Collected Prose: Autobiographical Writings, True Stories, Critical Essays, Prefaces, and Collaborations with Artists

by Paul Auster
512 pages,
ISBN: 031242468X

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Obeisance to Art and Bizarre Coincidence
by Ron Stang

Paul Auster's Collected Prose: Autobiographical Writings, True Stories, Critical Essays, Prefaces and Collaborations with Artists, helps fill in the gaps for any fan of this contemporary American writer's work, from his novels to nonfiction, screenplays and poetry.
It has been approximately 20 years since Auster's first major novels, City of Glass, Ghosts, The Locked Room (compiled in the New York Trilogy), first appeared. These were followed by another 11 novels, among which are The Music of Chance (made into a movie starring Mandy Patinkin, Joel Gray and Charles Durning), Moon Palace, Leviathan, Mr. Vertigo, Timbuktu and Oracle Night. It seems timely and appropriate, therefore, to release a compendium of the writer's wider non-fiction writings. Published previously in literary journals, or as sections in books, such as The Art of Hunger, The Red Notebook, The Invention of Solitude, and Hand to Mouth, as prefaces to collections of other writers' works, and in magazine and op-ed pieces, these 40 items¨some dozens of pages in length, others merely a few¨give insight into Auster's life, particularly as a struggling writer in the late 1960s and 1970s. And they provide an appreciation of how learned Auster is when it comes to literature, especially American and European fiction and French poetry.
Auster has been called a writer's writer. The author started his literary career as a student at New York's Columbia University in 1968, then lived itinerantly in Paris and New York over the next 10 years. His was a hardscrabble existence, but one that was self- imposed. Auster eschewed conventional employment, devoting himself to living his life as he wanted, without compromising his time, in strict obeisance to his art. "Most writers lead double lives," he writes fittingly at the beginning of Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure, by having some sort of employment, other than writing, on which to get by. "My problem was that I had no interest in leading a double life." For Auster, spending time at a job other than writing or gaining experience to write was a dispiriting waste. "My life would be good if and only if I stuck to my guns and refused to give in. Art was holy, and to follow its call meant making any sacrifice that was demanded of you, maintaining your purity of purpose to the bitter end."
Sanctimonious? Hardly. Isn't this the eternal dream of the bohemian artist? Not to be above it all, but rather not to be distracted by what's unimportant? And, deep down, wouldn't we all prefer to follow a dearly loved dream if only the prospect of the negative repercussions wasn't so terrifying? Auster suffered too; hence the memoir's title. He held down a part-time job for seven months once, but even that was too much of a compromise. "Against all the odds," he writes, "it seemed that I still hadn't given up the vain and stupid hope of surviving on my own terms."
The collection opens with The Invention of Solitude. The first piece is an account of his father, comprised of stark and haunting recollections of a man who was emotionally hollow, lived life by rote, spoke in clichTs, and took little interest in those around him, not least his son. When he died, Auster felt no grief, only the "realization that my father had left no traces."
Two aspects of the memoir stand out as especially disturbing. The first is Auster's description of a trick photo of his father, popular in the 1940s, which is in fact five images of the same man appearing as different men sitting around playing poker or perhaps having a sTance. Because the picture is really the same image positioned at different angles, the men aren't looking at each other but into space, and, according to Auster, "seeing nothing, never able to see anything. It is a picture of death, a portrait of an invisible man."
The second disturbing aspect concerns a photograph, that of his rural Wisconsin grandparents. A piece had been excised, and the photo had then been pasted back together. The fragment that had been removed contained an image of his grandfather. Why was it excised? Because his grandmother had murdered his grandfather over an affair with another woman. Auster writes of the distorted image: "Only his [grandfather's] fingertips remained: as if he were trying to crawl back into the picture from some deep hole in time, as if he had been exiled to another dimension. The whole thing made me shake."
Coincidence, chance and fate are central themes in Auster's work, from the title of the novel The Music of Chance, about the momentary consequences of a play in a game of poker that changes lives forever, to Oracle Night's story-within-a-story of a man who, having absent-mindedly left a key on a shelf, locks himself in a subterranean room, never to escape.
In this volume there is an astounding number of examples of chance incidents, all apparently true, that occur in Auster's life, or in the lives of his friends and acquaintances. He found out about the true nature of his grandfather's death only because a cousin, on a flight to Europe, happened to sit beside a man from Kenosha, Wisconsin. The cousin mentioned his father also came from Kenosha. When the name Auster was mentioned the seatmate "turned pale" and told the cousin the story of the infamous murder. In "The Red Notebook" we read about many strange and amusing coincidences: There is an actual law firm in Sligo, Ireland, called, of all things, Argue and Phibbs, the actual names of the two partners; after being confronted about why he never remarried, an artist silently dwells on the one woman he believes was right for him¨someone he met at Harvard 20 years earlier¨and then, a few days later, in the process of renewing acquaintances during a midlife career change, the woman calls up the artist, and the two eventually marry; a Czech woman, whose father had vanished during the Second World War, marries a man from East Germany, only to discover later, while attending her husband's father's funeral, that the deceased man was from Czechoslovakia and that his Czech name was the same as that of her missing father, which meant, "insofar as her husband's father was the same man, the man she had married was also her brother." We learn how Auster came to write his first novel City of Glass, which has been described as a post-modern detective story, a surreal account dealing with questions of symbolism and identity. "My first novel was inspired by a wrong number," he writes. "I picked up the receiver, and the man on the other end asked if he was talking to the Pinkerton Agency." The next afternoon the phone rang again, and the same man asked the same question.
Auster's narrative in Hand to Mouth, which recounts how he eked out a living during his lean years, is as moving as any story of a young writer's idealistic struggle. Indeed, it is reminiscent of W. Somerset Maugham's veiled autobiographical account in Of Human Bondage, in which a pauper's desperate existence is mercifully ended by a familial death and an inheritance.
To scrape by, Auster freelanced, "gradually developing a taste for the kind of literary hackwork that would keep me going until I was thirty¨and which ultimately led to my downfall." Yet his adventures and, again, coincidences and chance meetings, served him well in terms of the experience they afforded. His knowledge of French opened many doors. In New York he translated a speech playwright Jean Genet gave in defense of the Black Panthers. In Paris, upon first arriving, a friend helped him obtain work at the Galerie Maeght, a leading European gallery that exhibited works of Miro, Chagall and Giacometti, where he translated art catalogues. He was also steered to the Paris bureau of the New York Times, where he translated op-ed pieces by Sartre and Foucault. (Auster would eventually translate Sartre's book Life/Situations.) He even got a job translating the just-written North Vietnamese constitution. He was surprised that they would give the job to "an enemy American living in Paris." The payment? Dinner "at the simplest and cheapest Vietnamese restaurant in Paris, but also the best."
Back in New York, he had a brief tenure as a paid employee for a purveyor of rarefied art books, Ex Libris press, writing the bi-annual catalogues and doing run-of-the-mill office work. One day there was a knock on the door. It was John Lennon, wanting to look at a collection of Man Ray photographs. On another occasion, his employer recommended him to a writer friend, one Jerzy Kosinski, to edit the manuscript of Kosinski's new book, Cockpit.
Collected Prose's Critical Essays and Prefaces sections hold rich commentaries on a range of writers' works¨American and European¨some better known than others and many obscure. There's New York novelist Louis Wolfson's evocative portraits of the Jewish poor, as "horrendously comical and vivid" as characters found in Celine's Death on the Installment Plan; poet Laura Riding's "insistence upon confronting ultimate questions, the tendency toward moral exhortation, the quickness and cleanness of thought"; and Samuel Beckett's little-known Mercier and Camier, a precursor to Waiting for Godot; whereas the latter "is sustained by the implicit drama of Godot's absence . . . Mercier and Camier progresses in a void."
Other writers whose works Auster addresses include Italian modernist poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, French writer Edmond JabFs, New York poet Charles Reznikoff, latterly acclaimed French writer Georges Perec, and Auster's friend and Paris door-opener poet Jacques Dupin. There's also a sprawling overview of 20th century French poetry. Sketches of exceptional artists of another kind are here as well: for instance, there is a piece about high wire acrobat Philippe Petit, the first man to walk between the former World Trade Center's towers; well-known New Yorker illustrator Art Spiegelman, author of Maus, a personal interpretation of the Jewish Holocaust, also gets some attention. Auster, a writer profoundly influenced by the likes of Kafka and modernist writers of the Jewish Diaspora, a true child of the Sixties who witnessed the near-insurrection at Columbia University in February 1968, and an uncompromising artist whose works¨ including poetry and screenplays (he wrote Smoke with Harvey Keitel and Lulu on the Bridge with Mira Sorvino)¨count today among America's best. But, alas, he hasn't been without critics or, at least, one major one.
In A Reader's Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose, B. R. Myers's Atlantic Monthly skewering of five contemporary authors, Myers condemns Auster for wordiness and redundancy. Specifically, he accuses Auster of, among other things, "erudite facetiousness", "name dropping", and writing novels set in a "Manhattan provenance" that move at a "glacial pace", which, he says mockingly, give the books "a certain cachet in continental Europe". Myers calls Auster's Hand to Mouth, "cant-filled" and his "most repetitive" book.
I can't argue with some of the examples Myers offers: "How else to interpret the celestial pun that echoed in his mind night and day?" or "In the short run, Victor's nominalism helped me to survive the difficult first few weeks in my new school," or "My father was tight; my mother was extravagant. She spent; he didn't." But Myers misses the bigger picture. Who cares if there is some redundancy, some pretentiousness, and even convoluted syntax¨most often barely noticeable¨if the overall story holds wonders of suspense, keenly drawn characters and insight? If the alternative is antiseptic cleanliness, I'll take the occasional mussed phrase.
I suppose Auster could also be knocked for being too intellectual, too immersed in the surrealism and existentialism of 20th-century European literature, and too willing to depend on elements of abstraction and the aforementioned chance occurrence to peg his stories on. Yet in a world that isn't terribly intellectual, where the usual output consists of novels that are often straight-line stories with lacklustre characters, or conversely, novels that try too hard (numerous titles come to mind), it's admirable and exciting to read someone who usually gets it right, who employs inventive plot structures, and crafts narratives linked to wider topics such as European Jewry or the panoramic sweep of American culture. Auster is a writer for our age and perhaps for all ages.

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