Paul Auster Timbuktu Essays

Paul Auster 1947-

American novelist, poet, memoirist, essayist, critic, screenplay writer, translator, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Auster's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 47.

A provocative experimental novelist whose work represents an amalgam of several genres, Paul Auster is best known for his New York Trilogy, which consists of City of Glass (1985), Ghosts (1986), and The Locked Room (1987). In these novels and others, he combines elements of hard-boiled detective fiction, film noir, dystopian fantasy, and postmodern narrative strategies to address the possibility of certain knowledge, human redemption, and the function of language. His ambitious work is distinguished for challenging the limits of the novel form and tackling difficult epistemological concepts.

Biographical Information

Born in Newark, New Jersey, Auster was raised by parents Samuel, a landlord, and Queenie on the outskirts of New York City in the North Jersey suburbs. His interest in literature is indirectly attributed to his uncle, translator Allan Mandelbaum, who left a box of books at the Auster home while away in Europe. The teenaged Auster began reading them and soon resolved to become a writer himself. Upon graduating from high school, he attended Columbia University, where he earned a B.A. in English in 1969 and an M.A. in 1970. While still in college, he wrote both poetry and prose and participated in campus protests against the Vietnam War. He then worked as a merchant seaman for several months to fund a move to France, where he remained for four years and worked a variety of odd jobs to make ends meet. In 1974, he married writer and translator Lydia Davis, with whom he shares a son; they divorced in 1979 and Auster remarried Siri Hustuedt in 1981. After returning to New York, Auster published his first two books—the thin poetry collections Unearth (1974) and Wall Writing (1976). He was awarded Ingram Merrill Foundation grants in 1975 and 1982, as well as National Endowment of the Arts fellowships in 1979 and 1985. Auster continued to labor in relative obscurity as a poet, essayist, and translator of French literature until the publication of his first novel, City of Glass, which was rejected by seventeen publishers before Sun & Moon Press finally issued the book in 1985. The novel was nominated for an Edgar Award for best mystery novel in 1986. The third volume of his New York Trilogy,The Locked Room, was also nominated for several awards. Auster taught creative writing at Princeton University from 1986 to 1990. In 1994 he collaborated with director Wayne Wang on the films Smoke and Blue in the Face, which he co-directed. Auster was awarded the prestigious Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts des et des Lettres in 1993.

Major Works

Though Auster's fiction eludes easy classification, his novels embody several recurring elements: the use of metafictional narrative techniques, textual puzzles, doppelgangers, ironic distancing, and self-reflexivity to underscore the relationship between past and present and the ambiguous nature of language and identity. While instances of confused or mistaken identity are common in the mystery genre, Auster adapts this stock device into a metaphor for contemporary urban life in his New York Trilogy, deliberately blurring the distinction between author and text. City of Glass, a grim and intellectually puzzling story, superficially resembles a mystery novel that exploits the conventions of the detective genre. The protagonist, Quinn, is a pseudonymous mystery novelist who assumes the identity of a real detective, named Paul Auster, after receiving a phone call intended for Auster. Lonely and bored, Quinn accepts the case in Auster's place. His assignment is to shadow Stillman, a brilliant linguistics professor whose obsessive quest to rediscover humanity's primordial language compelled him to isolate his own son in a closet for nine years. Newly released from a mental hospital, Stillman poses a threat to his son's life, prompting the need for a detective. In Ghosts, the second volume of the trilogy, Auster continues his investigation into lost identity with increasing abstraction, including characters identified only as Blue, White, and Black. The novel's coy tone and austere plot—a detective named Blue is contracted by a client named White to pursue a man named Black—places the action in a cerebral context largely disconnected from reality. The trilogy's concluding volume, The Locked Room, is less abstract and more accessible than the previous two. This novel features flesh and blood characters with whom readers can easily identify, including a nameless first-person narrator who ostensibly represents Auster himself. The narrator is summoned by the wife of a childhood friend named Fanshawe who has disappeared and is presumed dead. A fantastically gifted writer, Fanshawe has left behind some unpublished writings as well as instructions for his friend to see them into print. As time passes, the narrator easily moves into Fanshawe's existence, marrying his wife, publishing his work, and eventually engendering rumors that he is actually Fanshawe or, at least, the man who created the works. His deception is finally jeopardized when he receives a communication from the real Fanshawe.

In the Country of Last Things (1987), published the same year as The Locked Room, is an epistolary novel depicting a dystopian American city of the future. As in previous works, this novel evinces Auster's abiding interest in the nature of language and reality. The protagonist, Anna Blume, travels from one continent to a large metropolis on another, where she hopes to find her missing brother. Instead, she discovers a city in chaos where criminals brazenly exploit the desperate and homeless, “Runners” trot themselves to death, and “Leapers” jump to their deaths from the city's crumbling skyscrapers. Anna relates her search through this hellish environment in a letter to someone left behind on the other continent. Though Auster seems to have shifted from mystery to science fiction, In the Country of Last Things shares many of the narrative devices and thematic preoccupations of his New York Trilogy, most apparently the search for identity, also the central theme of Moon Palace (1989), a postmodern bildungsroman around the theme of lost family. In this story, the protagonist is Marco Stanley Fogg, an orphan who eventually becomes homeless in New York City after running out of money while studying at Columbia University. After recovering in the care of a college friend and a Chinese woman, Marco goes to work for an eccentric old man who turns out to be his paternal grandfather. The remainder of the narrative follows Marco's journey of discovery and loss as he encounters his previously unknown relatives and records the fantastic tales of his grandfather's youth. Auster's next novel, The Music of Chance (1990), begins as a generative personal journey, bringing to mind such fictional characters as Mark Twain's Huck Finn, John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom, and Jack Kerouac's Dean Moriarty. Protagonist Jim Nashe hits the road in search of self-knowledge after his wife leaves him and he receives an inheritance from his deceased father. His tour of the country winds down at about the same time as his money runs out, whereupon he meets a young gambler, Pozzi, who entices him into a poker game with two eccentric lottery winners from Pennsylvania. The two lose what they have and fall further into debt. In order to pay off the debt, Nashe and Pozzi are forced to build a stone wall for the eccentrics. Auster continued the thematic and stylistic concerns of his previous novels in Leviathan (1992), whose title brings to mind the legendary ocean beast and the seventeenth-century political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. The opening event of this novel is actually its denouement—the death by explosion of a New York writer, Benjamin Sachs. What follows—a reconstruction of precipitating events—is facilitated by Peter Aaron, another New York writer who learns of Sachs's bizarre death and becomes obsessed with writing the story of his friend. Aaron's investigation uncovers a world of secrets, multiple and exchanged identities, and previously unknown connections between characters.

In Mr. Vertigo (1994), Auster relates the story of Walter Rawley, also known as “Walt the Wonder Boy” and “Mr. Vertigo.” Set in the Midwest of the 1920s, Walt is an orphaned street urchin who is offered a new life by a mystical showman, named Master Yehudi, who teaches Walt to levitate. The two, along with a Sioux Indian woman and an Ethiopian boy, barnstorm the country, growing increasingly famous on their way toward Broadway. However, on the verge of stardom, Walt loses his gift for levitating. He begins to wander and eventually ends up in the mobster underworld of Chicago. Timbuktu (1999) revolves around a poignant relationship between a middle-aged homeless man named Willy G. Christmas and his dog, Mr. Bones. The narrative is notable for its unusual dog's-eye perspective, as an omniscient narrator relates the story through the observations of Mr. Bones. In anticipation of his death, Willy travels with Mr. Bones from Brooklyn to Baltimore to establish a new home for his dog and to vouchsafe the manuscript of his epic lifework with a former high school English teacher. After Willy's death, Mr. Bones passes through a succession of new owners—some loving, some cruel—as he traverses rural, suburban, and urban America. Throughout, Mr. Bones is sustained by his continuing love for the deceased Willy and the promise of their reunion in an afterlife destination called Timbuktu. Auster's various volumes of nonfiction and translation further display his diverse literary talents and knowledge of international literature. The Invention of Solitude (1982), a memoir written after the death of his father, details Auster's relationship with and impressions of his father. Through a discursive and fragmented presentation, this book also contains discussions of authors such as Stéphane Mallarmé and Carlos Collodi. In addition, Auster has translated works by Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Dupin, and Mallarmé, edited the Random House Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry (1982), and published a collection of essays and interviews entitled The Art of Hunger (1992).

Critical Reception

Often regarded as a postmodern writer, a default classification due to his metafictional techniques and ironic posturing, Auster is noted for his idiosyncratic work, which resists simple categorization. His critical reputation rests largely upon his New York Trilogy, which was enthusiastically received by reviewers, winning him respect as a formidable new literary talent during the mid-1980s. While The Locked Room is judged by many to be the richest and most compelling book of the trilogy, all three volumes have been commended for their facile appropriation—and dismantling—of conventional detective motifs to expose contradictory aspects of reality, literary artifice, and self-perception. Additional genre-defying novels such as Moon Palace,The Music of Chance,Leviathan,Mr. Vertigo, and Timbuktu won critical approval for tackling difficult themes without sacrificing the pleasures of entertainment or alienating the reader. Though some commentators have dismissed Auster's intellectual game-playing as unconvincing and gratuitous, and others find his wit and symbolism labored, most critics praise his sophisticated narrative structures, lucid prose, and daring forays into the philosophical paradoxes surrounding issues of linguistic self-invention and metaphysical doubt. Auster's innovative work is appreciated by many critics for reclaiming the vitality of contemporary experimental literature, for which he is widely regarded as one of the foremost American novelists of his generation.

Some time in the middle of last summer, New York author Paul Auster finished his latest piece of writing, sat back and felt pretty happy with it. Known primarily for his thoughtful evocations of lonely urban life, Auster says that this new work "is particularly close to my heart".

Surprisingly, the work in question is the preface to a thoroughly sentimental-sounding extract from Nathaniel Hawthorne's diary about his toddler son. "It's being published for Father's Day," says this exponent of what one critic referred to as "the chilled-out cool", with a suspiciously uncool smile. "Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny, by Papa," as the extract is titled, seems an unlikely project for Auster, who is more commonly thought of as a modern, philosophical novelist than as a sentimental one - "philosophical both in the sense of devoted to thought, and in the sense of fatalistic, stoically accepting life's vagaries", to quote one painstaking dissection of his style.

He has also often been described as European, an adjective - used in praise on this side of the Atlantic, occasionally in bafflement on his own - which apparently sums up the coolly detached tone and the occasional eerie hint of existentialism behind his pacy plots. Auster's work has always been more popular in Europe than in the US. In 1996 Jack Lang, France's former culture minister, claimed that Auster was the only "great young writer" in America. Salman Rushdie, a close friend, says Auster has "a European sensibility brought to bear on entirely American subject matter" (or, as one of his first editors put it, "Kafka goes gumshoe"). He makes metaphysics marketable because, Ian Sansom wrote in the Guardian last year, he "thinks big but talks small".

Auster's first major success, the extraordinary New York Trilogy (1987), a thoughtful, at times terrifying, tripartite novel, must be one of the few books you can buy in airport bookshops about the annihilation of identity in the urban world.

But instead of citing Jack Kerouac or Kafka as influences, Auster explains that he feels "extraordinarily close" to the more romantic Edgar Allen Poe and Hawthorne because "they were the first writers who wanted to carve out an authentically American voice in writing." Any references to narrative experimentation in his own work cause a drop in temperature: "I never experiment with anything in my books. Experimentation means you don't know what you're doing."

Despite being perceived by many as a very modern writer, his view of narrative is a notably traditional one. He has said that "When I write, the story is always uppermost in my mind, and I feel that everything must be sacrificed to it. All elegant passages, all the curious details, all the so-called beautiful writing - if they are not truly relevant to what I am trying to say, then they have to go."

But it is still the philosophical overlay, the musings about the nature of chance, the whims of fate - the "Europeanness" - that tend to be mentioned first when discussing Auster's work. Robert McCrum, former editor-in-chief at Faber and now literary editor of the Observer, who introduced the then all but unknown Auster's work to Britain in 1986, remembers "how proud I was of my find, this noirishly cool, faintly European voice. It just seemed extraordinary. I hadn't heard of this 'Paul Auster' before and neither, I thought, had anyone else. So when New York Trilogy started walking out of the shops in Britain like nothing I'd ever seen before, I was really patting myself on the back. Only later did I find out that he already had a cult following in France, and was hardly an unknown."

Poet Ann Lauterbach, who has known Auster since the late 1970s, takes a different view: "Part of the secret of Paul's success is that his books have a neat kind of intellectual flattery, complimenting the reader with their quasi-philosophical games." Her criticism echoes an article printed in Atlantic Monthly last year which, with impressive thoroughness, attacked the reputations of American writers including Don DeLillo, E Annie Proulx and David Guterson. Particular violence was reserved for Auster: "Auster knows the prime rule of pseudo-intellectual writing," wrote BR Myers. "The harder it is to be pinned down on any idea, the easier it is to conceal that one has no ideas at all." British poet and critic Craig Raine, in an essay titled "The Autobiography of Paul Auster", joined the fray, arguing that Auster's memoir, Hand to Mouth , is "poisoned with cliches". Where Beckett has "curare", says Raine, Auster merely has "charm".

Paul Auster is a slim, elegant, somewhat dark man who writes slim, elegant, somewhat dark fiction in a slim, elegant, somewhat dark house. The one thing that doesn't suit him is his name. "He is the opposite of austere," says McCrum. "Because of his work, people expect him to be too cerebral, too difficult. But he's very thoughtful and warm, and actually quite funny, which always surprises people." The novelist Peter Carey, who has been friends with Auster since the former's move to New York a decade ago, says: "Paul is an extraordinarily calm person, and this, I think, comes very much across in his writing."

This chronicler of New York was, in fact, born in New Jersey, conceived in a "loveless embrace, a blind, dutiful groping between chilly hotel sheets", as he writes in The Invention of Solitude, on his parents' honeymoon at Niagara Falls. His mother, Queenie, who died earlier this year, was a bright and sparky woman, able to make jokes and tell stories to her son even as her beloved second husband, Auster's step-father, was dying.

After working in a clothes shop and in real estate, she became an interior decorator. "My mother always worked, all her life," Auster says. "She was an incredibly independent lady." His father, Sam, worked first as a radio engineer (aged 18, he got a job in Thomas Edison's laboratory but was sacked after one day, according to family lore, for being Jewish), then owned a furniture shop before moving into property speculation with his brothers. He was more withdrawn, a solitary soul. The subtitle of Auster's memoir of his father is "Portrait of an Invisible Man". His parents eventually divorced when Auster was in high school.

"It was not a happy marriage," he says, in his deep, measured voice with a slight smoker's growl. "But I don't think I particularly suffered from it." A popular, sporty child, he morphed into withdrawn, angry teenager. His younger sister, always a fragile girl, simply, he says, "snapped in her 20s and has never put herself together again".

Instead of thinking about the unhappiness at home, the teenage Auster bucked against "the stiflingly suburban" Newark: "I hated it. I knew, from the age of 16 that I wanted to be a writer because I just didn't think I could do anything else. So I read, and read, and wrote short stories and dreamed of escape."

He fled to New York to study at Columbia in 1965, but the sense of isolation went with him. As he had done at home, he hid by "reading like a demon. Really, I think every idea I have came to me in those years. I don't think I've had a new idea since I was 20."

Certainly, much of the literary criticism he wrote at that time and during the following decade (he also, in an attempt to earn money while at college, tried his hand at pornography but had to stop after several pages because "I ran out of synonyms"), shows how much his early reading continues to influence his writing. In his essay on Knut Hamsun, "The Art of Hunger", the young Auster details at awestruck length how the narrator "is truly shorn of self. What names he chooses to give himself are all invention...

The connection between self and world has been broken", a description which foreshadows many of the books Auster wrote two decades later. "There are very few writers I've discovered since then who have affected my work at all. I was always very curious as a young man about why older writers who I met seemed so indifferent to what was going on, whereas I, in my 20s, was reading everything. Everything seemed important. But they were only interested in the writers they admired when they were young, and I didn't understand it then, but now, now I understand it.

The moment comes when you're formed and you can't be influenced any more," he says. Lauterbach says that, in Auster's case, this is probably true, but not always to his benefit: "The themes in Paul's books haven't changed since when I first met him more than 20 years ago: he's still looking at the nature of fate; he's still looking at how events impact on a person; he's still looking at the effect of chance."

The plots of Auster's books also resemble each other: private detectives and characters disappearing and changing their names are some recurring features. All are instruments for exploring the subject that excites him most: the nature of identity. Rushdie says that this steady thrum of echoes gives Auster's works an over-arching coherence: "There are certainly repetitions in his books, such as dislocation; intrusion of the unknown; an exploration of how lives can take different directions, and so on, so regardless of the technical variation, the constant themes make them identifiably Paul Auster novels. That's the thing about creating a body of work - you teach your readers how to read your books."

The period following Auster's years at university is well-documented in his autobiography, Hand to Mouth: the abandoned post-graduate degree; the job as an all-round scrubber and mopper on an oil tanker for a few months, the following four years scraping by in Paris.

"I don't see any of those as unusual choices," he says. "I think young, literary men are often in search of adventures, and many other writers have shipped out to sea - Kerouac, for example, and Malcolm Lowry."

Despite, or perhaps because of his rather unliterary upbringing - his mother had "no particular interest in writing" and his father, who died before Paul achieved critical success, was bemused by how he had "produced a poet for a son" - Auster has a very traditional view of the role of the author, almost self-consciously so. In Hand to Mouth he writes, "Becoming a writer... [you] don't choose it so much as get chosen." Lauterbach agrees: "Ever since I've known him, Paul has wanted to be a writer with a capital W."

Auster returned to the US in 1974, married his first wife Lydia Davis, became a father and tried to get by on translation commissions and poetry. It didn't work. He and Davis separated in 1978, and his writing became "stuck". "Everything I touched turned to failure," is the first sentence in Hand to Mouth , recounting this period. Lauterbach remembers him from this time as a "deeply intelligent but deeply troubled young man. He didn't really know what he wanted and couldn't really see how he was going to get there anyway.

He was doing writing commissions, like translations, for money, but this meant he didn't have time to concentrate on his poetry which caused him enormous frustration." Auster also wrote about this part of his life in The Invention of Solitude and the descriptions of his depression and loss ("He feels himself sliding through events, hovering like a ghost around his own presence"), presage the lonely and dislocated characters he created a few years later, particularly Quinn in New York Trilogy and David in his latest novel, his 10th, The Book of Illusions.

Strikingly, Auster, who almost always writes in the first person both in fiction and non-fiction, becomes in the story of his own life, "A". The distance created by slipping from first to third person reads like a quiet sigh of denial and loneliness, of someone who, he writes, was "living to the side of himself".

His long bout of writer's block dissolved suddenly, but what came out was prose, not poetry. "Poetry just abandoned me then and never came back," he says, with an unconcerned smile. Lauterbach suggests that "Poetry played to his most retentive part and I think he finally needed a bigger landscape to explore his imagination - he wanted to go inside something and that's what fiction allows." The following morning his father died, leaving him, for the first time, sufficient money to concentrate on his own writing. And the first writing he did, the book that would tentatively begin to establish his name, was The Invention of Solitude, the memoir - or "meditation" - as he calls it, of his father and his grief at that time.

And then, he says with unembarrassed sentimentality, using a sentence that sounds like a line from one of his novels, "The great miracle happened, and everything changed."

Auster met the writer Siri Hustvedt, a blonde willow of a woman with a surprisingly strong handshake and a sharp jawline, at a poetry reading on February 23 1981, a date he preserves for posterity in Leviathan, in which the hero, Peter, meets Iris (hold a mirror up to that name) in a similar situation, and, gushingly, mistakes her for "a fashion model - an error that most people still make when seeing her for the first time".

"Siri likes to say it was love at first sight, but it wasn't for me," Auster says. "For me, it took about, oh, I don't know, 10 minutes." Almost all anecdotes about Auster from his friends involve Paul and Siri together. "Paul would never talk to me about his work because he doesn't need to - he has Siri. They are one another's best critics," says Rushdie. They married the following year, five days after his divorce from Davis was finalised. In Leviathan he writes: "Iris had become my happy ending."

But Auster often uses her as a beginning. More than half a dozen of Auster's books start with a character losing his wife and child, after which he either finds redemption with a new partner, or else dies alone, miserable and unfulfilled. It is as though he is constantly looking back over his shoulder to the path he might have trod. Auster and Hustvedt struggled financially ("but happily this time") for the following four years until 1986 when the manuscripts for The Invention of Solitude, In the Country of Last Things and the New York Trilogy stories were sent by his small American publisher to Faber in London.

"What really struck me was the purity of his tone. As a publisher, you're always looking for tone and he had that in blinding amounts, a faintly detached, very cerebral tone," McCrum says. Auster's novels are often told in the first person, whether the narrator is an arrogant boy on the American frontier or a homeless dog. "His novels explore the mysteries of the mind in such a way that their process can be shared from the inside by the reader," says Marie-Catherine Vacher, one of Auster's editors in France.

"It's a question of inhabiting the character, almost the way an actor inhabits his role. It's like hearing the music in your head and trying to write it across the page," Auster says.

But for all the praise of his tone, Auster's appeal largely lies in his storytelling. This is why his first two screenplays, Smoke and Blue in the Face were successful, with their cleverly and rather charmingly interlocking tales of life in Brooklyn, and why his third, the more metaphorical ("like a poem" is Auster's description) Lulu on the Bridge, which concentrates more on the generation of atmosphere than anything resembling a coherent plot, was not (it was never released in cinemas in the US or the UK).

Nestling among the main plots in his novels are sudden bursts of playful imagination: minor characters are imbued with whole biographies; the tale of how Blue Stone Ranch got its name in The Book of Illusions turns out to be thematically related to the whole book. Whenever Auster senses a gap in the conversation, he eagerly fills it with historical anecdotes, discussing the lives of such relative unknowns as Emma Lazarus, the author of the poem on the Statue of Liberty, or, indeed, Hawthorne's baby son Julian. "Oh, you really must hear this!" he says, happily launching into the tale of Hawthorne and Poe's friendship.

"He is a fabulous storyteller, so wonderfully inventive," Carey says. Various stories, such as that of Bakhtin smoking the pages of his own work during the Russian revolution, and that of a son finding the body of his long-perished father preserved in a block of ice, recur in several of Auster's novels, lending them the flavour of an elderly gentleman who gets endless joy out of retelling little tales that fascinate him. In conversation, he reels off anecdotes, almost word for word, that appear in his own memoirs. "You know this already, don't you?" he asks, before blithely continuing, unwilling to interrupt the rhythm of the narration.

One newspaper recently dubbed him, along with Tom Wolfe, Brett Easton Ellis and Woody Allen, "one of the foremost chroniclers of New York". But the New York in which Auster lives physically is very different to the city he inhabits mentally. In contrast to the isolating cityscapes of New York Trilogy or Leviathan, Auster lives with his wife, daughter Sophie, and a bounding dog called Jack (rescued from a local gangster) in a tall, homely brownstone. On one corner of his street is an ice-cream parlour, on the other is an open-air market. Sophie, now 15, is studying at a "progressive school", Auster says with a smile, while his 25-year-old son Daniel, from his first marriage, "is currently finding himself - ask me again in a couple of years".

Aside from Hustvedt, autobiographical echoes resound through Auster's fiction. His conversation is punctuated with "and you know that scene in such-a-such book? Well, that happened to me!" and "remember that time in that chapter? That's a true story!"

"Paul brings a lot of his life into his fiction," McCrum says. "I remember some time ago going to Vermont with Paul and Siri - their daughter Sophie must have been about two. We drove to the local Grand Union and decided to have a celebration. We bought lobsters, champagne, cake and nappies for Sophie. The checkout girl was quite puzzled as to what to make of this odd haul. I was then very amused to see this same feast recreated in The Music of Chance."

Even his own publishers occasionally have difficulty separating the author from his characters: on the back cover of Leviathan , the main character, Peter, is accidentally redubbed "Paul". But Auster doesn't like too much to be made of these connections and insists that although many of his books are about the nature of identity, they are not about him. "I put these things in as personal memorials to my own experiences, that's all. I don't think of myself as an autobiographical writer." His two autobiographical memoirs, he says, don't count because "they're not fiction".

Fate looms large in Auster's fiction. Characters unknowingly meet long-lost fathers, chance encounters lead to life changes. "I really don't know why critics call them 'coincidences'. They're the mechanics of reality, and that's what I'm interested in tracking. That's how the world works," he says, somewhat exasperated. Often, though, the real unpredictability lies in the way he tells it. When describing a recent car accident involving him and his family, he repeats several times in astonishment that it happened "right here in Brooklyn!" as though an accident so close to home verges on the mystical.

In The Book of Illusions one character dies in the town where he once claimed to have been born; others are born and saved through the deaths of others. This shows, perhaps, a move away from the Beckettian opacity that characterises much of Auster's earlier work, to a more fantastical tone more reminiscent of Rushdie.

Rushdie, though, is sceptical: "I'm not sure if I agree that Paul's technique has changed that much. There is always a strong element of fantasy in his stories. In the early works it's probably more elliptical than fantastical, but just look at Lulu on the Bridge , for example, which has a strong element of fantasy."

The sparseness of his prose and the unhappy outcomes of his plots can make Auster's view of the world seem, to quote two recent reviews, "barren" or "isolating". Auster once described his work as coming "out of a very deep nihilism... the fact of our own mortality... And yet, at the same time, I've wanted to express the beauty and extraordinary happiness of feeling yourself alive."

Perhaps it is this combination that has so endeared him to New York, a city that prides itself on its cynicism, but has a Santa Claus on every corner at Christmas. "New York is not just a place, it's an idea," he says. "It's this idea of an all-welcoming city of immigrants where everyone can be a New Yorker." Even a sentimental storyteller from New Jersey.

Life at a glance: Paul Benjamin Auster

Born: February 3 1947, Newark, New Jersey

Education: Columbia High School, New Jersey; 1965-69 Columbia College, New York; '69-70 Columbia University, New York (quit after one year)

Married: 1974, Lydia Davis (divorced '82, one son);

'82, Siri Hustvedt (one daughter)

Employment: Census taker; oil tank utilityman on the Esso Florence; translator; 1997 juror, Cannes Film Festival; '86-90 tutor in storywriting and translation, Princeton University

Fiction: 1987 New York Trilogy; '88 In the Country of Last Things; '89 Moon Palace '91 The Music of Chance '92 Leviathan '94 Mr Vertigo '99 Timbuktu 2002 The Book of Illusions

Critical studies: 1997 The Art of Hunger

Non-fiction: 1988 The Invention of Solitude; '95 The Red Notebook; 1989 Hand to Mouth; 2001 True Tales of American Life

Poetry: 1998 Selected Poems

Screenplays: 1995 Smoke; '96 Blue in the Face; '99 Lulu on the Bridge

· The Book of Illusions is published by Faber and Faber this month, price £16.99.

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