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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Before the awards ceremony in 2006, which was attended by Spain’s queen and crown prince and broadcast live on Spanish-language TV stations around the world, Auster was looking over his acceptance speech in his hotel room when he put his glasses on the bed and sat on them.

“Can you imagine? One of the stems was broken off, so I had to give this speech in front of, I don’t know, a hundred million people, like this.” He closes one of the earpieces and puts the glasses on, balancing them on his nose. “Fortunately, the glasses didn’t fall off.

“My biggest moment,” he says with a laugh, “and I sat on my glasses.”

Given the scale of his success — his novels have been translated into forty-three languages — Auster’s sense of humor is surprisingly self-effacing. Readers familiar with his bleak tales of human suffering, loss, and failed attempts at redemption may marvel that he has one at all. (Even in his one attempt at a comic novel, Brooklyn Follies, a devastating hammer blow in the final paragraph obliterates the potentially happy ending.) His dust-jacket photos through the years seem only to confirm this image: Byronically handsome, with a strong, square jaw and penetrating gray-green eyes, Auster stares out soberly from his books, the embodiment of the brooding artist.

In person, however, Auster is warm and gracious, as keen to discuss baseball, his lifelong passion, as his writing. His darkly attractive looks have mellowed with time: his once thick, black hair thinning and silvery gray, the sharp cheekbones softened, the long, angular face fuller and rounder. Tall and broad, he shows a barely perceptible stoop to his shoulders that appears to be not so much a product of age as a slight shyness or self-consciousness in his physical person.

Taking a puff on his cigarillo, he glances again at the Asturias.

“It’s been a strange trajectory, I can tell you.”

It started in Newark and South Orange, where Auster had a middle-class suburban upbringing, liked by his peers and excelling at school and sports. His family life, however, was difficult: his parents were unhappily married until their divorce during his senior year of high school, his father an almost entirely absent figure from his life; his younger sister was diagnosed with schizophrenia in her teens. From a young age, Auster took to baseball as a physical outlet and writing as an emotional one, creating both fiction and poetry. He continued to pursue both genres rigorously while attending Columbia, first as an undergraduate and then as a master’s student in comparative literature. At twenty-three, he decided to drop fiction altogether and concentrate exclusively on poetry.

“At a certain moment I said to myself, ‘I’m not getting anywhere. I just can’t finish anything I start,’” he says. “I think it was probably a lack of confidence and a lack of a fixed aesthetic. But as I got older, I figured it out. Or at least I was able to do something with it. And finish.”

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