When The New York Times T Magazine recently published a series of emails between Natalie Portman and Jonathan Safran Foer, reactions ran from bafflement to hostility at what seemed a particularly precious bit of high-level marketing (both had projects to promote). But as it turns out, Foer isn’t the only novelist with whom Portman pen-pals. Below are excerpts from a long-running email exchange the actress and director has enjoyed with Cormac McCarthy, author of The Road and Cities of the Plain.
>> On Tue, May 3, 2016 at 3:44 PM, Natalie Portman wrote:
Let me begin by saying how incredibly gratifying our correspondence has been. In recent years, as I worked on translating Amos Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, into my first film as a director, I constantly thought of artists whose work I aspire to, and — I say this with a fan’s self-consciousness — you were one of them. I thought if I could suffuse my film with the visceral nature of, say, Blood Meridian or No Country for Old Men, then I will have succeeded. Thematically, Oz’s book couldn’t be more different from your novels — but that propulsive feeling, that razor’s-edge sense: that’s the important thing.
I’d love to keep writing but it appears that my son is trying to jam his SpongeBob underwear down the garbage disposal. Such is the artist’s life, is it not?
>> On Wed, May 4, 2016 at 8:12 PM, Cormac McCarthy wrote:
The boy is wise. Pressing the remains of a dying world into the steely void. Did the boy succeed? Did he shred them? Send them tattered through the murk, the sludgewaters below. The refuse of our age. Flowing to brownclotted rivers where corpses of things drift at brackish shores. Bloated and grinning. The grief of the empty sun. An idiot’s reckoning.
>> On Thu, May 5, 2016 at 2:02 PM, Natalie Portman wrote:
Luckily I got the underwear out of his hands before he could do any real damage, and he gave me the sweetest hug in apology. Being a mother is a great gift, a blessing, and there’s nothing I can say on the subject that hasn’t been said before. But, in part, I think that’s what’s so amazing about having a child: we can each experience this thing that feels so unique and special — and nobody else will ever be able to understand the depth of our feeling. It’s something that we all can do, yet when it happens, it feels exceedingly rare. Does that make sense? Or is motherhood just turning me into one of those unbearable, sentimental types?
>> On Sat, May 7, 2016 at 12:54 PM, Cormac McCarthy wrote:
Children with sharp small teeth, grasping fingers. Sucking life from all, as an inferno takes its oxygen from the blackening treefringe. As apt to evil as men, simply not grown to it. Their evil a pair of trousers too large yet to fit. But there will come an hour when the boy will know what he is capable of and he will weigh it and know that it is there. He will attire the trousers and they will fit him handsomely. His evil will emerge as a snake from its trembling nest.
>> On Sat, May 7, 2016 at 10:47 PM, Natalie Portman wrote:
My son and I were at a café in Paris last year — the Boulangerie Poilâne, on the Boulevard de Grenelle; if you’re ever there, you must try the chaussons aux pommes — and I caught him trying to pour salt in my café au lait! So, yes, I certainly know what you mean about children’s capacity for “evil”!
It’s funny — although I’ve been working in film since I was 11, it’s only now, working as a director, that I’m thinking of my own life in terms of “scenes” — I’m visualizing my boy’s attempt at ruining my coffee as a director, not as a mother, or as the person who the event actually happened to. As I think about it, I’m working out camera angles, lighting, everything. There’s so much more to directing a movie than there is to everyday life. In everyday life, you don’t have to think about what type of saltshaker will look best on-camera — it’s already there.
>> On Sun, May 8, 2016 at 5:20 PM, Cormac McCarthy wrote:
Salt. Scattered across the fields by marauding deathcults, necklaces of severed ears. Destroying all in their bleakening fury. Crops stunted and gray, harvest of locustshells. Farmers leaving their wrackened steads, moving through bluffnotches towards full nothingness. Asking an absent god what they endeavor to. Yearning for surrender, to offer bloodscabbed necks to the rusty scythe.
>> On Mon, May 9, 2016 at 2:11 PM, Natalie Portman wrote:
In a very small way, I feel like one of those exhausted farmers. On the one hand, I’m extremely tired from a long day of shooting. But on the other, I’m energized by my colleagues. I’m working with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, and other wonderful actresses, and the end of each day is a little bit sad, because we know we’re that much closer to the end of our camaraderie. I want to get through this project — it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, professionally — but at the same time, I want it to last forever. Is that something you’ve encountered in your own work?
>> On Wed, May 11, 2016 at 11:04 AM, Cormac McCarthy wrote:
What is forever. The blasted plains. Low scarps of rock. Nothing upon them but carcasses and things to become carcasses. Bones and yellowed teeth, scattered bits of fur. Chronicles of nothing. A vulture lighting upon illfestered carrion. To tear at flesh, rancid spoors green in the fading day. Murders of crows massing in the branches beyond. Black night sky. A void where nothing breathes. Mute to the hoarse sufferings of an extincting race. Howls unheeded. Lodestars of pain. These things are forever.
There is nothing else, Natalie.
More from Cormac McCarthy: The Road (A Comedic Translation)