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For 10 years, Paul Auster wrote novels packed full of strange coincidences. Get real, said his critics. So he did. By Kevin Jackson
Saturday 22 April 1995
That little incident should seem familiar to readers of contemporary fiction, since it is very close to a chance contact which sets in motion City of Glass (1985), the dbut novel by Paul Auster. But, as Auster's latest publication explains, those misdirected phone calls really happened; he received them in the spring of 1980, mused for a year or so, and then used them as the germ of a weird plot involving heresies and mad experiments. City of Glass fascinated readers, and the New York Trilogy (of which it is the first book) went on to be a best-seller in many countries. Auster built on its success with a stream of distinctive, distinguished fictions - Moon Palace, The Music of Chance, Leviathan - and he was soon in the front ranks of his country's novelists.
Yet one or two critics were rather snooty about Auster's frequent reliance on coincidence and other cryptic happenings, complaining that there must be something essentially artless, perverse, in brief hopelessly pass about a body of fiction that seemed to lean on coincidence as heavily as any baggy, three-volumed monster from the 19th century. Real life just isn't like that.
Hence, in part, Auster's decision to publish "as a defence against my critics" a collection of short essays about the coincidences, chance encounters and other improbable things that have actually happened to him and his friends over the years, and have haunted his fiction: The Red Notebook. "If I were to describe the book," he says, "I would say that it's an ars poetica without any theory. The idea was just to present true stories, the real world as I've experienced it, without any commentary beyond that. So I just sat down to write this little text. I had many other stories, but I boiled it down to just 13."
Some of this baker's dozen have found their way more or less directly into Auster's subsequent fiction; others - usually the most improbable ones - simply make the mind a little giddy. There's the story of how one of Auster's friends, visiting Taipei, fell into conversation with another American woman and discovered that their respective sisters lived not only on the same street in New York but in the same house and on the same floor. Or there's the one about the Czech art historian who one day finds out that her East German husband was the son of a man who had gone missing, presumed dead in the war, and that she had therefore unwittingly married her own half-brother.
Auster disclaims any theoretical interest in such quirks and oddities - he's read Koestler on chance and Jung on synchronicity, and has not been much taken by either - and he's also at pains to point out that he's no Ripley's Believe-it-or-not merchant: "It's funny, I've never consciously sought them, I don't live my life as a compiler of odd stories, it's just that they keep coming to me. I can't seem to get away from them. And I think that's why these things are so present in my books. I don't even know if there's much to be made of it - I don't see it as a way to discover meaning in the world, maybe it's just the opposite. But I do think these things are happening to everybody."
The site for these ruminations is Auster's spartan workroom on the ground floor of a large apartment house in Brooklyn, where he's lived for the last 15 years or so. Though Brooklyn has raised some distinguished literary names ("Walt Whitman, Henry Miller, Arthur Miller..."), Auster says that it hasn't been much of a direct inspiration for his work, and that what he likes about living in the suburb is that "it's an unpretentious place where I can just slink around invisibly, doing my work with not a lot of interference". The only time he made Brooklyn the subject of a fiction, it led to the biggest upheaval of his working life.
A couple of years ago, Auster wrote a short story for the New York Times set in and around a local cigar shop. This piece was seen by the director Wayne Wang (Joy Luck Club), who saw its cinematic potential and asked him to develop it into a screenplay. The result, Smoke, went into production last summer, starring Harvey Keitel, William Hurt and Forest Whitaker, and was screened at this year's Berlin Film Festival. However, the business of filming Smoke proved so stimulating for all concerned that events began to take a momentum of their own. "Wayne and I would go to dailies in Manhattan, and in the car back downtown every evening we'd start throwing out ideas for situations involving some of the minor characters in Smoke." Before long, they realised they had the basis for an entirely separate film. An encouraging producer managed to get them money for another six day's shooting, bit players from Jim Jarmusch to Madonna (who plays a singing telegram girl) offered their services for nothing, and the result, Blue in the Face, is now ready bar a final music mix.
To appreciate the full flavour of this unexpected digression from his usual routine, one needs to know that the act of shutting oneself up in a room is not merely an essential working method for Auster (as for most writers) but one of his recurrent topics; that one of his earliest literary heroes was the great poet of isolation and withdrawal, Samuel Beckett; and that the title of Auster's most autobiographical work before The Red Notebook was The Invention of Solitude.
"Making Smoke got me out of my room for the first time in 20 years. I had never worked with anyone throughout that time, unless you count a short period teaching at Princeton. But there I was, working with other people and I enjoyed it, to a large degree. And, at the same time, I'm now completely ready just to lock the door again and go back to work."
But even if film crews may be leaving him alone for a while, some of Auster's stories may not be so discreet. He sometimes has the feeling, he says, that his tales carry on in the world long after he's stopped writing them. For example, several years after the publication of the New York Trilogy, Auster was sitting at his desk trying to write when the phone rang again. Another wrong number. At first he thought it was a hoax, but then he realised that the man on the line was not a reader with an odd sense of humour, but in earnest. What had thrown him was that the person the man was asking for was called Mr Quinn - exactly the name Auster had given the hapless hero of City of Glass.
n `The Red Notebook' is published by Faber and Faber at £14.99
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