COVER STORY

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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Photograph by Jorg MeyerThe thirty-one-year-old Auster went home after the performance and immediately began to write, and continued to do so solidly for three weeks, working on a text that he describes as being “of no definable genre, neither a poem nor a prose narrative,” trying to explain all that he saw and felt during that dance performance. It was as he was finishing this piece, an eight-page work entitled White Spaces, that his father died of a heart attack while making love with his girlfriend.

“He died young, just one year older than I am now,” Auster says. “I wasn’t close to my father, who was an opaque person. He wasn’t unkind — I mean, he didn’t have any malicious thoughts toward me, just a kind of vague indifference, whereas my mother was very engaged with me from the beginning. Which is why I never really felt compelled to write about her with the urgency that I felt that I had to write about my father, who for me was literally vanishing.”

The resulting work was his first published book of prose. The Invention of Solitude is more than a biography of Auster’s father; it is also a haunting, meditative account of the darkest and most unsettled period in Auster’s life as he was experiencing it: the end of his marriage; the loss of his absent father; the separation from his own young son; the lack of money and a plan for the future; the gnawing emptiness. While not written expressly in narrative form, the second of the book’s two parts, entitled “The Book of Memory,” contains narrative elements; it is also written in the third person.

“I’m fascinated by the artificiality of books,” Auster explains.

“I didn’t like it in the first person: something was wrong. I realized that I had to step back from myself, otherwise, I couldn’t do it. I was too close. By stepping back into the third, I think I was able to see things more clearly.”

The Invention of Solitude was the beginning of Auster’s move back toward storytelling. The ideas explored in “The Book of Memory” — loss and suffering, isolation and connection, chance and coincidence — would become the dominant themes in almost all of his subsequent work.

“I have always thought of that book,” he says, “as the foundation for everything that followed.”

When writing returned, Auster’s fortunes shifted. An unexpected inheritance from his father allowed him to avoid a desk job and continue on his path to becoming a novelist. Two years later, in 1981, he was introduced at a reading to a young writer and Columbia doctoral candidate, Siri Hustvedt. “I had this amazing experience of falling in love with somebody in about an hour,” he says, “and just jumping in blindly. Here we are, thirty-one years later, still together.

“To me,” he suddenly adds, “Siri is one of the greatest geniuses on the planet. She’s the smartest person I’ve ever known. Period.”

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