Never Ask Me Why: Paul Auster, Novelist


First Published: The Irish Times, Saturday, September 5, 2009

“WELL, MR AUSTER. Tell me all about yourself.” Quite a way to start a conversation. But then, if you’re Samuel Beckett, you can probably get away with any conversation-starter you like. And it goes without saying that you can lean across the table to pilfer a cigarette from your new acquaintance – though, being Beckett, you’ll probably be polite enough to ask first. And never mind that you have a packet of your own – albeit cigarillos rather than cigarettes – on the table in front of you. Stolen smokes are sweeter by far.

Thirty-five years after he first met Samuel Beckett in a Paris cafe, Paul Auster has picked up a few of his ways. Novels narrated by obsessive men tripping over the perils of memory and through the trapdoors of language: yes. Monologues that pit consciousness against itself; those too. And even in Auster’s dark good looks – those intense eyes which have stared from the jackets of his books for some 30 years now – there is now a touch of those hawk-like Beckett features; at 62, grey-haired and high-browed, he looks just about ready for his close-up with John Minihan. And then there are the cigarillos. The air is struck with the smell of cigar smoke as Auster opens the door of his Brooklyn home, a beautiful brownstone in the writer-riddled neighborhood of Park Slope, where he and his wife, the novelist Siri Hustvedt, have lived since the 1980s.

This week, Auster and Hustvedt will both travel to Dublin, to take part in the inaugural Mountains to the Sea DLR Book Festival in Dún Laoghaire. On Friday evening, they’ll each read from new novels in progress – Auster’s 16th, Sunset Park , which he has just finished in a longhand draft, and Hustvedt’s fifth, The Summer Without Men . But on Thursday evening, in the keynote event of the festival, Auster will deliver what has been titled the “Beckett Address”, a talk on the Beckett he knew and the Beckett whose colossal impact he still feels as a writer and a reader. It’s been pleasurable, Auster says, to dredge up memories of that first meeting, in 1974, and of the correspondence that followed, (including a letter from Beckett which read, in its entirety, “Dear Mr Auster, OK for ‘Lethal Relief’, Yours, Sam Beckett”). But Auster still cringes somewhat at the memory of his very first response in that Paris cafe – his first Beckett address, so to speak. “He said, tell me all about yourself. And I had nothing to talk about. Nothing to tell him. So I stammered a bit, and stumbled, and I felt like crawling into a hole.”

But then Beckett stole a cigarette, and sparked it up it with a wisecrack about vices, and the younger writer relaxed a little. And they talked, for a while, “about many things” – the poet John Berryman, who had recently taken his own life; the painter Joan Mitchell, who had coaxed Auster into writing to Beckett and asking for a meeting in the first place; the trials of translation.

Though he was in awe of Beckett’s writing, which he had discovered, and devoured, as a teenager, Auster didn’t ask Beckett much about it – though he did offer some “young and enthusiastic” counsel on the translation of Beckett’s 1946 novel Mercier et Camier – and would have been content, he says, to have talked about cricket the entire time, if that was what Beckett wanted. “Though my cricket knowledge is not very good,” he laughs. “Really I just wanted to chat.” They chatted about Dublin, which Auster had visited as a Joyce-mad 18-year-old. They talked also of New York, which Beckett had visited just once, in 1964, shooting Film with Buster Keaton and getting lost on a trip to the World’s Fair in Queens with his publisher, Barney Rosset. “And apparently,” says Auster, “and I love this, Rosset took Beckett to a Mets double-header, and Beckett sat through both games completely transfixed. And Beckett said, this is a wonderful sport and if I lived here I’d be completely involved with it.”

AUSTER NEED NOT have worried, then, about the prospect of an awkward conversation about cricket or anything else; he and Beckett hit it off, and they had plenty in common to keep discussing through their letters as the years went by. But, unlike many who wax lyrical about their bond with “Sam”, Auster is refreshingly realistic about the connection he and Beckett had.

“We weren’t friends at all,” he says. “I mean, you can’t call it friendship, it was hardly even an acquaintanceship, but there was some feeling of solidarity, I felt, from him towards me, and I appreciated it very much. And I think now that I’m an old fellow and I see young writers, you know, there is always this feeling of tenderness and fear that you have for them.

“Because it’s so difficult. You almost have the same anxieties for these young writers as you have for your own children.” He laughs; he’s exaggerating, he knows, but he means it too, in a way. That intense young writer who sat across a cafe table from that intense older writer in 1974 had already, by then, been years in the making. Born in 1947 in Newark, Auster was already conscious at a young age that he had been conceived, as he puts it in his first prose book, The Invention of Solitude , in a “loveless embrace, a blind, dutiful groping between chilly hotel sheets”. His parents, who divorced when he was a teenager, were not readers, but his mother’s sister is married to the translator Allen Mandelbaum, and when the Mandelbaums went to Italy on a Fulbright grant in the late 1950s, they left boxes of books with the Austers for safe keeping. When it became clear that they were going to take some time to return, the young Auster and his mother unpacked and shelved the books. Auster began to explore, and by the time Mandelbaum came back, Auster had begun to write poems – all of which his uncle-in-law subjected to a “very, very tough” critique.

Auster’s father owned buildings in Newark, and it was while working for his father – at first helping to collect rents, then working on the building maintenance – that Auster got some glimpse of the racial divisions which existed in that city in the years leading up to the 1967 riots. When the riots erupted, Auster was with his mother and her husband, who happened to hold a prominent position in the Newark city government, and who drove them straight through the Central Ward on his way to City Hall. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Auster says of the scenes in the streets and in the jail, which they later visited. “It was like driving through a war.” In his most recent novel, Man in the Dark (2008), he recreates that night, describing how he and his stepfather found the mayor sitting at his desk in City Hall, “crying ‘what am I going to do, what am I going to do’, his head in his hands.” And how a colonel from the New Jersey Police walked into the office and said, “I’m going to kill every black bastard in this city.”

Newark, Auster says, has never recovered from those riots. “This is a country in which we allow this to happen, we allow major cities to founder.” At that stage in his life, Dublin was one of the few other cities he had experienced aside from Newark and New York. He saved his wages from a part-time job to travel there, to follow in the footsteps of Leopold Bloom. “I didn’t talk to anybody,” Auster says. “I was too shy even to go into a pub. All I did was walk and walk and walk. Dublin got imprinted on my brain. “Every night after that for years, as I was falling asleep, in my mind I would be walking in Dublin.”

He remembers staying in a B&B in Donnybrook, taking the bus into town, “passing the hospital for incurables”. Speaking of incurables, he remembers, too, Beckett’s response to Auster’s memories of Dublin: “He said he couldn’t live in Dublin, it would be impossible, because all anyone did was sit around and drink and talk and waste time.”

AUSTER, LIKE HIS hero, was never a fan of wasting time. By his mid-20s, he had written reams of poetry, translations and essays, as well as some plays and the beginnings of two novels. To finance these endeavours, and his years in Paris, he had worked after university for the US Census Bureau – a job which gave him the chance, quite literally, to make people up – and on an Esso oil tanker, scrubbing and cleaning his way around the Gulf of Mexico. He had also, while at university at the anti-Vietnam, anti-draft hotbed that was Columbia in 1968, been arrested while protesting the war: “kicked by the cops, dragged by the hair and thrown in jail”. In 1974, he married his first wife, Lydia Davis, and in 1977 he became a father, to Daniel, the boy whose “sweet and ferocious little body”, at rest in his crib, became the powerful closing image of the first half of Auster’s 1982 memoir, The Invention of Solitude .

That book was Auster’s first foray into prose, a haunting and visceral meditation on fatherhood, written from the point of view both of a father and a son. It was, in a sense, the beginning of his life as a writer, for all the words and scenes and stanzas he might have written in the decade and a half beforehand. “When I was in my 20s, I didn’t know how to write well enough to realise the very ambitious goals I had set for myself,” he says. “I just wasn’t capable. So I felt very frustrated, and I stuck to writing poetry and translations, and essays about poetry and fiction. But towards the end of 1978, I had gone through a rough period. My marriage was breaking up, there was a little baby, I had no money, and I was scrambling, scrambling to make money.”

It was a difficult time, and Auster was perhaps in no mood to sit in on a rehearsal of a piece of modern dance in a Manhattan high school gym, but that was exactly what he ended up doing in January 1979, when his friend, the painter David Reed, invited him to come and see a rehearsal by a choreographer friend of his. The dance was, Auster says, “exquisitely beautiful”, but it was when the choreographer began to speak, to try to articulate what it was she had just done, that he really sat up and took notice. “The inadequacy of her words in relation to the motion that I was watching opened something up in me,” he says. “I don’t know what, a kind of joy. A chasm, between words and world, it was right there before my eyes.

“And I went home and I started writing something, a text of no genre that I can identify, about the dance and the movement. I felt liberated. I felt that I was going in a new direction altogether.” And at 7 o’clock the next morning, the telephone rang. And, as Auster says, “no-one calls at 7am unless there’s bad news”. His father had died of a heart attack during the night. Auster sat at his desk and wrote and wrote. It was a “compulsion”, he says, to write about his father, to try to understand that man’s complexity, his distance, his life that had been, in a sense, invisible.

As he went through the months of sorting out his father’s personal effects, the treasures and the junk that had piled up in his home, Auster kept writing, kept tracing, kept plunging into the morass of feelings and sorrows and realisations; as he discovered a murder that had been kept secret in his family for over six decades, his writing took on a new urgency, his need to understand his father, to understand memory and language itself, took on a further depth.

And then there was the small boy who called Auster “Father”, who rendered the stuff of memory and of language more complicated still. The narrative surged forth from a fresh sense of a world more staggering and more convoluted than had previously been imagined; a world of secrets, of serendipities, of strangenesses that were at once beyond language and yet perfectly matched to its mysteries. For Auster, a wellspring had been tapped. As a prose writer there was now, as he puts it, “no turning back”.

The novels now grouped together as the New York Trilogy followed soon afterwards – City of Glass (1985),Ghosts (1986) and The Locked Room ( 1986).

Then came a book almost every year, as well as several screenplays, most recently The Inner Life of Martin Frost (2007), which started out life as a fictional film in his novel The Book of Illusions (2002). Invisible, which will appear from Faber in November, is Auster’s 15th, and revisits strikingly the terrain of his years as a young writer in New York and Paris. Visited by his amateur detective protagonist, Auster himself appeared in the very first novel, as did his new wife Siri Hustvedt and his son Daniel (Auster and Hustvedt’s daughter, Sophie, now a successful singer and actor, was born in 1987). It became a central trope in Auster’s writing, this mirroring, this weaving together of levels of fiction and layers of reality until the distinction between the two became not just uncertain but irrelevant. There was also, from the start – from the very first line of The Invention of Solitude , in fact – the literal presence in the writing of the act of writing itself, of the blank page or the notebook, of the author, of the reader: the novel caught in the act of becoming a novel, or, perhaps, of trying to become such a thing. Meanwhile, his protagonists barely know what kind of a world they are caught in; menacing, surreal, constantly shifting in meaning, and ruled by forces of chance and coincidence. Which are forces, says Auster, in which he truly believes.

“Don’t you feel that reality is this enormous pinball wheel and everything is bouncing off and into everything else at one time?” he says. “Nothing is isolated.” Which must, surely, be difficult to render in fiction – don’t all those co-existing and contradictory worlds run away from him on the page? He nods. “But if it’s not hard, it wouldn’t be fun,” he says. “The adventure is the difficulty, in a way. I don’t feel that I’m fully in control of what I’m doing, and less and less as time goes on. I don’t know where the stories come from. I have no idea.” He’s emphatic as he says this, he has the air, almost, of someone protesting their innocence. “They just surge up from some hidden spot inside me, and if it feels interesting, I go.”

THE ONE QUESTION he won’t answer about his writing, he says, is the “why” question – why does he write about writing? Why does he shut his characters into empty rooms, release them into bewildering worlds? Why, in the new novel, does he write (at least for a time) for the first time in years from the point of view of a young man, rather than an old one, a man who has not yet been short-changed by life and chance and circumstance, as Auster’s narrators so often are? “You can’t talk about why,” he says, lighting one of those miniature cigars. “You can only talk about what. Maybe you can talk about how, if you’re lucky. But why, that’s the great mystery. And I just have no answer for it.

“I don’t know where thoughts are born. You’re walking along the street, thinking about what groceries you’re going to buy, and suddenly, there’s a synapse, and you’re thinking about a story that you want to tell. Where the hell does it come from? I don’t know. I really don’t know.”

But is he content not to know? “I think that’s been the great journey of my life writing prose,” he says with a smile. “When I was young, I thought I had to know everything in advance. I thought every word had to be figured out, to have 17 different meanings, and you choke yourself like that. So it’s been a gradual process of liberation. And getting back to Beckett, he said a very interesting thing about the difference between him and Joyce. He said the more Joyce knew, the more he could. And Beckett said, the more I know, the less I can. But I feel I have a third. The less I know, the more I can.”

Park Slope, Brooklyn, September 2009

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