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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The Whole Story, oil on canvas, 36" × 30", 2001 / Painting by Sam MesserAfter Columbia, Auster spent a few months working on an Esso oil tanker to fund a temporary move to Paris, and lived in France for the next three years, where he wrote and translated poetry and worked for a movie producer, revising treatments and preparing script synopses. (While still in school, and on a junior-year-abroad program in Paris in 1967, Auster, a cinephile, had dreamed of breaking into the industry, even writing numerous script synopses for silent movies. But, he says, “I realized that my personality was wrong. I couldn’t talk in front of people. I was so shy. I thought, how can I direct movies if I can’t talk to people? So I more or less gave up the idea.” A quarter of a century later, Auster would write and co-direct his first movie, Smoke, starring Harvey Keitel and William Hurt, with three more to follow.)

At twenty-three, he decided to drop fiction altogether and concentrate exclusively on poetry.

In 1974, at the age of twenty-seven, Auster returned to New York with nine dollars to his name and two slim volumes of poetry to his credit. (“I had no idea how to earn my living.”) The next few years proved an intense struggle to gain financial footing. He married his college girlfriend, the writer and translator Lydia Davis; after she became pregnant with their son Daniel, they moved from their beloved New York City to a rural, ramshackle house in more affordable Dutchess County. Auster continued to write poetry, publishing a few more collections and chapbooks, but he spent most of his time trying to figure out how to make money. He shopped around a pseudonymous baseball murder mystery, Squeeze Play. He created a card game, which he illustrates in his 1997 memoir Hand to Mouth, that mimicked the play of a baseball game. Soon, the financial struggles evolved into marital ones, and he stopped writing poetry altogether.

“I didn’t abandon poetry,” says Auster. “It abandoned me. I just came to a wall.” Auster remains proud of his poetry, and for good reason: spare and deeply lyrical, it has a romantic intensity reminiscent of the twentieth-century Italian poet Eugenio Montale. Consider, for instance, Auster’s poem “Still Life”:

Snowfall. And in the nethermost
lode of whiteness,
a memory
that adds your steps
to the lost.

I would have walked with you.

“It holds up,” he says. “But I haven’t written a poem since early 1979, half a lifetime ago. Except for family occasions — birthdays, weddings, anniversaries. I write silly rhyming poems for those.”

As Auster’s world was crumbling — bereft of money, marriage, and muse — he was invited by a friend to a modern-dance rehearsal. Watching the dancers interact, the powerful movement of their bodies, was a life-altering experience, a “scalding, epiphanic moment of clarity that pushed you through a crack in the universe and allowed you to start writing again,” as he recalls in Winter Journal.

“That dance performance unblocked me,” Auster says. “And then when I started writing again, it was prose. I found a new way to do it, a new approach altogether. I was liberated. It all became possible.”

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