailing, a triple thickness derived from the paper folded in thirds.
The two main characters in Hélène Gestern’s novel approach with care and curiosity and even reverence the photographs they begin to collect of their parents from various sources. The two of them become archaeologists of sorts, questioning what they find, recognizing that the meaning of the photographs will often rely on ways of thinking that have since grown outmoded. Warnings come from a number of people with whom they speak in 2007 that the truth of the summer of 1971 may not be something they really want to know.
The original recipient of all of the letters in the small Priority Mail box that arrived at my door last Wednesday had been a seminary classmate of mine in the 1970s. Our last visit took place over dinner in Boston in 2009, a cordial and easygoing exchange of information about the partners we had each of us left behind in previous years.
The visit had at first felt like it might prove the motivation for Karl and me to stay more regularly in contact. Our routines, though, mine in New England and his in Florida, would delay the kind of telephone conversation we finally had a little over a week ago. The occasion was his clearing out personal files in preparation for an upcoming move out of the country. He wanted to return to a number of people – seminary classmates and others – the correspondence from them that he had kept safe and secure over the years.
My letters and cards to him were on their way back to me.
So one evening last week I sat with a younger me. I met again the particular tone with which I had been accustomed to write a letter to Karl over those early years of our friendship. It was not a tone I used with anyone else. It was a tone that one man in his twenties used with another man in his twenties as they each camouflaged the kind of affections they wanted kept confidential.
Airy and breezy at times, ironic and sarcastic at others, glib and cerebral at their worst, the letters had been fiction. The moment of relief last Wednesday evening came near the end of the letters when Karl and I had each left seminary. I began to sound like myself finally in what I wrote and how I wrote.
Like the characters in the novel that I finished last night, I approached the reading of my letters last week with care and curiosity and even reverence. I too became an archaeologist of sorts, questioning what I read, recognizing that the meaning of the paragraphs often relied on ways of thinking that have since grown outmoded.