Paul Auster

(2685 words)
  • Garan Holcombe (Independent Scholar - Europe)

Tom, a character in The Brooklyn Follies, (2005) Paul Auster's most recent novel, calls writing “a disease…what you might call an infection or influenza of the spirit, and therefore it could strike anyone at any time” (148/149). Born in Newark, New Jersey on February 3rd in 1947, Auster caught his own creative virus in his late teens. A sporty, popular child, he became a sullen, withdrawn adolescent. In 1965 he left his suburban home for Colombia University in New York, where he studied English Literature, read “like a demon” (The Guardian, October 26th, 2002) and began to write stories.

Whether he was consciously seeking the kind of adventures that sensitive, literary young men have always sought, or simply keen to escape the narrow confines of his suburban upbringing, Auster, after dropping out of his post-graduate degree course, realising he wanted to write books rather than talk about them, worked as a general dogsbody on an oil tanker for several months. Then, in February 1971, he left the United States for Paris, where he would stay for the next three and a half years. The French Capital has long been synonymous in the American imagination with the image of the half-starved writer, serving out his literary apprenticeship in a garret; there can be no doubt that the myth of the city was attractive to the young Auster. Indeed, the classic portrait of a room stripped bare, which is only good enough for sleeping, writing and uncomfortable lovemaking in a single bed, occurs throughout Auster's fiction: characters in Oracle Night (2004), Moon Palace (1989), In The Country of Last Things (1987) and The Brooklyn Follies inhabit “a monks' cell or a hermit's refuge” (Oracle Night, 62), places which represent “restraint, inwardness, and discipline” (Oracle Night, 63).

It was in Paris that Auster began to write poetry; he went on to publish several collections. None of his poetry can rival the achievements of his fiction. If it possesses an affecting marble-like stillness, it is also frustratingly opaque and repetitive. “Word” and “words” appear again and again in his poems, as if Auster was so filled with them that each time he sat down to write he felt himself incapable of doing anything but foregrounding the very stuff his poetry was made of. Auster's poetry is reminiscent of early essays such as The Death of Sir Walter Raleigh and Pages For Kafka, subsequently published in his Collected Prose (2003); Auster is grasping for a style, a voice and a theme here, all of which tends to reduce much of his work in this period to an almost haunting vagueness.

Auster returned to New York in July 1974, where he has lived ever since. He refused to take up a permanent job to support himself whilst writing; instead he tried to make it through on poetry and translation work. It was a difficult time. He married the poet Lydia Davis, his son Daniel was born, but by the end of the decade he was struggling. His marriage was failing and his writing was going nowhere. In an incident which could have been taken straight from the pages of one of his novels, his father's death in 1978 provoked a dramatic change in his life. He inherited enough money so that he could dedicate himself exclusively to writing, and was released from a block which had been threatening to paralyse him. (It is interesting to note that characters come into enough money in The Music of Chance (1990), Leviathan (1992) and Moon Palace (1989) to force radical changes in their circumstances. It is not so fanciful to suggest that Auster is working through his own guilt; to have found, through the loss of a parent, the financial means to write, must have been unsettling. Then again we could read this as Auster's way of freeing his protagonists. In each of the novels mentioned above, the characters, in large put due to being released from everyday circumstance, are forced into a re-evaluation of themselves.)

The Invention of Solitude is part memoir and part biography of Auster's father; it is also a meditation on loss, familial love, memory and Auster's own experience of fatherhood. It was published in 1982 and was well received. In the same year Auster married the writer Siri Husdvedt, five days after his divorce from Davis was finalised. They had met the year before at a poetry reading, an occasion Auster recreated in Leviathan when Peter, the hero, meets Iris, who becomes his “happy ending”. It doesn't take a linguistic magician to see the “Siri” in “Iris”. Husdvedt has herself is a writer who has acheived critical and commercial success, particularly with her novel What I Loved which drew heavily on her life with Auster. They have a daughter, Sophie.

Following the publication of The Invention of Solitude Auster decided to dedicate himself to fiction. Poetry, he says, left him “overnight”. He was in his late thirties when The New York Trilogy (1987) made his name. His debut work of fiction, a strikingly original tripartite novel, was a genuine advancement of the form and has become one of the most admired novels of the last thirty years. A play on the conventional detective story, The New York Trilogy combines high seriousness with an at times thrilling entertainment, taking us on hallucinatory journeys without ends, or even destinations. It examines authorship, the possibilities and limitations of language, the need to pin something down and the impossibility of doing so, and the tension between the individual and the writer.

The figure of the writer, the literary figure, is an ever present in Auster's work. He describes himself as belonging to that “secret fraternity of solitaries, shut-ins, and cranks, men and women who spend the better part of our time locked up in little rooms struggling to put words on a page” (“A Prayer For Salman Rushdie”, Collected Prose, 493). His novels often begin with a character looking back on an event; not only do they want to come to an understanding of it, but they wish to discover the means by which they can tell the story. His last three novels The Book of Illusions (2002), Oracle Night and The Brooklyn Follies have all dealt with men troubled by personal tragedy and serious illness. The characters seek, through investigation and the process of storytelling, to recover not only their sense of self, but also the means by which they can ground themselves in a world from which they have been cut adrift.

As central to Auster's work as his desire to call attention to the essential “storyness” of his stories, is a Beckett-like exploration of the lack of solidity at the centre of all notions of identity. In The New York Trilogy, characters morph into other characters, name shift, and nothing is certain, or even knowable. Many of Auster's novels can be read as a variation on the theme of the existential search for identity in a world of “random events that divulge nothing but their own lack of purpose” (The New York Trilogy, 217). His characters battle, like Marco Fogg's mother in Moon Palace, “against some vast and internal disarray” (4). Again and again Auster explores appearance and disappearance, invention and reinvention. The idea that one can radically transform one's life by the simple act of flight is a such a common theme of Auster's fiction as to border on obsession; he is fascinated by the urban myth of a man who walks out on his life; his characters constantly do this, assuming new identities, experimenting with boundaries and railing against the confines of the individual self. Many of Auster's characters go on journeys, journeys that are “doomed to failure”, “useless” quests (Moon Palace, 279) in which they are as likely to lose as find themselves. Or else they become involved in odd schemes, usually through some strange quirk or whim or at the bequest of some eccentric they have happened upon. In Leviathan Benjamin Sachs falls from a balcony, which eventually forces him to engage in a mad, destructive quest to unsettle the complacency of modern America; in The Music of Chance, Nashe and Pozzi build an enormous wall for two middle-aged millionaires they owe money to; in The Book of Illusions, the silent movie comedian Hector Mann decides to make films that no one will ever see; in Moon Palace, Fogg decides to allow his money to run out and live like a bum.

For Auster, identity is bound up with chance. He explores the role chance plays in our lives, something he describes as “the mechanics of reality”. As a teenager he saw another boy struck by lightning; Auster was standing right next to him; but for mere chance, it could have been him. Many critics have accused Auster's use of chance as too artificial. It is at this point that readers either “get” or “lose” Auster, if you share the belief of Anna Bloom in In The Country of Last Things, that “our lives are no more than the sum of manifold contingencies” (143), then you will, in some sense at least, be exactly the kind of reader that Auster is writing to.

Auster's own life is almost always filtered through his work, not merely through the use of biographical sketches but by the use of his own name and that of his wife. In City of Glass, Quinn, the protagonist pretends to be a private eye called Paul Auster, a man whose wife is called Siri. Auster knew someone at Colombia who blew himself up by accident, an incident echoed in Leviathan. In several novels, characters hand money out on the street, something a friend of Auster's once did. Given that Auster almost always writes in the first person, we can see how many see him as an autobiographical writer, although Auster himself rejects this; while he admits to using events from his own life in his fiction he says this is done to preserve their memory rather than out of a conscious desire to make himself the subject of his own work.

Auster's narrators are almost always participants in the story, but they are never omniscient, they attempt to piece things together from a variety of sources, detective-like, so as to present as “accurate” a version of events as is possible. They do not supply answers, provide “truths” or seek to close their narratives in easy or comfortable ways. As the opening paragraph of The New York Trilogy says, “the question is the story itself, and whether or not it means something is not for the story to tell”. Readers who do not favour such “endless” texts often criticize this as a failing in Auster, just as those drawn to this style see it as a more accurate reflection of reality than more straightforward forms of realism.

Dialogue is one of Auster's weakest areas; it is often arch, stilted and overally formal, almost as if it were an essay broken up into parts. Auster's true appeal lies in his storytelling ability, the contemplative, crystal quiet of his style; it is at once direct and simple, yet suggestive of great philosophical, intellectual and metaphysical depths. His novels have a sharp, clear, almost monumental quality: like modern myths made of stone in a time of fluorescent, ever shifting images. The Music of Chance, about two men who wander into a late night poker game and find themselves playing for their lives, and Timbukto (1999), the pared down story of Mr. Bones the dog, work as fables or parables. Mr Vertigo (1994), a book full of “the rambunctious patter of a clever little clown,” reads as a sly retelling of American history, as, to an extent, does Moon Palace. In The Country of Last Things, is an urgent dystopian novel, combining Beckett and the Brothers Grimm, with a dash of Orwell's 1984, to produce a disturbing echo of the pain of the twentieth century. The Book of Illusions and Oracle Night are magical sleights of hand, about the nature of perception and the possibility of redemption. The Brooklyn Follies, a portrait of pre-9/11 New York, is a deceptively upbeat work which once more pushes the theme of redemption, and suggests Auster could be moving in a new direction.

Auster's work is awash with tales and anecdotes, many of which, such as the one about Bakhtin using his work to roll cigarettes during the Russian Revolution, are repeated on several occasions, much like a stand-up going back to the material that received the biggest laughs. Auster possesses a natural gift for narrative and a manifest love and respect for the mechanics of literary invention. Throughout his work, his love for literature, his knowledge of its history and development, resonates. He wraps stories within stories, each tale somehow interlinked with the next so that the multitude of fictions chime together in unexpected ways, investing the whole with an almost choral quality. His great skill is to take us deep within the fiction; he reminds us that reading is a strange, contradictory act of blindness. We see what is literally not there. David Zimmer, a minor character in Moon Palace and the narrator of The Book of Illusions, describes Auster's style perfectly when writing about the silent comedian Hector Mann, with whom he has become obsessed: “Hector's gags unfold like musical compositions, a confluence of contrasting lines and voices, and the more the voices interact with one another, the more precarious and unstable the world becomes” (The Book of Illusions, 37). It is no surprise that Auster's favourite book is Cervantes' ur-novel Don Quixote.

As well as fiction, non-fiction, poetry and translations, Auster has also published Hand To Mouth (1997), a short autobiographical piece subtitled “chronicle of early failure”. He wrote the screenplay for Wayne Wang's well received Smoke, (1995) and wrote and directed the loose, semi-improvised follow up Blue In The Face (1995). A more fantastical and less coherent film, Lulu on the Bridge has never been shown in the US or the UK. He has also overseen an America-wide project to collect real stories, initially broadcast on radio and subsequently published as True Tales of American Life (2001), and at the time of writing is shooting The Interior Life of Martin Frost in Portugal, a film based on his novel, The Book of Illusions.

Yet despite having been lauded by many of his fellow writers and critics, including Harold Bloom, Don Delillo and Peter Carey, he is by no means universally popular in his native land. He has drawn criticism from people who see him as ploughing the same field over and over again, as a writer who - in stark contrast to his own assertion that everything is subordinate to story - puts too much of himself and his own cleverness into what he writes, passing off as deep intellectual speculation, the quasi-philosophical Chinese box of endless narratives that come with no solutions and no closure. In 2001, B.R. Myers, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, launched an attack upon the reputations of a number of American novelists including Auster, DeLillo and Proulx. Of Auster Myers wrote, “(he) knows the prime rule of pseudo-intellectual writing…the harder it is to be pinned down on any idea, the easier it is to conceal that one has no ideas at all.” Myers' dismissive comments are indicative of a certain, strange reality surrounding Auster: that he is more readily appreciated in continental Europe than he is at home. In France, where he constantly tops the bestseller lists, he is seen as the best American writer of his generation. In Spain he was awarded the 2006 Principe de Austurias de las Letras prize, for having carried out, according to the jury, a “literary revolution”.

As Salman Rushdie puts it, Auster has “a European sensibility brought to bear on entirely American subject matter” (The Guardian, October 26th, 2002). Although Auster cites Hawthorne and Poe as his primary influences, he has also taken inspiration from Kafka, Beckett, Hamsun and Cervantes. Auster combines the vast epic landscapes of the USA, that “perilous nightmare of traps and mazes”, with the irrepressibly individual quest for meaning, purpose and identity that is more readily associated with European fiction, and in doing so has found out his own unique place in modern literature.

Holcombe, Garan. "Paul Auster". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 15 September 2006
[, accessed 27 May 2015.]

Articles on Auster's works

  1. New York Trilogy

Related Groups

  1. Postmodernist American Fiction
  2. Metafictional Writing