Letter Variations, or exchanging Eponine Howarth

Micaela Brinsley

I’m looking for something. Every time I read, every time I write. I don’t always know what. The process of reading letters is a kind of search, my way of trying to figure out what someone else is investigating. Why did they write what they wrote? Sometimes letters disappoint me. I may love a writer’s work but then read their letters and think, ‘how is this person so boring?’ But it doesn’t matter, that’s sometimes where I’ll land. I know other people do this too, looking for questions or answers or something in between. 

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Dear Micaela, 

Today, I feel like going to the cemetery for a walk. It sounds more dreary than it actually is. It’s a gorgeous sunny day in Paris, and I love walking around Père Lachaise. This morning, I listened to a podcast with Jim Morrison’s sister. I’d love to say the inspiration to visit his grave came from there. But it simply didn’t, as I was there yesterday too and the day before that. I never look for famous people’s graves because when I do, I can never find them. So, instead, I walk around paying attention to my surroundings and noticing ‘secondary characters.’ 

I’ll write again soon,

Eponine

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EH: I’m not sure letters are always meant to be read by other people.

MB: You mean other than the people they were originally addressed to?

EH: Some letters were intentionally written to be read by someone other than their intended recipient, or with the knowledge that they might be read by others one day. Antoine de St-Exupery does this with the letters he sends to his wife, Consuelo. Though the letters may have been intended solely for his wife’s eyes, it feels as if he’s aware they’ll be read by other pairs later. He’s careful in his choice of language, it’s quite floury and polished. The thoughts are better organised and he’s giving me what I’m looking for, or what he considers I may have come looking for. He’s better at hiding the rest. It’s like the persona I’ve built in my head reading The Little Prince matches the author of these letters. In fact, his letters clearly draw the contours of the text. 

MB: That’s fascinating he used letter-writing as a kind of literary outline. A couple of years ago I was obsessed with George Eliot’s Romola, a novel about a woman who begins the text a muse and ends it a philosopher. I started researching more about its setting, the early Renaissance period. I learned about people like Laura Cereta and Isotta Nogarola, who’d ‘accidentally’ send letters to male philosophers that were ‘addressed’ to their friends and family. No publisher would accept a philosophical manuscript written by a woman, but they’d publish a compendium of letters exploring the nature of meaning as an ‘illustration’ of what ‘might’ be on women's minds. 

EH: I love the idea of ‘oops, accidentally published philosophy,’ ha! I recently re-read an essay by Alejandro Zambra where he writes, ‘I’m sure Ribeyro knew this phrase of Paul Léautaud’s: ‘‘What I most like is literature that is written like a letter.’’ Léautaud was pointing to a style, the style of necessity. When we read other people’s letters, we are looking for a zone of necessity that is often absent in fiction. No clamouring narrators, no startling characters. In short, it does us good every once in a while to pause happily for a while on steps that lead up to literature.’ 

MB: I like that. 

EH: All acts of writing are an attempt for someone to work out an idea with themselves. In letter-writing, the form demands that you direct it to someone, even if that person might be yourself. I mean, that’s basically what diaries are. That was a bit of a tangent!

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Dear Eponine, 

I love the idea of walking through a cemetery. I do something similar. In New York City, as much as I can, I walk down abandoned streets. In particular alleyways, or paths that cut through the backyards of houses or apartment buildings. Where I grew up most streets weren't named and every place was grey or brown. So what people think of as neglected spaces actually feel more familiar to me, more comfortable. 

You mentioned the word ‘tangent’ earlier. Do you tend to think of it in negative terms? Could letter-writing be thought of as a tangent in its own way, a disruption from the everyday?

Best, 

Micaela

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Dear Micaela, 

I love tangents. Still, I feel like letters have a focus or at least an intent. They serve a practical purpose, there’s something at its core to be communicated and the rest a digression. I prefer the digressions. But there’s always a primary purpose to be fulfilled. That’s what I’m trying to disrupt here, when (not) answering your questions.

Eponine

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MB: How do you know when you’re satisfied with the person you’re investigating? 

EH: I don’t think I get there. 

MB: You become bored by the author? 

EH: I don’t think I become bored. There’s a moment when I go, ‘oh I sort of know them.’ It might be the same with a friendship. At first I’m intrigued, there’s some digging to do. People slowly feed us things about them and we hopefully satisfy some of that appetite. 

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Dear Micaela, 

I realise that the ‘secondary character’ comment came out of context. It’s the title of a novel by Zambra, this writer I told you I’ve been reading a lot of recently. 

In an essay titled ‘Other People’s Mail,’ Zambra writes that letters pave the way for literature. It’s true for that compilation of letters of St-Exupéry to his wife. Zambra wonders what we look for in other peoples’ letters: details, revelations, secrets? ‘Sometimes the revelations don’t come,’ he writes. He gives the example of the correspondence between Kawabata and Mishima, which is admittedly strange. ‘For long passages we are witness to nothing but an unflagging exchange of courtesies. Mishima sends a salmon, and Kawabata responds with chestnut candies.’

I went to the cemetery, again. A funeral was on, which meant I interacted more with the living than with the dead. Some people were crying, not all of them. It must have been someone of relative fame or wealth, as it costs around 30,000€ to bury yourself here. It feels insensitive to be writing about this. 

I was alone again. 'Everybody’s gotta live, everybody’s gonna die, everybody’s gotta live, before you know the reason why' started playing in my left ear as I went deeper into the cemetery. I encountered a few people on the benches, I think one girl was reading poetry. I came across Michel Delpech’s grave, a primary character in France. As I left the cemetery one of his songs, ‘Le chasseur,’ was playing in my left ear. 

Time moved slowly as a scene unfolded before my eyes. A bicycle crashed into another. The man whose fault it wasn’t said, ‘Sir ! Look where you’re going !’ But it wasn’t in an angry voice, rather a disappointed one. The same way a concerned parent might ask their child why they have chocolate all over their hands. Everyone was alright in the end.

Eponine

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EH: My obsessions have short lifespans, a few months at most. I read all, if not most, of an author’s work and move on. It’s not about collecting facts. It stems from an addiction to novelty. Discovery, the new, the exciting. 

MB: Once you start reading letters written by a writer you’re obsessed with, do you tend to become disappointed in them or more obsessed?

EH: I tend to get more excited, but not always. After reading Água Viva for the first time, I got really intrigued by Lispector’s narrative voice. I read two more of her books, The Hour of the Star and The Passion According to G.H. Now I’m reading her collection of letters, I’m two-thirds in. I’m waiting for it to click and she becomes the author you see in her books. Right now I’m just thinking, ‘you’re an entitled brat.’ She complains about everything, she’s bored, she feels lonely. The way she talks about loneliness and solitude is in part quite deep. But then she’ll go back to, ‘why don’t you write to me? I haven’t had a letter from you in ages.’

MB: Got it. 

EH: The book only contains her letters, so I never know what she’s in conversation with. It might be going both ways and she’s responding to someone saying, ‘we miss you, why aren’t you here?’ Though I think it’s unfair of me to judge personal letters about random things. She’s conventional up until now and I’m waiting for the rupture. 

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Hi Eponine,

A list.

1. Seeing a boy, probably seventeen years old, wearing his fanny pack like a quiver full of arrows as he strutted through a hallway, made me think of how much I wish I'd seen it when I was seventeen, younger even than that.

2. Bad pizza is good if it's past 9pm.

3. When people are in a good mood their eyes change colour.

4. Walking down the street yesterday, a girl asked me if I was okay when I tripped and fell. It’s been happening to me more recently, I need to get my shoes fixed up or buy a new pair. We made eye contact for one second, we smiled, we fell in love, we walked away. I'll never see her again and that's absolutely fine.

5. I’m bothered by people who don't wear masks on the subway, start playing loud music, sing, then spray spit everywhere. I was right there.

I'm done with these for the day,

Micaela

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EH: It’s lots of that. Letters can be so disconnected, unstructured. It may literally be someone’s thoughts, on a page. Sometimes when they write, ‘I can’t remember what that word is, wait…’ and then they say the word, you think, ‘why didn’t you think and then write?’ Or they say something, talk about something completely different, and then come back to what they were talking about before. You’re like… ‘structure!’ It really feels like being inside someone’s mind. 

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Dear Micaela, 

This must be my favourite letter. I love lists of random things. 

I’ll select those I want to comment on: 

5. I agree that I don’t like people that don’t wear their masks on the subway. It doesn’t feel very complicated.

4. I think that’s the first time you made a remark about love. I know that’s not a matter I’ve talked to you about, except mentioning that I only write letters to people I feel I can be really honest with. I’m mostly a private person. Though I must admit there’s something thrilling about eye contact, smiling knowing you’ll never see someone again.

Take care,

Eponine

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MB: How do you write? 

EH: I’m someone who re-structures quite often. The way I write tends to involve stealing from people. It tends to be sentences, entire paragraphs, or ideas related to something I’ve been thinking about. That’s probably me not being confident enough with my own voice, at times. Often I need validation from Plato or Wittgenstein or Lispector to decide, ‘this is worthy.’ Though I also love stealing for the sake of it. I appropriate things from others, then create a structure around it and add my voice in between. I take sentences from what I read, I put them on a page, I don’t tell anyone. 

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E

This morning, I listened to a podcast that took me around the streets of Buenos Aires. I learned about the Milonga. I Googled the Milonga and watched a short clip of two people dancing. Then, I Googled Juan and Ignacio. I hope Nacho becomes a poet. In Poeta Chileno, Zambra says that, ‘If you publish a book, you're a poet. Maybe you end up regretting it, but once you publish a book of poems you're screwed, you'll always be a poet.’ I don’t know if I agree. I know that Nacho doesn’t like labelling himself as a writer. I don’t know how he feels about being called a poet though. 

M

I think it's less about becoming a poet than existing as one, like Zambra suggested. Of course, there's a way of thinking that each of us are always 'becoming' whatever craft(s) we practice. Also, Nacho’s already a poet. 

E

How does one practice the craft of poetry and become a poet? Or, a writer? 

M

If a person is engaged in conversation with something, they're practising a craft. This can be something that's 'recognisable,' like getting a degree. But a poet can be anyone, all it takes is will and attention, at least I think so. Crafts are tactile things; if you're touching something, even if it's just through concerted thought and effort, you're practising it. 

EH: There was a point in time where I felt like that was what I wanted to be doing, talking about poetry and literature. I’d had enough of discussing people’s everyday life problems and realised in many discussions people aren’t actually listening. Someone will say something about themselves, related to what you said. It’s not a conversation but people wanting to talk about themselves. So I stopped seeing them.

E

I like looking at people sitting on terraces. 

M

Because on a terrace, people are in a space of in-between?

E

No, because people are doing radically different things from one table to the next. 

Someone sitting alone with their book and a beer. 

Someone on their phone, maybe waiting for another person to come.

A family with a young child. 

A group of friends laughing loudly.

M

I like this list.

EH: But that’s what a conversation is! I realised trying to understand feelings, that is part of philosophy. In life, things happen to us in a non-highbrow way sometimes. It’s fine! 

E

I saw a woman blowing her nose at the cemetery today. Her nose and eyes were red. I wonder if it was allergies or sadness. 

M

Which do you think it was? 

E

I think it was sadness. 

M

That makes sense to me. 

EH: I was having random conversations about everyday life when I thought I wanted to be talking about, I don’t know, literature. But then I would talk about literature with someone and realise it was entirely superficial. Because I read the book a week ago and they read it ten years ago. Then I realise we’re just not on the same page, something’s still moving me. For the other person, not. So there’s a disconnect there. I realised I didn’t want to have that conversation either. Maybe a random everyday life conversation might get me somewhere further.

E

I say that because of the sunglasses. Do people with allergies wear sunglasses to hide? 

M

In Los Angeles they do. 

E

Maybe she was an American woman with allergies. 

MB: In conversations do you always want to arrive at some new positionality? 

EH: Getting somewhere is important to me, feeling like I’ve gotten a step closer to an understanding.

E

Do you have allergies? 

M

No, though I am lactose intolerant, something I intentionally forget, often. Do you have any? 

E

I get hay fever. My eyes go really red and itchy in the spring. It’s quite annoying. It hasn’t started yet this year. 

MB: What’s a ‘step closer to an understanding?’

EH: Experiencing the world. That’s why [in] these superficial conversations, I felt like I wasn't experiencing anything new or understanding the world in a different way. I didn’t see the purpose in them. Whereas when I read a book, I experience something, sometimes something I would never. When you get completely different perspectives thrown at you, it deconstructs your prior understanding of how you thought things worked. 

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Dear Micaela,

I noticed you moved from 'Hi Eponine' to 'Dear Eponine.' People tend to loosen up on the formalities, not amp them up later. Any reason for this?

Eponine

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Dear Eponine,

I moved from 'Dear Eponine' to 'Hi Eponine' and then back to 'Dear Eponine' because once a particular structure's been established for communication, I don't really like following its rules. I definitely agree that 'Dear' sets a tone, establishes a formal beginning. Though it feels intimate too. I never use it in oral form, say, if I run into someone on the street. My favourite way of beginning a letter is just including the name of the person I'm trying to communicate with, though in Japanese doing this is really rude. Neglecting to address someone's prefix is called 'yobisute,' which literally translates to 'throwing away a name' or 'abandoning a name.' In essence, abstaining from indicating one's position in an interaction is an insult; so I rather like doing it. There's a non-answer for you. 

Best,

Micaela

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Dear Micaela, 

Thank you for the explanation from 'Hi' to 'Dear.’ It was also interesting to learn about 'yobisute' in Japanese. I agree with you on the fact that 'Dear' is not for the oral form. That’s why I like starting all my letters with 'Dear Micaela.’ It’s quite specific to the structure of letters. I’d never do so in any other context. 

I like heading and signing these,

Eponine

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Dear Eponine,

I looked up the definition of 'dear' in the dictionary, since I wanted its meaning clarified. The definition was unsurprising though it included phrases like 'a friendly form of address' and 'regarded with deep affection.’ So perhaps, it's not such a formal word after all! 

All this made me think about how funny it is that if I’ve been interpreting the word literally, I've spent years addressing absolute strangers as friends. 

Best,

M

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Letters aren't about their contents, but their form. A lot of its substance is random, not structured. I think I quite like that, about the writing. It’s very honest, unrefined. I like that there’s no aim to some of the sentences. In literature, the end product tends to be something that’s been worked on and worked on and worked on. Often you keep every sentence for a reason. But letters make you realise people are pretty normal, with similar problems and concerns. 

It’s reassuring to be reminded that life is not exciting all the time. You eat, sleep, work and sleep, eat. You have caring responsibilities, you’re sometimes bored, you meet people you don’t like. You’re not always fulfilling a purpose. 

I tend to not discuss what I read, not remember the name of a text or its author. I don’t give a shit, I still read books. The goal of it isn’t to show off my knowledge once I’m done with it. Because then I wouldn’t even need to read it. You can study Wikipedia pages to sound interesting. 

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Dear Micaela,

I’m feeling exhausted from the exchange of letters. I love doing this, but I’ve also realised how much energy goes into writing full-length letters. I think part of me is glad we have WhatsApp and FaceTime. I can call people for 5 minutes, tell them everything I need to say, then hang up. A letter is more of a commitment. I need to sit down, get in position, concentrate. I’m not sure I could do this for extended periods of time. 

I’m trying to be attentive to the details in your letters. Which means that by the time I get to answering multiple, I’m tired. I’ll provide some answers to what you asked: I like making moka in the morning, I like going on long walks, I like taking baths and doing really random tasks in them. I mostly read in my bath, but sometimes I drink wine or tea or even eat dinner in it if I’m alone at home. I’ve been known to drop plain pasta in the water. I mean the whole concept of the bath is a strange one, as you simultaneously soak in your own dirt and various bath oils, hoping to exit clean. I really like the sound of the water running, so I often turn on the minimal jet (is that what it’s called?). Then when the water is halfway to my legs, I turn it off. I just need to hear the sound of water, feel the warmth of the water. It’s not actually about feeling clean or washing at all. I basically sit in the bath like some people would sit on the couch or at a table. That’s how I feel about baths. In fact, there was a screenwriter called Dalton Trumbo who’d get a shit load of work done in his bath. I feel like him. 

On my walk:

1. There was a boy crying. He was really shedding tears and screaming. Maybe if adults did that, I would’ve known whether that woman was sad or if she had allergies.

2. I smelled the flowers and didn’t sneeze. 

3. I don’t know if it’s easier to follow social conventions or break them. I think it depends on the context.

4. I remembered I haven’t done the washing up. 

5. I saw a graffiti saying Patriar-caca. I smiled. 

Eponine

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E

‘As a person I have five different personalities,’ I told my parents once. I kid you not, I think I was nine. I told them I was leading multiple lives. They responded with, ‘what?’ I said, ‘well, there’s [one] with you guys. When I go to school it’s different. With grandparents and stuff, I’m another person. When I go to football, I'm a different person, I’m really fun at football! And by myself I do what I want.’ My parents went, ‘what are you talking about, kid?’

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Dear Eponine,

I liked that list too.

Formalities are interesting things. They’re often used to put people in boxes, identify someone’s status. Also to mark a beginning and an end. I was reflecting on our exchanges about 'dear' yesterday, and now think there's something about abiding by the rules of a constraint that doesn't necessarily mean I'm agreeing to all its terms. 

I've liked bopping in and out of the forms we've taken on, some you've proposed, some I've suggested, that sometimes look like the more 'traditional' way of communicating with each other, sometimes not. I wonder if letter-writing itself, as a form of communication, is built for that. For an experience that before it begins, simply contains the thought 'I'm thinking of you' and holds the possibility for every kind of play. Now I may have to start thinking of lists as letters to an unnamed person. The same way letters may also be interviews waiting to be conducted.

With gratitude, 

Micaela

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Dear Micaela, 

I’m back in front of the computer. I feel like Mario Levrero for saying this.

I went to the cemetery again. I’d gone to the boulangerie to get a fresh baguette then I sat on a bench in the sun, eating it. On that bench I also finished the novel I’d been working my way through, Zambra’s Chilean Poet. I think I’ve consumed all the Zambra I can for now, so I need to find a different writer to obsess about. I bought a book by Damián Tabarovsky, who I’d never heard of. I hope I’ll be hooked. I also purchased a novel by Jorge Ibargüengoitia on recommendation. That reminds me I told Nacho I’d read Zama by Di Benedetto and I still haven’t touched it. That’ll be third on the list.

Other things I did today: 

1. Got a coffee nearby. 

2. I went to see the sunset, but turns out I was an hour early as my mobile phone was on London weather reports.

3. I shaved my legs. It had been three months, so I thought why not.

4. I talked to my parents on FaceTime. 

5. I logged my work hours.

I like both lists and letters. I prefer reading lists and writing letters. I like the idea of lists as a form of letters though, letters as a form of a list. I prefer hearing about random events in a short form, ideas in a long one. I can picture snapshots more easily, because there’s more space for me to imagine how an event really unfolded. I find letters most satisfying when I’m able to follow a thought, arrive at the conclusion at the same time as their author. It resembles what happened in shape and form. 

Letter writing: 1. A form of communication; 2. A gesture of care. (e.g. the letters that Lispector writes to her sister Elisa in a rush, right before the postman arrives. It’s a means of saying, ‘thought of you’); 3. A window into someone’s personality; 4. An entry point to understanding and/or experiencing the world; 5. A path to literature. 

Yours,

Eponine

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Prologue

It’s easier to take things already valued by others. I steal for the sake of it, feeling the thrill of a secret only I know. 

I’m a thief. 

I’m disconnected, unstructured. I have trouble relating to other people. I don’t know if this is the effect of losing the routine of (real) human contact or whether I’m simply not the same person. But I must admit I’ve been different lately. I don’t give a shit about people’s mundane problems, whether the strawberry candle smells better than the raspberry one. Neither of them smell that good. 

Someone is investigating me. 

A storm has passed. I was forced to give an account of my whereabouts without a lawyer present. I was patient with their questions, gave them only fragments. I wrote letters to interrupt their digging, confuse their search. 

I’ve distracted them sufficiently for now.

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Micaela Brinsley

Micaela Brinsley can direct plays but wishes she could direct pigeons.

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