The Books Interview: Paul Auster - Sweet music of chance

Paul Auster - once a lonely, driven aesthete, now a cult celebrity - still feels at risk. Guy Mannes-Abbott meets him

Guy Mannes-Abbott
Friday 04 June 1999 23:02 BST

Paul Auster, a biography

Paul Auster was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1947. He travelled in Europe while studying at Columbia University and gained an MA in 1970. He worked on an oil tanker before decamping to France in 1971. Returning to New York in 1974, he began to publish poetry, criticism and translations from French until his father's death in 1979, which triggered a memoir The Invention of Solitude (1982) and enabled him to begin writing fiction. His novels include New York Trilogy (1987). Moon Palace (1989), The Music of Chance (1991) and Leviathan (1992). Other work appears in The Art of Hunger (1997), Hand to Mouth (1997) and Selected Poems (1998). His screenplays for Smoke, directed by Wayne Wang, and Blue in the Face, which he co-directed, appeared in 1995. He lives in Brooklyn with his second wife, novelist Siri Hustvedt.

Paul Auster is a star - which, for a writer who savours paradox, is one of the oddest paradoxes of all. Auster is, to be precise, a celebrity- writer: friend and colleague of celebrities from Salman Rushdie to Lou Reed, and a gamut of movie stars. But he's also a cult writer in the most expanded sense, which includes de rigueur websites, swooning readers and loyal-unto-death devotees.

His first published work was The Art of Hunger, an essay about Knut Hamsun, whose classic novel Hunger (1890) featured a starving writer reduced to envying a dog its bone. Auster has written about his own hunger years in his "autobiographical essay about money", Hand to Mouth. He suffered all the tests of an uncompromising writer compelled to discover a distinctive voice, and reached his forties before the work he is known for appeared. He has since had the sweet revenge of seeing everything he once touched turn to paper gold.

The reason for that sunny vengeance is the arc of novels that he wrote after breaking ground with his brilliant memoir, The Invention of Solitude. Together with that book, the New York Trilogy, Moon Palace, The Music of Chance and Leviathan represent arguably the finest body of work from the last decade of American fiction. It's bolstered by an unusual range of fine poetry, critical writing and autobiographical prose which tell us a lot about a writer who is, after all, still only 52. Auster is also excited and unfazed by his recent forays into film, pointing out to me that "Beckett, for example, did theatre all the time."

He's in London to promote a range of recent work. Principally, there is a new novel called Timbuktu (Faber, pounds 12.99), a modest fable about selfless love told from the point of view of a dog. Then he has scripted and directed a new film called Lulu on the Bridge (screenplay from Faber, pounds 9.99), starring Harvey Keitel and Mira Sorvino. The film is an elegantly dark piece of pure Auster about the miraculous potency of love but - bizarrely - still lacks a UK distributor. Finally, a playful collaboration with the artist Sophie Calle, on whom he based the character Maria Turner in Leviathan, appears in a collection of her work, Double Game (Violette Editions, pounds 38).

We met in the Bloomsbury Room at the Groucho Club in Soho. Rooms - as spaces of inventive solitude - are a constant feature of Auster's writing, as is the unanswerability of things. Auster's characters are always driven by a desire to resolve universal questions, but their journeys are like Gertrude Stein's, who wrote that "finally, when I got there, there was no there there." So I approached our prescribed room half-expecting that when I got there, there would be no Auster there.

But there he was, surrounded by sandwiches and looking exactly like his photographs - but behaving rather unlike them. Those images present a successful writer who might find a certain narcissistic pride hard to resist, but he was politely inquiring, disarmingly warm and quietly professional. He has a kind of grounded grace and the genuine humility of a man used to being naked before the world. As I laboured over questions about his mtaphorical rooms he said that "the world in which I live when I'm working is actually on the paper; that's the room - the piece of paper". This room has wings which, over the five years of writing Timbuktu, freed him to write anywhere between his Brooklyn home and the Caribbean.

Auster is a writer of cityscapes and the American vastness, as much as his mobile room. If this resembles with Saul Bellow's territory, Auster confesses that he's never read the master of Jewish-American letters. He adds that, for him, being Jewish means that though "I really do feel part of America to my very bones, at the same time I know that I come from somewhere else."

His novels are also full of more everyday restlessness. Auster's Americans go on the road in Music of Chance, vanish with the good terrorist Benjamin Sachs in Leviathan, or resort to amateur sleuth tramping throughout his urban fictions.

Timbuktu combines many of these characteristic obsessions in a short novel that also revels in the big-hearted frivolity evident in his 1996 novel Mr Vertigo, and the Brooklyn-based film Blue in the Face, which he co-directed with Wayne Wang. It is narrated by a dog, Mr Bones, the loyal companion to a wandering poet-orator called Willy G Christmas. The novel begins with Willy dying outside the home of Edgar Allan Poe, whom he celebrates as the original "Yankee scribe". Willy has told Mr Bones that when you die you go to Timbuktu, "an oasis of the spirits", and the story follows his attempts to find another human companion until opting for a short-cut to Timbuktu.

Willy adopted his name after a revelatory vision of Santa Claus, thereafter living according to the seasonal spirit of selfless giving. He, like all Auster characters, is a writer of sorts, whose language Mr Bones has acquired in the patchy way of a child. So, for example, he thinks he has left Willy in his ancestral Poland rather than "Poe-land", and his encounter with a Chinese boy leaves him wondering how a human being can metamorphose into a range of animals - from blue jays to bear cubs -- merely by joining a baseball team.

This seems rather twee at first sight, particularly from a writer of such philosophically barren fictions as those collected in the New York Trilogy. But this levity of language and focus on elementals such as love and goodness are not only difficult to achieve, but also consistent with his earlier work. Auster professes bemusement when asked about shifts of direction, pointing out that even the highly cerebral Trilogy resolves its narrator's hopeless quest in a love story.

As I listened, the spirit in which he lives and works became clearer. Auster's a gambler, the kind of man who leaps as soon as it occurs to him to do so, and does it without regret. That's the spirit in which he directed his first film and in which he leapt into love with "the woman I'm married to", novelist Siri Hustvedt, who "saved my life and keeps me from being a crazy man". It's in this spirit that he says "I think I hate cynicism more than anything else. It's the curse of our age and I want to avoid it at all costs."

Here lies the secret of Auster's work. It makes it possible for Kafka to sit alongside Humpty Dumpty and it covers the ground between baseball and Marx-reading terrorists. Allusive density and the belief that human life is utterly contingent blends with the good humour and narrative velocity of his fiction. This is why for him disasters always contain opportunities. Deaths give up life, and the necessarily solitary site of invention blooms with unlikely fictions.

Auster often claims to have no idea where a book will go when he begins. What he means is that "every time, you start from nothing. I really do feel as it I have to re-invent everything from the ground up. I can't tell you how lost and afraid I feel." He adds that "what the process of writing a book is, is learning how to write that book - and you've never done it before."

This sense of urgent adventure, together with the accessibility of his pared-back style, is the source of his appeal and the fervour of his fans. These things, together with what he describes as the search for "a certain tone. Each book has a different tone and you have to be able to capture the music." It is, he says, "the only thing that I have to keep me going."

Music, magic and love sit alongside necessity, despair and restlessness. They represent the coincidence of a certain kind of fundamental nothingness, out of which flows an innocent joy at being alive. There is some of this in Timbuktu, and much American breadth and inclusiveness in Auster, but most of this strange brew is specific to him.

He's a man of real charm and incisive intellect, a lovely appetite for laughter and an entrancing way of telling singular stories. Which, in fact, is exactly what you would expect from reading his books.

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