Life & Culture

Literary sorcerer focused on the instability of life

Our writer pays tribute to Paul Auster who died this week


Playful: Paul Auster

Paul Auster, who died on April 30, was one of the outstanding Jewish-American writers of his generation. He wrote 20 novels, from his breakthrough works, The New York Trilogy in the mid-1980s, and The Brooklyn Follies (2005) to Sunset Park (2010) and Winter Journal (2012).

Auster was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1947 to Jewish middle-class parents. He was part of that Jewish literary generation that came of age in the 1980s, which included David Mamet, Tony Kushner and Nora Ephron.

Auster divided readers and critics. The Washington Post’s Michael Dirda praised his “limpid, confessional style” and his ability to “set disoriented heroes in a seemingly familiar world gradually suffused with mounting uneasiness, vague menace and possible hallucination”. James Wood, however, criticised Auster’s writing for its “clichés, borrowed language ... intricately bound up with modern and postmodern literature”.

Take his novel Travels in the Scriptorium (2006). The central character, Mr. Blank, finds himself alone in a room, unable to remember anything. The books tells the story of his encounters with a number of other characters, all named after characters from previous Auster novels. Blank’s relationship to the world is dominated by texts, labels and words.

It’s not that Auster couldn’t do powerful, moving realistic storytelling. It’s rather that he offered us an interesting choice. There are several kinds of storytelling, he said. One is realistic and moving. It involves characters who will draw you in and situations that will be immediately recognisable. The other was more playful, full of games about narrative, stories within stories, battles between characters and the writers who create them, a sort of postmodernism 101. Joyce Carol Oates summed up the second kind as his “quirkily riddlesome postmodernist fiction in which narrators are rarely other than unreliable and the bedrock of plot is continually shifting”.

Auster also had fun choosing strange names for his central characters: Mr. Blank, Marco Fogg, Mr. Vertigo, Mr. Bones and Willy G. Christmas. He was less drawn to Jewish themes though Christmas in his novella, Timbuktu, turns out to have been William Gurevitch, son of Polish war refugees, and the hero of his last novel, Baumgartner, is a philosophy professor whose grandfather came from Ukraine.

In 2022, his son Daniel died from a drugs overdose, days after being arrested for the death of his baby daughter who ingested fentanyl while he took a nap. Recently Auster suffered lung cancer, which led to his death. His many admirers will treasure his clever, playful fiction for years to come.

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