Paul Auster, who has died at the age of 77, grew up in New Jersey in the post-war years of the 1950s, where a bookless household laid the foundations for his obsessional focus on human behaviour and the complexities of the shifting world.

As “a young Jew in New York” with a voracious appetite for literature and a fascination with writing, Auster attended Columbia University, where he studied English literature, influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Samuel Beckett.

In 1982, Auster planted himself on the literary scene with The New York Trilogy — a genre-bending work that deftly merges elements of hard-boiled detective fiction with an effortless postmodernist style, via a classically Austerian lens of existentialism and angst.

City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room — three connected novellas — engross readers with deliciously complex plot lines, enigmatic characters and philosophical thoughts on language and identity. The New York Trilogy established Auster as a literary genius, earning him international acclaim through his masterclass in storytelling. His relationship to his characters is unmatched.

Paul Auster, a great American writer of sophistication, innovation and intellect passed away on April 30

In interviews, he revealed a paternal love for his craft:

“The novelist is not a puppeteer. You’re not manipulating your characters. You’ve given birth to them, but then they take on an independent life. I think your greatest requirement in writing fiction is to listen to what they’re telling you and not force anything on them that they wouldn’t do. They call the shots.”

When I first read The New York Trilogy, I instantly wanted to become a creative writer. I felt inspired by Auster’s unparalleled explorations of chance and coincidence, fact and fiction, and his use of innovative techniques to blur the boundaries between author, narrator and character. In the plot of The New York Trilogy, Daniel Quinn is mistaken for the character/author Paul Auster.

His remarkable sophistication, innovation of genre and embodiment of the city flaneur (someone who wanders observing life) is folded into multi-layered plots that mask as existential invitations to question reality and reflect on the way fate shapes our lives.

ESSAYS, MEMOIRS AND FILMS

Alongside his novels, Auster prolifically penned numerous essays and memoirs, showcasing his versatility and intellect. The detailed and cinematic quality of his noir-esque writing also made for sumptuous storytelling on screen. His success as a writer brought opportunities to realise his youthful ambitions to become a film director.

In 1995, he adapted a Christmas story he’d written for The New York Times and, alongside Wayne Wang, co-directed Smoke, a film set in a Brooklyn smoke shop that interweaves the stories of the people who cross paths there. Auster went on to co-direct the follow-up Blue in the Face (1995) — again with Wang — which he wrote about in Smoke & Blue in the Face: two films (1995). His debut feature as sole director was Lulu on the Bridge (1998), about a saxophonist whose life changes after he is shot on stage.

Autobiographical books such as The Invention of Solitude (1982), Winter Journal (2012) and Report from the Interior (2013) offer poignant reflections on grief, fatherhood and the passage of time.

Written in the second person — a rarity in literature and a publisher’s arch nemesis — the memoirs use of the awkward viewpoint cleverly deny the reader comfort, qualifying them as further examples of Auster’s lessons on how to start living comfortably.

Auster’s distinctive authorial voice, characterised by vividly realised gestures, wit, intellect and existential angst, masterfully and universally resonate, leaving the reader spellbound. Permeating popular culture, the author continues to inspire new generations of writers and artists.

The New York Trilogy is now a brilliant series of beautiful graphic novels. It also appears in Ia Genberg’s book, The Details, recently shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2024, where she perfectly sums up the experience of reading Auster:

“The book in my hand is The New York Trilogy: hermetic but nimble, both smooth and twisted, at once paranoid and crystalline, and with an open sky between every word. Auster turned into a true north of mine when it came to both reading and writing, even after I forgot about him … His discerning simplicity became an ideal, initially associated with his name though it endured on its own. Some books stay in your bones long after their titles and details have slipped from memory.”

Like Genberg, The New York Trilogy moved me in a way that I, too, had never understood until I read her newly translated novella. Auster was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2017 for his novel 4 3 2 1. By then he was the author of a trove of bestselling books such as Sunset Park (2010), Invisible (2009) and The Book of Illusions (2002).

It took him more than three years to write 4 3 2 1 — a book set in the US in the 1950s and 1960s, which follows Archibald Isaac Ferguson through a life which takes four simultaneous but entirely different paths. It was his first book for seven years.

THE STORY IS NOT IN THE WORDS; IT’S IN THE STRUGGLE

The last years of Auster’s life were mired by the tragedy of the death of his grandchild, and then his son, Daniel, at 44 years old. He spent the pandemic locked down in his brownstone house in Brooklyn, but continued to write, reflecting in an artistic essay — which travelled the borderlands of far Eastern Europe — in which he explores the mythical Wolves of Stanislav (a Ukrainian folk story) as a parable for the coronavirus.

In December 2021, Auster’s wife Siri announced his battle with lung cancer while he was penning his last novel, Baumgartner (2023). A most tender book on love, ageing and loss, it describes newly widowed 71-year-old Sy’s reaction to the death of his wife, Anna Blume (who is the narrator of his 1987 post-apocalyptic novel In the Country of Last Things).

Auster’s legacy is not merely confined to the pages of his novels or frames of films that were adaptations of his work. He transcends boundaries of art and literature and defied genre, leaving an indelible print on contemporary literature.

Through unparalleled storytelling — labyrinthine narratives where chance and fate intersect, unravel mysteries and blur identities — Auster’s literary testament bequeaths the power of imagination, the inimitable ability to capture the human experience, and the inexhaustible possibilities of language.

The writer is a PhD Candidate at the School of Humanities, University of Hull
Republished from The Conversation

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 12th, 2024

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