I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Celebrated poet and author Paul Auster moves between forms and genres, creating ambitious works of literature. He speaks with writer Joseph Mallia on the necessities of writing and their impact on the reader.
Auster has worked in a wide range of genres—a half-dozen volumes of dense, highly crafted lyric poems; numerous books of translation from the French, and the editorship of the Random House Book of Twentieth Century French Poetry; The Art of Hunger, critical essays written when he was in his early twenties; a moving, deeply personal yet intellectually rigorous “experiment in autobiography,” The Invention of Solitude, The New York Trilogy, an acclaimed series of sparse, evocative mysteries; a one-act play, produced in New York (and which he refuses to talk about); pseudonymously, a conventional detective story; and, most recently, In The Country of Last Things, a post-apocalyptic story narrated from the point of view of a 19-year-old woman. What unites his work in such disparate genres? It “has to do with language,” Auster says. “It all goes toward exploring the limits of the sayable. It has to do with perception, the connection between seeing the world and speaking the world, what happens in that gap between the two. It is about trying to come to grips in language with things that elude understanding.”
Joseph Mallia In your book of essays The Art of Hunger you cite Samuel Beckett as saying, “There will be a new form.” Is your work an example of that new form?
Paul Auster It seems that everything comes out a little strangely and my books don’t quite resemble other books, but whether they’re “new” in any sense, I really can’t say. It’s not my ambition to think about it. So I suppose the answer is yes and no. At this point I’m not even thinking about anything beyond doing the books themselves. They impose themselves on me, so it’s not my choice. The only thing that really matters, it seems to me, is saying the thing that has to be said. If it really has to be said, it will create its own form.
JM All of your early work, from the ’70s, is poetry. What brought about this switch in genres, what made you want to write prose?
PA Starting from a very early age, writing novels was always my ambition. When I was a student in college, in fact, I spent a great deal more time writing prose than poetry. But the projects and ideas that I took on were too large for me, too ambitious, and I could never get a grip on them. By concentrating on a smaller form I felt that I was able to make more progress. Years went by, and writing poetry became such an obsession that I stopped thinking about anything else. I wrote very short, compact lyrical poems that usually took me months to complete. They were very dense, especially in the beginning—coiled in on themselves like fists—but over the years they gradually began to open up, until I finally felt that they were heading in the direction of narrative. I don’t think of myself as having made a break from poetry. All my work is of a piece, and the move into prose was the last step in a slow and natural evolution.
JM As a younger writer, who were the modern writers you were interested in?
PAOf prose writers, unquestionably Kafka and Beckett. They both had a tremendous hold over me. In the same sense, the influence of Beckett was so strong that I couldn’t see my way beyond it. Among poets, I was very attracted to contemporary French poetry and the American Objectivists, particularly George Oppen, who became a close friend. And the German poet Paul Celan, who in my opinion is the finest post-War poet in any language. Of older writers, there were Hölderlin and Leopardi, the essays of Montaigne, and Cervantes’s Don Quixote, which has remained a great source for me.
JM But in the ’70s you also wrote a great number of articles and essays about other writers.
PA Yes, that’s true. There was a period in the middle ’70s in particular when I found myself eager to test my own ideas about writers in print. It’s one thing to read and admire somebody’s work, but it’s quite another to marshal your thoughts about that writer into something coherent. The people I wrote about—Laura Riding, Edmond Jabès, Louis Wolfson, Knut Hamsen, and others—were writers I felt a need to respond to. I never considered myself a reviewer, but simply one writer trying to talk about others. Having to write prose for publication disciplined me, I think, and convinced me that ultimately I was able to write prose. So in some sense those little pieces of literary journalism were the training ground for the novels.
JM Your first prose book was The Invention of Solitude, which was an autobiographical book.
PA I don’t think of it as an autobiography so much as a meditation about certain questions, using myself as the central character. The book is divided into two sections, which were written separately, with a gap of about a year between the two. The first, “Portrait of an Invisible Man,” was written in response to my father’s death. He simply dropped dead one day, unexpectedly, after being in perfect health, and the shock of it left me with so many unanswered questions about him that I felt I had no choice but to sit down and try to put something on paper. In the act of trying to write about him, I began to realize how problematical it is presume to know anything about anyone else. While that piece is filled with specific details, it still seems to me not so much an attempt at biography but an exploration of how one might begin to speak about another person, and whether or not it is even possible.
The second part grew out of the first and was a response to it. It gave me a great deal of trouble, especially in terms of organization. I began writing it in the first person, as the first part had been written, but couldn’t make any headway with it. This part was even more personal than the first, but the more deeply I descended into the material, the more distanced I became from it. In order to write about myself, I had to treat myself as though I were someone else. It was only when I started all over again in the third person that I began to see my way out of the impasse. The astonishing thing, I think, is that at the moment when you are most truly alone, when you truly enter a state of solitude, that is the moment when you are not alone anymore, when you start to feel your connection with others. I believe I even quote Rimbaud in that book, “Je est un autre”—I is another—and I take that sentence quite literally. In the process of writing or thinking about yourself, you actually become someone else.
JM Not only is the narrative voice of “The Book of Memory” different, but the structure is different as well.
PA The central question in the second part was memory. So in some sense everything that happens in it is simultaneous. But writing is sequential, it unfolds over time. So my greatest problem was in trying to put things in the correct order.
The point was to be as honest as possible in every sentence. I wanted to write a work that was completely exposed. I didn’t want to hide anything, I wanted to break down for myself the boundary between living and writing as much as I could. That’s not to say that a lot of literary effort didn’t go into the book, but the impulses are all very immediate and pressing. With everything I do, it seems that I just get so inside it, I can’t think about anything else. And writing the book becomes real for me. I was talking about myself in “The Book of Memory,” but by tracking specific instances of my own mental process, perhaps I was doing something that other people could understand as well.
JM Yes, that’s how it worked for me. “The Book of Memory” dwells on coincidences, strange intersections of events in the world. This is also true in the novels of The New York Trilogy.
PA Yes. I believe the world is filled with strange events. Reality is a great deal more mysterious than we ever give it credit for. In that sense, the Trilogy grows directly out of The Invention of Solitude. On the most personal level, I think of City of Glass as an homage to my wife. It’s a kind of fictitious subterranean autobiography, an attempt to imagine what my life would have been like if I hadn’t met her. That’s why I had to appear in the book as myself. but at the same time Auster is also Quinn, but in a different universe … .
The opening scene in the book is something that actually happened to me. I was living alone at the time, and one night the telephone rang and the person on the other end asked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. I told him that he had the wrong number, of course, but the same person called back the next night with the same question. When I hung up the phone the second time, I asked myself what would have happened if I had said, “Yes.” That was the genesis of the book, and I went on from there.
JM Reviews of the book seem to emphasize the mystery elements of The New York Trilogy, making it out to be a gloss on the mystery genre. Did you feel that you were writing a mystery novel?
PA Not at all. Of course I used certain elements of detective fiction. Quinn, after all, writes detective novels, and takes on the identity of someone he thinks is a detective. But I felt I was using those elements for such different ends, for things that had so little to do with detective stories, that I was somewhat disappointed by the emphasis that was put on them. That’s not to say that I have anything against the genre. The mystery, after all, is one of the oldest and most compelling forms of storytelling, and any number of works can be placed in that category: Oedipus Rex, Crime and Punishment, a whole range of twentieth-century novels. In America, there’s no question that people like Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain are legitimate writers, writers who have contributed something important to the language. It’s a mistake to look down on popular forms. You have to be open to everything, to be willing to take inspiration from any and all sources. In the same way that Cervantes used chivalric romances as the starting point for Don Quixote, or the way that Beckett used the standard vaudeville routine as the framework for Waiting for Godot, I tried to use certain genre conventions to get to another place, another place altogether.
JM The problem of identity, right?
PA Exactly. The question of who is who and whether or not we are who we think we are. The whole process that Quinn undergoes in that book—and the characters in the other two, as well—is one of stripping away to some barer condition in which we have to face up to who we are. Or who we aren’t. It finally comes to the same thing.
JM And the detective is somebody who’s supposed to deal with the problems we have in maintaining a conventional identity. He deals with the messy edges of reality. Like, “My wife, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to—”
PA Right, exactly—or, “Somebody’s missing.” So the detective really is a very compelling figure, a figure we all understand. He’s the seeker after truth, the problem-solver, the one who tries to figure things out. But what if, in the course of trying to figure it out, you just unveil more mysteries? I suppose maybe that’s what happens in the books.
The books have to do with the idea of mystery in several ways. We’re surrounded by things we don’t understand, by mysteries, and in the books these are people who suddenly come face to face with them. It becomes more apparent that they’re surrounded by things they don’t know or understand. So in that sense there might be some psychological resonance. Even though the situations aren’t strictly realistic, they might follow some realistic psychology. These are things that we all feel—that confusion, that lack of knowing of what it is that surrounds us.
JM I saw the protagonists dropping into a kind of necessity, suddenly, and putting personal life aside, driven by some extraordinary hunger. It has almost religious undertones to it. I remember reading a review by Fanny Howe in the Boston Globe, and she said that the book is about a kind of gnosis—“grace among the fallen.”
PA “Religious” might not be the word I would use, but I agree that these books are mostly concerned with spiritual questions, the search for spiritual grace. At some point or another, all three characters undergo a form of humiliation, of degradation, and perhaps that is a necessary stage in discovering who we are.
Each novel in the trilogy, I suppose, is about a kind of passionate excess. Quinn’s story in City of Glass alludes to Don Quixote, and the questions raised in the two books are very similar: what is the line between madness and creativity, what is the line between the real and the imaginary, is Quinn crazy to do what he does or not? For a time, I toyed with the idea of using an epigraph at the beginning of City of Glass. It comes from Wittgenstein: “And it also means something to talk of ‘living in the pages of a book.’”
In Ghosts, the spirit of Thoreau is dominant—another kind of passionate excess. The idea of living a solitary life, of living with a kind of monastic intensity—and all the dangers that entails. Walden Pond in the heart of the city. In his American Notebook, Hawthorne wrote an extraordinary and luminous sentence about Thoreau that has never left me. “I think he means to live like an Indian among us.” That sums up the project better than anything else I’ve read. The determination to reject everyday American life, to go against the grain, to discover a more solid foundation for oneself … In The Locked Room, by the way, the name Fanshawe is a direct reference to Hawthorne. Fanshawe was the title of Hawthorne’s first novel. He wrote it when he was very young, and not long after it was published, he turned against it in revulsion and tried to destroy every copy he could get his hands on. Fortunately, a few of them survived …
JM In Ghosts, Blue, in effect, loses his whole life in taking the case, and the narrator in The Locked Room goes through that terrible experience in Paris—
PA But in the end, he manages to resolve the question for himself—more or less. He finally comes to accept his own life, to understand that no matter how bewitched or haunted he is, he had to accept reality as it is, to tolerate the presence of ambiguities within himself. That’s what happens to him with relation to Fanshawe. He hasn’t slain the dragon, he’s let the dragon move into the house with him. That’s why he destroys the notebook in the last scene.
JM And the reader feels it. We’re inside him.
PA The one thing I try to do in all my books is to leave enough room in the prose for the reader to inhabit it. Because I finally believe that it’s the reader who writes the book and not the writer. In my own case as a reader (and I’ve certainly read more books than I’ve written!), I find that I almost invariably appropriate scenes and situations from a book and graft them onto my own experiences—or vice versa. In reading a book like Pride and Prejudice, for example, I realized at a certain point that all the events were set in the house I grew up in as a child. No matter how specific a writer’s description of a place might be, I always seem to twist it into something I’m familiar with. I’ve asked a number of my friends if this happens to them when they read fiction as well. For some yes, for others no. I think this probably has a lot to do with one’s relation to language, how one responds to words printed on a page. Whether the words are just symbols, or whether they are passageways into our unconscious.
There’s a way in which a writer can do too much, overwhelming the reader with so many details that he no longer has any air to breathe. Think of a typical passage in a novel. A character walks into a room. As a writer, how much of that room do you want to talk about? The possibilities are infinite. You can give the color of the curtains, the wallpaper pattern, the objects on the coffee table, the reflection of the light in the mirror. But how much of this is really necessary? Is the novelist’s job simply to reproduce physical sensations for their own sake? When I write, the story is always uppermost in my mind, and I feel that everything must be sacrificed to it. All the 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. It’s all in the voice. You’re telling a story, after all, and your job is to make people want to go on listening to your tale. The slightest distraction or wandering leads to boredom, and if there’s one thing we all hate in books, it’s losing interest, feeling bored, not caring about the next sentence. In the end, you don’t only write the books you need to write, but you write the books you would like to read yourself.
JM Is there a method to it?
PA No. The deeper I get into my own work, the less engaging theoretical problems have become. When you look back on the works that have moved you, you find that they have always been written out of some kind of necessity. There’s something calling out to you, some human call, that makes you want to listen to the work. In the end, it probably has very little to do with literature.
Georges Bataille wrote about this in his preface to Le Bleu du Ciel. I refer to it in The Art of Hunger, in an essay on the schizophrenic Wolfson. He said that every real book comes from a moment of rage, and then he asked: “How can we read works that we don’t feel compelled to read?” I believe he’s absolutely correct: there’s always some indefinable something that makes you attend to a writer’s work—you can never put your finger on it, but that something is what makes all the difference.
JM In other words the writer has to be haunted by his story before he can write it.
PA In my own experience I’ve often lived for years with the ideas for books before I could manage to write them. In The Country of Last Things is a novel I started writing back in the days when I was a college student. The idea of a young woman writing letters from the edge of the world, from some unknowable place … it got under my skin and I couldn’t let go of it. I would pick up the manuscript, work on it for a while, and then put it down. The essential thing was to capture her voice, and when I couldn’t hear it anymore, I would have to stop. I must have started the book 30 times. Each time it was somewhat different than the time before, but the essential situation was always the same.
JM In the same way that some reviewers classified The New York Trilogy as a mystery, there were many articles about this book that classified it as apocalyptic science fiction.
PA That was the farthest thing from my mind while I was writing it. In fact, my private, working subtitle for the book was “Anna Blume Walks Through the 20th Century.” I feel that it’s very much a book about our own moment, our own era, and many of the incidents are things that have actually happened. For example, the pivotal scene in which Anna is lured into a human slaughterhouse is based on something I read about the seige of Leningrad during World War II. These things actually happened. And in many cases, reality is far more terrible than anything we can imagine. Even the garbage system that I describe at such length was inspired by an article I once read about the present-day garbage system in Cairo. Admittedly, the book takes on these things from a somewhat oblique angle, and the country Anna goes to might not be immediately recognizable, but I feel that this is where we live. It could be that we’ve become so accustomed to it that we no longer see it.
JM What are you working on now?
PA I’m coming close to the end of a novel called Moon Palace. It’s the longest book I’ve ever written and probably the one most rooted in a specific time and place. The action begins in 1969 and doesn’t get much beyond 1971. At bottom, I suppose it’s a story about families and generation, a kind of David Copperfield novel, and it’s something that I’ve been wanting to write for a long time. As with the last book, it’s gone through many changes. The pages pile up, but God knows what it will look like when it’s finished … Whenever I complete a book, I’m filled with a feeling of immense disgust and disappointment. It’s almost a physical collapse. I’m so disappointed by my feeble efforts that I can’t believe I’ve actually spent so much time and accomplished so little. It takes years before I’m able to accept what I’ve done—to realize that this was the best I could do. But I never like to look at the things I’ve written. The past is the past, and there’s nothing I can do about it any more. The only thing that counts is the project I’m working on now.
JM Beckett once said in one of his stories. “No sooner is the ink dry than it revolts me.”
PA You can’t say it any better than that.
Joseph Mallia is a freelance writer living in Western Massachusetts. He is currently working on his first novel.
Susan Shacter is co-author with writer Don Shewy of Caught in the Act; New York Actors Face to Face, published by Plume.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee