For the American novelist Paul Auster, who has received good reviews in Britain ever since Faber published The New York Trilogy almost a decade ago, the knowledge that he was a writer came many years before, when he was 16 or 17. This is far from unusual: the first time I met P D James, a matter of weeks after I completed my own first novel in 1986, we discovered we had both known that we would write from the age of eight.
Non-writers, who make up the majority of the population, are often surprised by this certainty at an age when other children have scarcely begun to imagine their adult lives. All the more perplexing is that so many of us take a very long time to act on this early knowledge, or find the obstacles to it nearly insurmountable. In the case of P D James, no novel appeared until she was in her early forties. My first book wasn't a novel at all but an account of British nuclear weapons in the 1950s. I quickly realised it had been a kind of apprenticeship, a way of answering the question of whether I could write a book after years as an investigative journalist, and I was so relieved that I immediately plunged into a crime novel.
At least I had (and have) a parallel career which involves writing. "All along, my only ambition had been to write," Auster observes at the beginning of Hand to Mouth, but he never imagined he could make a living from it. Indeed, he had a profoundly pessimistic view of a writer's life, arguing that "you don't choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accept the fact that you're not fit for anything else, you have to be prepared to walk a long hard road for the rest of your days."
I am uneasy with the idea that writers, or artists of any sort, are somehow "chosen" rather than produced by a coincidence of temperament, talent and circumstance; the common strands in novelists' backgrounds, including the kind of tense, solitary childhood which Auster describes briefly but vividly, are well enough known to suggest that the process is not as opaque or as arbitrary as it is sometimes presented as being. But the bleakness of Auster's account of his writing career rings true, even if other authors have not experienced it quite so unremittingly.
After a Hemingwayesque youth spent in Paris, on oil tankers and at Columbia University, Auster lived for a long time on the fringes of literary life, translating and reviewing and writing plays. In a desperate attempt to establish his fortunes, he invented a card game called Action Baseball which he tried, and failed, to sell to the big toy companies; the rules of the game, and a couple of his plays, form an appendix to the present volume, along with a detective novel he wrote in 1978.
The fate of that novel, a competent but undistinguished private eye story entitled Squeeze Play, is paradigmatic of how Auster came close to a success as a writer, only to have it snatched away. Published by a one-man operation in New York in the early 1980s, the book had barely appeared when the company collapsed, leaving most of the edition to linger unsold in a Brooklyn warehouse. This was the period of which Auster writes, in his searing opening paragraph, that "everything I touched turned to failure. My marriage ended in divorce, my work as a writer foundered and I was overwhelmed by money problems." So grim were these times, he recalls, that he endured them "in a state of never-ending panic".
This raw honesty is touching and intriguing. Why has Auster, now an acclaimed author of half a dozen novels as well as poems and essays, chosen to revisit these painful experiences so publicly? Plenty of writers prefer to draw a veil over setbacks they experienced early in their careers, and to make light of the volumes that never got published or vanished without trace. I suspect Auster's motive has to do with the question I posed earlier: that being a writer is first and foremost an identity, an understanding about a vital fact of the self which does not depend on public recognition or a list of published works.
It may make no sense to say that someone knows him or herself to be a writer without publishing a word but it is true, and real writers know it. An admission of "failure", in this context, is also a way of saying something about the complex relation between external reality and inner life. The one thing which was never quite extinguished during this chronicle of despair and disaster was Auster's capacity to pick himself up and keep writing. In the end, his belief in himself was vindicated by the success of novels like Moon Palace and Mr Vertigo. It is, I think, this lunatic persistence - lunatic to almost everyone else, that is - which distinguishes novelists from all those people who think they have a novel in them but never quite get round to putting that dangerous conviction to the test.