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In the Country of Last Things

A look back at the work and impressively productive life of Brooklyn’s most famous resident, Paul Auster.

· 13 min read
In the Country of Last Things
Paul Auster at the 2010 Brooklyn Book Festival. By .

“Each time I finish a book,” Paul Auster likes to say, “I think it’s the last book I’m ever going to write.” That’s an awful lot of final literary moments for this tall, dark, and existential New Yorker who has been pumping them out like clockwork every 18 months or so for more than 40 years. However, Auster is not very well these days, which means his latest novel really could be the 77-year-old author’s swan-song. It therefore provides a fitting opportunity to look back over his impressively productive life.

Baumgartner, which appeared in November, finds Auster up to many of his familiar thematic tricks: another new book, another new monkish narrator meditating on the reliability of memory and the music of chance. In this instance, the story is told through the eyes of a widowed philosophy professor (who may or may not be a dead ringer for the author), pondering the random forces that shape our lives. “Contrary to what eminent rationalists have been telling us for years,” Auster offers at one point, “the gods are happiest and most fully themselves when playing dice with the universe.” 

Auster has long enjoyed giving the gods a run for their money. Along with his beguilingly calm authorial voice, sneaky plot turns, and occasionally weird structural devices, it’s what draws a lot of people to his work. Not just the usual American literary suspects, but also a smattering of rock ’n’ rollers and movie types, as well as the philosophy crowd in continental Europe (especially France) and some unlikely corners of the Middle East. 

His 18 novels span an array of genres, including romance, detective stories, capers, thrillers, faux westerns, and an uncategorisable novella from 1999 narrated by a dog. He’s also written a dozen nonfiction works, the most recent of which was last year’s Bloodbath Nation, a walloping polemic about America’s epidemic of mass shootings. A bit before that, he published the transcript of a long-distance correspondence with his Australian-based friend J.M. Coetzee titled Here and Now. And then there are the poetry collections, a handful of screenplays, and a few too many memoirs, all produced in the blue haze of countless cigarettes. “You make so many mistakes as a writer, cross out so many bad sentences and ideas, discard so many worthless pages, that finally what you learn is how stupid you are,” he has said of his working style. “It’s a humbling occupation.”

Unless you have been living in one of those locked rooms Auster enjoys writing about, you will already know that his latest title appears as he’s being treated for cancer. A year ago, Auster’s wife of the past 42 years and fellow novelist, Siri Hustvedt, alerted her followers on Instagram that her husband was getting slammed with chemotherapy after first being ill for several months before the diagnosis. The couple have since taken up residence in a “confusing and treacherous” nation that Hustvedt calls Cancerland, and most of Auster’s new book was written during this medically turbulent period.

Auster never announces anything on social media. He doesn’t have an email address and he doesn’t use a computer—not even for a late-night Google search to check on his generally deluxe reviews (and occasional stinkers). Quite the anti-modern touch for a celebrated postmodern writer. Then again, maybe it’s not all that surprising for someone who came of age when apprentice novelists wrote in spidery longhand, and Jack Kerouac—the second-most-shoplifted author in Manhattan after Auster at one time—was still on the road to Nirvana. 

So, Auster is one of his country’s last remaining analogue artists. He researches his books in libraries and primitively scribbles everything into a notebook before repairing to his home in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn to tap out his notes on a typewriter. An assistant then shows up to make electronic versions of his latest plot. His fictional plots tend to be littered with clues to their author’s existential and physical state—almost journalistically so, unlike the dreamy, otherworldly feel of much of his nonfiction. In the past, Auster has usually enjoyed chatting about such touches. Visiting journalists would get to hear how this or that recurrent detail—East Asian women, invisible fathers, a sense of imminent urban disaster, the physical expanses of the American Midwest—relates to his real life. Not anymore.

For more than a year now, Auster has mostly been silent, and not just on account of his illness. Shortly before he cleared customs at Cancerland, his long-troubled 44-year-old son, Daniel, died of a drug overdose just nine days after being charged with manslaughter in the negligent death of his own 10-month-old daughter, Ruby. The infant died from a drug overdose after ingesting the fentanyl and heroin her zonked-out father had just taken before sprawling next to her. This was only the latest in a long line of nightmares involving Daniel. Twenty-five years earlier, he had been present when a drug dealer was gruesomely murdered by a former nightclub promoter and his roommate. According to evidence read out in court, Daniel was paid $3,000 in exchange for his silence.

An ever-so-lightly fictionalised account of that episode appears as a horror-story-within-a-story in Auster’s 2003 novel, Oracle Night. The spooky narrator, Trause—yes, well spotted, that’s an anagram of Auster—also happens to have a drug-addled son who menaces his father and stepmother. Around the same time, Siri Hustvedt produced her own thinly veiled account of this fraught relationship in What I Loved, which features a pathological stepchild who terrorises her. 

The same son also appears as a sweet toddler in Auster’s breakthrough work, City of Glass—part of the magnificently high-modernist New York Trilogy from the late 1980s. A writer-turned-accidental-private-investigator named Daniel gets mistaken for a private eye named Paul Auster and ends up visiting him as part of his search for a missing child. As the two are in conversation, the character of the “fictional” Auster’s little son Daniel arrives home with his stepmother. Paul introduces the two: “Daniel, this is Daniel.” The boy laughs and says, “Everybody’s Daniel!” Well, sure. One of the last times he spoke about this may have been 15 or so years ago during a long interview he gave me at his home. When I asked him how his son was doing, Auster paused for an energetic drag on a Dutch cigarillo, before responding a bit stiffly, “I think he’s still finding himself.” And that was that.  

We met for that interview on a subdued spring afternoon in Park Slope. Historically, this was a hardscrabble migrant neighbourhood in which literary tough-guy Pete Hamill was raised by his Irish parents. Today, it figures as a lush section of New York, replete with fat trees and gym-thin people who aren’t like you and me. Like many creative types of a certain disposition, Auster was dressed entirely in black. Still boyishly handsome at 58, if a little more rumpled to look at than those authorial shots suggested, he was still a reasonably cool advertisement for the creative life, replete with a pleasing jazz-toned voice. “I think writing keeps you young,” Auster once told his old friend Lou Reed. “Any art keeps people fresh, because you never retire. You just do it until you croak.”

The ornately furnished house didn’t look too bad either, all polished oak floors and balustrade, and hung with surrealistic paintings by Sam Messer. The oils depict the Olympia typewriter on which Auster’s titles have been pecked out since he started out in 1974, eight years before the publication of his first book. Typically, Auster works out of a room down the road, which is a more cluttered affair; presumably the domestic orderliness bore the signature of Hustvedt, who floated by during the couple of hours we chatted. As did a mongrel dog named Jack, whom Auster introduced to me like a familiar literary collaborator. “Maybe you’ve met him before in my book Timbuktu,” he said with a smile. 

Also in the offing was Sophie, the daughter Auster shares with Hustvedt, and whose artistic life he was not at all reluctant to discuss. Upon learning that I dabble in music writing, he insisted on noting that Tom Waits’s Swordfishtrombones is one of his favourite records. He then paused the conversation to play one of songs Sophie had recently recorded. “It’s a real voice, huh?” Auster enthused as the song filled the lounge and he leaned forward expectantly for a thumbnail review. Certainly, for a teenage singer, it was a strikingly mature-sounding voice, with suitably weighty lyrics to match. The lyrics to her track “The Last Poem” riff on a poem written nearly 80 years ago by the Parisian surrealist Robert Desnos:

I have dreamed of you so much
You are no longer real
Is there still time for me to touch
Your breathing body
To kiss your mouth
And make your voice come alive again?

This could be a character speaking from the pages of almost any of Auster’s books—Marco Fogg, the orphan hero of Moon Palace (1989), perhaps, or Peter Aaron, the struggling novelist who narrates Leviathan (1992), or several others from his glory days in the 1990s. Given that Auster himself first translated the Desnos poem in 1984 while editing The Random House Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry, that’s probably no surprise.

“I think my preoccupations—those things that drive one to write in the first place—have been consistent,” he reflected as the music faded. “And yet I’m always trying to come at things from another angle. I don’t really want to repeat myself. So, within this imaginary world of mine there is, finally, a range. There are things that are darker than others, funnier than others.” 

Biography also seems to be part of this ongoing meditation. Almost anywhere you look in Auster’s writing, he’s circling the question of how anyone can tell someone else’s story. Is it possible to penetrate the mind of someone else? Especially the people we supposedly know best? Can we even trust the memories we have of ourselves? After all, as Beckett wrote of Proust, “the man with the good memory does not remember anything because he does not forget anything.”

Auster’s life story offers a case in point. His father, Sam, who lit out of the family home while the kids were young, seems to have been such a shadow man, devoid of passion, incapable or unwilling to be known. Then again, as Auster was to later discover, nobody in the family guessed that Sam’s own mother murdered her husband in the Midwest when Sam was still a boy in 1919 and the clan was newly arrived from Austria. A far-flung relative, Daniel Auster, became the mayor of Jerusalem in the closing years of mandatory Palestine.

This was around the same time, in 1947, that Paul was born in New Jersey. In the meantime, Paul’s sister Janet suffered a series of debilitating mental breakdowns and ended up having to be institutionalised for life. As a young man, Auster drifted. A master’s degree in comparative literature from Columbia University gave way to desultory gigs working on an oil tanker and as a census-taker before he crossed the pond to Paris, translating poetry, and by his own account, living hand-to-mouth.

Much of this is detailed in The Invention of Solitude, a splendidly proportioned, understated, and haunting work that remains one of his best moments. It’s a highly experimental and segmented memoir that circles the abrupt vanishment of the author’s own father and sudden appearance of his first child. That title was “a very important book to me,” Auster agreed. “It was my first prose book. It marked a breakthrough in my development as a writer, as a thinker, as a human being.” So much of what he subsequently wrote “grew out of that book, out of its meditations and questions.”

Among the parts of the world where those preoccupations have long struck a popular chord is the Middle East, particularly—but not exclusively—in Israel, where the Jewish-American writer was accorded a rock star’s welcome when he visited for the first time some years before we met. When the acclaimed Israeli writer David Grossman wrote To the End of the Land, his hit 2008 novel about a young man who shrugs on a uniform and leaves home to fight in one of the IDF’s endless wars, the bookshelf of the departed young man is described as prominently displaying all of Paul Auster’s books.

In Israel, Auster was introduced to a former Palestinian prisoner and an Israeli jailer who bonded over his work. And “right now I know my work is being pirated in Iran,” he noted brightly, perking up even more when I mention that the woman who first introduced me to his books in New York was a young Turkish journalist, Yasemin Congar. “This means something to me,” Auster told me. “It makes me feel that maybe those years of slogging away were worth it.”

Closer to home the notices have not always been so endearing. In a vicious Village Voice review of Moon Palace, the art critic Gary Indiana described Auster’s sensibility as “essentially dry, academic, and theoretical” and likened him to “a mechanical engineer impersonating Kafka and Beckett.” Really? As the Irish journalist Sean O’Hagan once put it, yeah, the subject matter may be abstract and existential—but the voice, of the younger writer in particular, is what remains so assured, inviting, and distinctive. 

A happiness drives Auster’s best lines forward, the American writer and critic Paul Berman noted in a 2017 review of 4 3 2 1, “a joy in recounting the tiny details, and, then again, a joy in formulating the phrases, and still another joy in allowing the rhythm of the details and the rhythm of the phrases to go in and out of syncopation.” Auster is romantic, too, often transcendently so, as in this passage from The Locked Room:

Everything had changed for me, and words that I had never understood before suddenly began to make sense. This came as revelation, and when I finally had time to absorb it, I wondered how I had managed to live so long without learning this simple thing. I am not talking about desire so much as knowledge, the discovery that two people, through desire, can create a thing more powerful than either of them can create alone.

People may disagree on the creative merits of this or that Auster title, but no one disputes that the 1990s marked something of a commercial watershed for him. This was not only thanks to steadily increasing book sales and growing reputation abroad but also the result of a swerve into the film business. His foray into movies proved great for literary business, even if most of the productions haven’t aged terribly well. 

In the first, a Philip Haas-directed adaptation of Auster’s The Music of Chance, James Spader turns in a luminous performance as one of two men who meet up by accident and end up together as hostages in a jasmine-scented country estate after losing a game of poker to the creepy owners. The story works well on the page, but on screen, it meanders along to an unsatisfying conclusion. Considerably more successful was Auster’s original screenplay for Wayne Wang’s 1995 indie hit, Smoke. Shot over a week in 1994, a bunch of characters drift in and out of a Brooklyn cigar store owned by Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel). A companion piece released the following year and titled Blue in the Face used a looser, quasi-documentary style and featured celebrity appearances from Michael J. Fox, Roseanne Barr, Lily Tomlin, and Madonna, as well as cameos from Jim Jarmusch and a surprisingly funny Lou Reed as themselves.

Auster also wrote screenplays for two films he directed himself: Lulu on the Bridge from 1998 (an accidental shooting in a New York club propels a jazz musician on a strange journey) and 2007’s The Inner Life of Martin Frost (a writer pretentiously plots his next novel after he awakes one morning to find a naked beauty in his bed). For those who enjoy such things, these have all been anthologised in Collected Screenplays.

In recent years, a cinematic style began to crop up in Auster’s regular books, too. It sometimes feels as if the author is perpetually winking at the camera—2002’s The Book of Illusions is dusted with antique yarns related to the silent-film era. And 4 3 2 1—published just in time for its author’s 70th birthday in 2017—was also ambitiously cinematic, clocking in at 864 pages and featuring parallel stories about an immigrant character named Archie Ferguson told in four different ways; a kind of Sliding Doors device writ large. 

4 2 3 1 was nominated for the 2017 Man Booker prize. The book itself is lovingly detailed, undeniably clever, and—forgive me—a tad dull in its over-telling. As Lou Reed might have reminded him, the first rule in rock ’n’ roll is the first rule for most writing: quit while you’re ahead. On the other hand, perhaps that only underlines another point Auster has long made about how every new creation not only feels like the last but the first, with all the new challenges, false starts, and missed opportunities that entails. Sometimes these things work out better than others. 

And when Auster says every fresh title is like the last, it isn’t just in the sense of finality. He means that the artist is essentially spinning out the same existential story with a fresh set of characters falling over this thing called life. In this way, a critique of the notion of progress can be detected in pretty much everything he has produced. As he has written, each life is no more than the sum of contingent facts, a chronicle of chance intersections, of flukes, of random events that divulge nothing but their own lack of purpose. 

And where does it all end? In The Invention of Solitude, Auster writes in the second-person about the time his first marriage was in disarray. Drifting into a New York bar in the West Fifties late one night, he beholds a “voluptuous” woman who soon proposes a quick sexual tumble. After he’s spent, Auster finds himself mulling how several billion sperm cells are produced by a man in each completed sexual act—or roughly the number of people in the world. This means that each man holds the potential of an entire world within himself: 

a spawn of idiots and geniuses, of the beautiful and the deformed, of saints, catatonics, thieves, stock brokers, and high-wire artists. Each man, therefore, is the entire world, bearing within his genes a memory of all mankind. Or, as Leibniz put it: “Every living substance is a perpetual living mirror of the universe.” For the fact is, we are of the same stuff that came into being with the first explosion of the first spark in the infinite emptiness of space. And then, as though taking hold of it at last, he thought of the furtive, microscopic cell that had fought its way up through his wife’s body, some three years earlier, to become his son.

Paul Auster has spent the greater part of his working life since then hunched over a small rectangle of wood, concentrating on even smaller rectangles of white paper, looking to capture something of the essence of it all with each new work. And now, as ever, he’s finishing where he began. 

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