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No country for old typewriters

7 December 2009

It didn't seem a slow news week, but the amount of coverage which has been given to the sale of Cormac McCarthy's typewriter in the last few days has been truly astonishing. The American writer bought the machine, an Olivetti Lettera 31, from a pawnshop for $50 (£30) in 1963. Since then he has used it to type 12 novels (plus three as-yet unpublished ones), two plays, several screenplays and untold numbers of letters (no email here), a total of some 5 million words over 50 years.

In the meantime the rest of us, writers included, have migrated, first to the electric typewriter and then to the computer, changing the act of writing radically. No longer is it a matter of messy corrections, Tippex and re-typing. Modern writers don't have to get it right first time but can edit and rewrite on screen, something which has become second nature to us all. The mind boggles to think of McCarthy producing his novels and getting them 'right first time', but, who knows, maybe those writers of the typewriter generation were just dab hands at re-typing, and very fast at doing it to boot.

'When I grasped that some of the most complex, almost otherworldly fiction of the postwar era was composed on such a simple, functional, frail-looking machine, it conferred a sort of talismanic quality to Cormac's typewriter,' said Glenn Horowitz, a rare-book dealer who arranged the auction on McCarthy's behalf. 'It's as if Mount Rushmore was carved with a Swiss Army knife.'

The typewriter was expected to sell for $20,000 (£13,200) but eventually, because of all the publicity the auction had received, it went for $254,500 (£154,475), much to everyone's surprise. McCarthy has spent most of his writing life in extreme poverty, but in recent years his Pulitzer Prize, the success of his books starting with All the Pretty Horses, and the four Oscars award-winning film of No Country for Old Men have all made him into a celebrity whose typewriter is news.

As The Times said last week: 'Until the publication of All the Pretty Horses in 1992, Cormac McCarthy was considered the best unknown novelist in America. None of his previous novels, which included Suttree (1979) and Blood Meridian (1985), had sold more than 2,500 copies in hard cover. There was good reason for his obscurity: McCarthy's books were, and are, implacably grim and violent. They are also stylistically challenging, often plotless, lacking traditional punctuation and arcane in their vocabulary.'

So, is McCarthy seizing the opportunity to discover the marvels of word processing on a computer? He is not. A friend has already found him another portable Olivetti. This time it cost him only $11.