Reflections on Paul Auster (1947-2024)

I remember when I fell into the work of Paul Auster. Because that’s also when I fell for his books.

After reading City of Glass (1985) in my Honors English class in the fall of 1991, I then read the other two books in his New York Trilogy: Ghosts (1986) and The Locked Room (1986). With the narrative urgency of a detective novel and prose that had the precision of poetry, the books were mysteries that, because they were about life itself, are ultimately unsolvable. Or the promised solutions turned out to be the deeper understanding you gained during the process of reading them.

Not yet fully grasping that fact, perhaps, I mapped the journey of City of Glass protagonist Quinn… revealing only a “?”

Earlier in the novel, Quinn — pretending to be a detective named Paul Auster — follows through the streets of NYC a man who may or may not be Peter Stillman. Tracing each daily journey on a map, Quinn discovers that they spell a clue (which I won’t reveal here). In drawing my own map, I imagined I might find a similar clue. And perhaps I did. Or maybe not.

Continuing my quest, I also read Auster’s The Music of Solitude — a memoir that (it seemed to me at the time) was a sort of ur-text for The New York Trilogy. I wrote my paper on all four of these works.

After the class ended, I sought other Auster work, including a pseudonymous detective novel. Since I could discover neither the novel’s title nor the pseudonym, I wrote to Mr. Auster himself. Optimistically, I included a self-addressed stamped envelope. To my surprise and delight, he sent his response via that envelope.

I didn’t reveal his secret, and I don’t even know how much of a secret it was. But I did buy a copy of the novel and, then, whenever in a bookstore, I would just keep an eye out for it. I ended up with more than one copy — a fact which I recalled a couple of weeks ago, reading an Auster-themed Facebook post by my pal Cam Ostrin, whom I met in that English class. Well, no, not met. We’d been acquainted before, but we really became friends in that class.

Turns out I actually have three copies. I’m sending one to Cam.

I say “turns out” because I only just returned home. I learned of his death on the train from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Rouen. Appropriate, perhaps. The French have long considered Paul Auster one of America’s greatest novelists. And his European reputation has always eclipsed his American reputation.

Anyway, now at home, I am looking at my Auster novels and my Auster folder — of articles, notes, interviews, and of course the note from Auster himself. I began compiling the folder as an undergraduate and, though I stopped adding to it maybe 25 years ago, I kept up with his work, buying and reading each new book or (in the case of a film) seeing the movie. Or, at least, I kept up until Man in the Dark (2008). I’m not quite sure why that was the last one. He’s written five more novels since.

Well, to quote the final lines of one of his books (though I won’t say which, because I don’t want to spoil anything), “It was. It never will be again. Remember.”

And to paraphrase the ending of another:

Sleep well, Mr. Auster.
Lights out.

6 Comments

  1. Eric Wybenga

    Reply

    I appreciate the reflection, Phil, along with the correspondence. News of Auster’s death saddened me, perhaps especially so because it came via a friend I had turned on to him many years ago. It precipitated–as it may have with you–an awareness of how far I had traveled between then and now, and how much had fallen by the wayside.

    I, too, fell hard for The New York Trilogy (I have, in addition to several paperback copies, a beautiful boxed set of the French edition–separate volumes–that I happened upon in one of the bouquinistes along the Seine); my obsession manifested in a short film shot with a friend’s high-8 camera. Living for so long in Brooklyn as I did, he always seemed nearby. One of my closest friends wrote a doctoral thesis that involved Auster’s work, and had the chance to interview him in person. I happened to be with another friend (the same one who told me the news of his death) in the Strand rare book room many years ago when he pointed out that Auster had taken a seat, alone, in the middle of the room, apparently setting up for some reading or signing. I didn’t have the urge to say hello, which seems understandable, yet I can’t imagine why we didn’t stick around for the event. The last time I saw him was under what seemed like quintessentially Austerian circumstances: My partner and I were at the Center for Fiction in Fort Greene a couple of years ago because she wanted to see a well-regarded theater director whose name now escapes me (and who has also since died) in conversation with Auster–which, she figured, would be the draw for me. My memory of the exact strangeness now contradicts itself: Auster was not, it turns out, in his promised role as interlocutor; a person or persons conversant in theater were in his place. But we noted a man who looked awfully like Auster just before the event began and before we knew Auster wasn’t to be part of it (which is why, seeing him just beforehand but in the audience, we assumed it was someone who looked like Auster rather than Auster himself). The strangeness was either that Auster’s absence was never mentioned or that some reason was given that would have precluded the Apparent Auster from being the Echt Auster. As I say, my memory contradicts itself.

    I am glad for you to have written him, and glad for the reply you received. But it makes me wistful. I had meant to write him for many years about something that I still believe he would have found genuinely interesting or at least amusing: an encounter I had on a train (to Jeff Macdonald’s house for a Fourth of July in the 1990s!) that took a turn for the truly uncanny–all set in motion by my attempts to write a fictional story (why?!) inspired by my then-reading of The Red Notebook/Why I Write. It all became bizarrely recursive. But the real-life story I wanted to relate to him (it seemed perfectly suited for a guy who, in one of those volumes, says he collects such stories, to the point where friends pass them on to him) was just involved enough that I became overly conscious of how I might actually set it down in writing to one of my favorite authors…and so I put it off until I eventually forgot about it. Until I found myself resurrecting it for a Moth-like story slam series I was emceeing for a while, and realized I now probably cared little enough about how I told it to just go ahead and write him already. Soon after I resolved to finally do so, I read the sad news of his son and granddaughter and figured it wasn’t the time to be bothering him. And then I read of his cancer diagnosis and there never was a time to be bothering him.

    I recently happened upon a tattered paperback of In the Country of Last Things on my bookshelf and realized I had no idea where it had come from (secondhand bookstore or thrift sale is the best guess) and that it was an early work I had somehow missed reading. And then I started it and realized, Oh, wait–I have read it. Or maybe I hadn’t. Man slowly loses himself–who can tell? At any rate, it seemed too bleak for the moment I was in at the time, and so I put it down. I may have to pick it up again and rediscover it for the first time.

  2. Reply

    Thanks for this lovely reflection, Eric. And bonus thanks for writing it here on the blog rather than on Facebook. (Comments on social media swiftly disappear into the feed. Blogpost comments are easier to return to.)

    After posting this, I also remembered that I reviewed his novel Timbuktu (1999) for Charleston’s Post and Courier — I was then living in Charleston. I can’t put my finger on the print copy, but I did find a copy archived on my (former) website.

    I need to go and read those later Auster novels. Maybe start with Invisible (2009), since that’s the first one I neglected? Or go straight to 4 3 2 1 (2017), since it seems to have been particularly well-received?

    Anyway. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Lia Vella

    Reply

    Thanks for the post, Phil. I remember that, in one of your letters a year or two after we were in that Honors English class, you shared with me that you’d written to Auster and what his reply was. I kept the secret, too (though to be honest, I don’t think anyone in my social circle would have known much about Auster or valued the information). Years later, I found that Auster’s pseudonymous novel was now public knowledge, and I was a little disappointed. I now had this secret that was no longer a secret!
    I read the other NY Trilogy novels and then a few Auster novels after the class, but then sort of drifted away around the time Auster was working on the story project and eventually writing I Thought my Father Was God. I saw him in person at a reading in Buffalo (Rochester?) around 2002, where he read the complete text of The Red Notebook. But that was it. Now I’ll add one of his more recent works to my reading list for the summer. Let me know which one you decide to pick up, and what you think of it!

  4. Reply

    Hi, Lia! Hey, it’s an Honors English reunion! Well, kinda. I chatted with Cam on Facebook & via text-message. Dunno if she’ll join the chat here.

    How much of a secret was it when I learned it? Confiding in a stranger seems a very Auster thing to do — letting chance decide whether the secret stays secret or becomes public. I can imagine him sharing that “secret” with many people, knowing that eventually secrets shed their secrecy.

    I just read Kaveh Akbar’s Martyr! (his first novel — I know his poetry, thanks to my friend and colleague, poet Traci Brimhall). And I am now in the middle of Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police. Then I think I will return to Robin Bernstein’s excellent Freeman’s Challenge — which I started reading late last month but left behind when traveling. (And I can recommend all three of these!) Salman Rushdie’s Knife may be after that. But… yes! I will let you know.

  5. Eric Wybenga

    Reply

    Ned–If my previous reply is still in moderation, please ditch it: I just realized I misread your reply; I thought you were saying you remembered had read those later books after all, and you were recommending the two you mentioned to me. Having reread what you wrote, I’ll add what I deleted from that last post (because it seemed unkind; I’ll try to put it more kindly here)–which is that I reminded myself of his publishing chronology to see which ones you had missed…and realized I couldn’t strongly recommend any of them. I liked them all well enough, I guess, but a bit in the way I like ’80s Dylan: one catches glimpses here and there, one likes to hear the voice. If you were determined nonetheless, from my recollection you’d be better off starting with Invisible–well-worn Auster territory done interestingly enough (though no Oracle Night), and less of a commitment–and, if that whets your appetite, then bother with 4 3 2 1 (for me it felt earnest but a bit clumsy, and ultimately failed to launch…but again, the ’80s Dylan thing–I still kept it on my stereo).

    P.S. Knife is engaging. His sense of humor is intact, though instead of literary gossip there are sad mentions of friends Auster, Amis, and Hitchens. Life is one long-leave taking.

    • Reply

      Hi, Eric. As per your request, I’ll leave the other reply in moderation-limbo. And I’ll follow your recommendation on Invisible. Thanks!

      And regarding your final sentence: yes, if we are fortunate enough to grow old, then we will also know more dead people — as more of our friends and loved ones slip from column A into column B. That said, thinking of my late mother (who died nine months ago next Saturday), and I often do think of her, I find myself full of gratitude for having counted her as both mother and friend, and for the life I’ve lived — thanks to her. I miss her, of course. But any sadness is also leavened with gratitude, even joy sometimes. Which is not something I would ever have expected to feel. And, of course, I do not know whether this feeling will last.

      But, anyway, what I’m trying to convey in my rambling reply is the hope that — as these leave-takings accumulate — I, you, Mr. Rushdie, all of us can find gratitude amidst loss, glimpses of joy amidst sadness.

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