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Paul Auster: American fiction’s Mr Cool

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Paul Auster, the Mr Cool of American fiction, has set many of his novels in New York City and his works are translated into more than 40 languages./AFP
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Jan 11, 2023 - 08:27 AM

PARIS, FRANCE — American author Paul Auster made his name with pacy, noirish novels about lonely writers, outsiders and down-and-outers.

Now he’s tackling America’s epidemic of gun violence in an impassioned account of the slaughter of innocents in schools, malls, clubs and churches.

The 75-year-old author with the soulful, sunken eyes gained cult status in the 1980s and 1990s with his “New York Trilogy” of metaphysical mysteries and his hip film “Smoke”, about the lost souls who patronise a Brooklyn tobacco shop.

His more than 30 books are as likely to be found in airports as on university reading lists and have been translated into more than 40 languages.

In recent years his life was marred by tragedy, his 10-month-old granddaughter dying after ingesting heroin and his son Daniel dying of an overdose 10 months later.

Lost father 

Neither of Auster’s Jewish Polish immigrant parents went to university and there were few books in his home growing up in Newark, New Jersey.

But he discovered the power of the pen — and found his vocation — after composing a poem about the arrival of spring.

It was a “horrible” poem, he admitted later, but the act of writing changed his way of seeing the world.

He moved to New York to attend Columbia University and after graduating spent four years in France, where he lived from translations while struggling to hone his craft.

He went through particularly dark times in the 1970s when he married, then four years later divorced, US short story writer Lydia Davis, with whom he had Daniel.

“I had run into a wall with my work. I was blocked and miserable, my marriage was falling apart, I had no money. I was finished,” he told The New York Times in 1992.

The turning point came with the sudden death of his father, which spurred Auster to write “The Invention of Solitude”, a haunting memoir of his dad and reflection on father-son relationships, a recurring theme in Auster’s work.

Published in 1982 it was a critical success and set Auster free with his writing.

The same year he married fellow author Siri Hustvedt.

New York modernist 

His big breakthrough came with “The New York Trilogy”, a philosophical twist on the detective genre featuring a shady quartet of private investigators named Blue, Brown, Black and White.

That period also brought a downbeat dog tasked with getting his dead owner’s unpublished manuscript out of a bus station’s luggage locker in “Timbuktu” (1999) and a series of existential capers: “Moon Palace” (1989), “The Music of Chance” (1990) and “Leviathan” (1992).

His gift for sharp dialogue — Auster mercilessly edits himself for sentence rhythm — was key to the success of “Smoke”, which he wrote and co-directed, about a Brooklyn smoke shop owner played by Harvey Keitel.

He also co-directed the follow-up, “Blue in the Face” that featured Keitel again, alongside Jim Jarmusch, Michael J. Fox, Madonna and Lou Reed.

‘American pride’ 

In 2017 he broke with his concise style to deliver a 866-page tome, “4 3 2 1”, charting American society through the life of an everyman, Archie Ferguson.

Auster presented it as his masterwork.

But while America’s National Public Radio found it “dazzling”, others were less positive, with Britain’s The Guardian calling it a “poorly-edited disaster” and The Irish Times deeming it “the last fat novel of a collapsed American pride”.

Public and private tragedies 

“Bloodbath Nation” takes him into new terrain.

Deeply moved by US photographer Spencer Ostrander’s haunting black-and-white pictures from the sites of more than 30 mass shootings, Auster penned an accompanying text about the massacre of innocents in schools, clubs, churches and malls across America.

Guns are “the central metaphor for everything that continues to divide us”, says Auster, calling for Americans to engage in a “gut-wrenching examination of who we are and who we want to be”.

While tackling a very public tragedy, Auster has also faced private anguish.

In 2021, his son Daniel was found guilty of negligent homicide in the death of his 10-month-old daughter Ruby. In 2022, Daniel himself died of an overdose at the age of 44.

Auster has never publicly discussed their deaths. He and Hustvedt have a daughter, singer Sophie Auster.

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