The Solitude of Invention

Paul Auster, one of America’s most enigmatic literary figures, has opened up about his life in a new memoir. Now he opens his front door.

by Stacey Kors Published Fall 2012
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My name is Paul Auster, that is not my real name, oil on canvas, 68" × 66", 1998 / Painting by Sam Messer

“It happened right there, in that chair.” Paul Auster points to one of the upholstered Parsons chairs surrounding the Bordeaux-colored dining table in his Brooklyn brownstone. Staring blankly, he adds, “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”

The chair is where Auster ’69CC, ’70GSAS suffered his first panic attack, soon after his mother died suddenly in 2002. “I didn’t see my father’s corpse, but I saw my mother’s corpse. It’s a horrible thing to see your parent dead, especially your mother, because your body began inside her body. You started in that person. It’s a very, very traumatic business.”

The death of his mother is one of the experiences that Auster recounts in his latest work, Winter Journal, a memoir of the sixty-five-year-old writer’s life, from childhood to the present day. Winter Journal also explores what it means to be human and to live inside our bodies, with their curious collection of yawns, coughs, and sneezes. What it’s like to feel the ache of physical desire and the relief of urination; to abandon yourself to sports as a boy, and to girls as an adolescent; to walk aimlessly through snowy city streets and run recklessly down the baseline of a spring-green ball field; to endure searing pain and express soaring joy; to know love and know loss; to grow up; to grow old. It’s the story of Paul Auster, but Paul Auster as everyman, which he emphasizes by writing in the second person.

“Writing in the first person would have been too exclusionary,” says Auster, who speaks in a velvety baritone with a slight nap, perhaps from the Dutch Schimmelpenninck cigarillos that he chain-smokes throughout the day. “I see that my experiences are so similar to everyone else’s, because we all have bodies, after all. Something always goes wrong with our bodies. Or right with our bodies. First person would have been pushing people away. Third would have been too distant. So second seemed just right, where I could address myself as an intimate stranger or an intimate other. But then the ‘you’ has this rebound effect on the reader, who gets sucked in, and is experiencing it in a different way than a first- or third-person text.”

Painting by Sam MesserAuster sits in a deco-style club chair on the parlor floor of his century-old Park Slope home, smoking as he talks. The brownstone is in pristine condition, the original, ornately carved woodwork and intricate inlaid wood floors balanced by a minimalist, Scandinavian-modern aesthetic, which he attributes to his wife, the writer Siri Hustvedt ’86GSAS. Along with a display of family photos are the artifacts of literary success, including two of the numerous paintings created by artist Sam Messer of Auster’s manual Olympia typewriter, which he continues to use in lieu of a computer, and a bronze sculpture on the side table beside his chair.

“That’s my Asturias Prize,” says Auster. “It’s the biggest literary prize I’ve won. It’s sort of like the Spanish version of the Nobel Prize. They give awards in the arts, sciences, and humanities — all these wonderful people getting things.” A little uncomfortable about having it so prominently displayed, he adds, “It’s one of the last things Miró did. I don’t know where to put it, so we have it here, because it’s Miró.”

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