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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Auster writes novels that have the emotional immediacy and resonance of a good poem. They are works of the moment, of present feeling and personal action. His language sometimes can feel forced and shopworn, even corny at times, when his characters are interacting with the outside world; but it is, like his poetry of old, spare and lyrical when he gets inside those characters’ heads and loses himself in the more impressionistic music of thought.

Pink Olympia, oil on canvas, 64" × 78", 2001 / Painting by Sam Messer / Edward R. Broida Collection / Courtsey of Nielsen GalleryTake the opening of Man in the Dark (2008):

I am alone in the dark, turning the world around in my head as I struggle through another bout of insomnia, another white night in the great American wilderness.

Or these lines from Moon Palace (1989):

I had jumped off the edge, and then, at the very last moment, something reached out and caught me in midair. That something is what I define as love. It is the one thing that can stop a man from falling, power enough to negate the laws of gravity.

Over the three decades that Auster has been publishing fiction, his style and approach have evolved, moving away from labyrinthine plots to more straightforward storytelling. In his last few novels, there has also been a marked shift in his voice and an expansion of his methods. “I’ve opened up,” Auster says. “I’m using run-on sentences now, in ways that I never did before. I find it’s very propulsive, and especially good for capturing thinking, the internal monologue.”

Not only are the protagonists in these recent works more developed, but there are also more of them telling their stories: while several of Auster’s earlier novels split into double narration, Invisible, from 2009, has three separate narrators, and Sunset Park, his most recent novel, from 2010, has six.

“It was the story of all these people,” says Auster of Sunset Park, about a group of twenty-somethings squatting in an abandoned home during the financial and housing crisis of 2008. “We were living in an enormous cultural and societal crisis — the whole country was being booted out of their homes. So I knew I had to write a book with many voices in it. I think it’s also the only time I’ve written a book consciously about now, with a capital N, without any sort of time lag. The events of the book were only about two or three months old as I was writing it. It was very galvanizing.”

The rapid switching of storytellers in Sunset Park affords less room for filler; there remain some heavy-handed touches — one character takes photos of the personal possessions left behind in foreclosed homes he’s hired to clean, another runs a “hospital for broken things” — but it is one of the most fully realized of Auster’s novels.

“I’ve never written anything more quickly,” he says. “I wrote that book in such a condensed period — it only took me about four months, maybe five. I was absolutely burned out from the experience. I haven’t been able to write any fiction since.”

Instead, Auster is at work on another autobiographical book, which he won’t discuss until it’s nearer to completion. (“I don’t want to jinx it.”) After that, he’s hoping he’ll be ready to tackle fiction again. “I have ideas kicking around; I just haven’t felt ready.”

In Winter Journal, Auster muses on his profession:

No doubt you are a flawed and wounded person, a man who has carried a wound in him from the very beginning (why else would you have spent the whole of your adult life bleeding words onto a page?), and the benefits you derive from alcohol and tobacco serve as crutches to keep your crippled self upright and moving through the world.

“Most people wouldn’t want to be a writer, and for good reason,” Auster says, an early evening glass of white wine now accompanying the steady supply of cigarillos. “I mean, who wants to be shut up like that? People like to be with other people. To connect.”

The phone rings, and Auster jumps to answer it, apologetically, hoping it will be his wife. She left for London only that morning, but it’s clear that he already misses her. Instead it’s Auster’s agent, calling with an offer for a reading somewhere in Europe. (“Tell them I’m sorry, and that I wish I could, but there are so many requests.”) On the table, next to the Asturias Award, lies a literary publication with a cover photo of Siri, the woman Auster extols in his memoir.

“Oh, I had even more about her,” he admits, after returning from the call, “but I had to cut it back.”

The phone rings again a short time later, and Auster’s voice changes, taking on a softer, sweeter tone. “Hi, baby,” he says. “How’s it going?” It’s not Siri after all, but Auster’s twenty-five-year-old daughter Sophie, checking in. “Siri left this morning,” he tells her. “But I’m here all week, so stop by anytime.” Sophie, a singer, has a new album coming out, and just finished the photo shoot. Auster is eager to play her music for a guest.

He walks across the room to the media console and puts on an upbeat, South American–style tune, which he listens to with a small smile and obvious pride, wondering aloud if it is a tango. He follows it with a romantic ballad. Sophie’s sultry voice is full of heartache as she pines for her absent love. Auster sits silently, gazing straight ahead, his eyes glistening.

When the song ends, he sits still for a moment, then jumps from his chair and moves toward the stereo.

“Let’s hear one more.”

Stacey Kors is a freelance arts writer. Her work has been published in
Gramophone, the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Sam Messer has been painting and drawing Paul Auster, and Auster's Olympia typewriter, for many years.

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