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Paul Auster: A General Introduction

Par Jocelyn Dupont : Maître de conférences - Université de Perpignan - Via Domitia
Publié par Clifford Armion le 13/02/2009
This document provides a short general overview of Paul Auster’s work. After a brief discussion of Auster’s texts positioning in the literary heritage, it tackles the place and role of the writer in an often alienating environment. It then deals with the representation of the city in Auster’s work, notably Brooklyn, before concluding on the gift for storytelling that so characterizes Paul Auster’s production.

1. The non-anxiety of Influence

« Thank God for the French !», Woody Allen cunningly remarks in the closing shots of Hollywood Ending (2002), one of his latest comedies. Although the works of the famous Manhattan-associated film director and that of the no less famous Brooklyn-based novelist Paul Auster differ in many respects, it seems likely that the latter would feel no reluctance whatsoever to say the same thing of the country that he once called home and that has been his most fervent fan club for over twenty years now.

Since the French translation of City of Glass by Actes Sud publishing house in 1987, Paul Auster, born in New Jersey in 1947 and long-time New York City resident, has been enjoying an unceasing critical success in the country of Pascal, Descartes, Montaigne and Mallarmé, to name but a few of his favourite thinkers, and where he lived for four years in his twenties. Yet Auster's literary connections with the French literary world do not stop here, for he also published in 1982 a remarkable anthology of 20th century poetry, as well as detailed studies of little-known literary figures such as Edmond Jabès and Jacques Dupin.

Auster's literary thirst, however, is not so easily quenched. Ever since he was in his early teens, when he decided he wanted to become a writer, he has been reading avidly, from Tolstoy's War and Peace to surrealist poetry, with a literary hunger that he was able to translate into an art - to echo the title of his remarkable study of Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun's famous novel Hunger (1890), a seminal text for Auster, and for whoever is keen to know more about the many literary influences that run through his work.

Although the many sources and intertexts mentioned above would seem to confirm that Auster is the most European of all American writers, one should not overlook the significance of the American heritage over his work as a whole. From his own confession, the first book Auster bought with his own pocket money was a copy of Edgar Allan Poe's Tales[1], and shadows of some major figures from the 19th century American Renaissance loom large over his texts, starting with Nathaniel Hawthorne's, whose Scarlet Letter (1850) is at the heart of one of The Brooklyn Follies' sub-plots. It has even been suggested that Hawthorne may well have been Auster's literary paragon from the very start of his writing career, his symbolical father[2].

It would however be an exhaustingly vain task to try and undertake a census of the literary intertexts that run beneath the surface of Auster's work. His writing takes place at the limits of a hybrid literary space, accommodating literature, fiction, and experience in a decidedly postmodern stance. Suffice to say that Auster's texts are intensely aware of the pre-existence of other texts and that they successfully negotiate with the literary heritage, to transform and integrate it into what has proved to be a highly personal, singular and eventually original oeuvre.

2. The self and otherness

This incessant negotiation between otherness and the personal is also palpable in Auster's staging of the individual in the midst of society, one of the major aspects of The Brooklyn Follies. The place of one's subjectivity in the multitudinous, often urban, contemporary experience is relentlessly questioned novel after novel. One of the main aspects of this struggle is salient in Auster's singular narrators who, more often than not, read as alter egos of the writer himself. This is particularly true of the earlier texts such as The Invention of Solitude (itself part-autobiography), The New York Trilogy (with the unforgettable phone call asking for private detective Paul Auster in the opening pages), Leviathan, and more recently Oracle Night and Travels in the Scriptorium. This is perhaps slightly less obvious with Nathan Glass in The Brooklyn Follies and August Brill in Man in the Dark, though one cannot help but suspect that these two male narrators, just slightly older than the author himself, do act as mirror images of his own self, fictional receptacles of the author's fears and anxieties.

As a rule, it is difficult to draw a clear line between what is derived from the author's autobiographical catalogue (all the more so since his life revolves so much around books) and what stems from his creative imagination. But that is not the point. Surely such a line must never be drawn, as fiction is precisely, in Auster's case, what keeps him alive and keeps him going, what allows him to face the world's horrors and absurdities. In this respect Man in the Dark offers a very powerful illustration of the need there is for stories to be told, if only to erase, if only to go on living by shunning reality, by driving the imaginary to the limits of enjoyment, even if one is doomed to end up like the narrator of In the Scriptorium, irrevocably alone. In The Brooklyn Follies, Nathan's literary project, The Book of Human Follies - which unmistakably echoes the title of the novel - is also a way to deal with otherness by taking up the pen against it, though in a much more good-humoured and  humanist fashion.

3. The writer and the city

In order to deal with the constant interaction between one's self and otherness in a contemporary environment where the music of chance never stops playing, what better setting than the world's most colourful and heterogeneous metropolis, New York City, to act as the centre stage? Few writers have indeed been so intensely associated with the Big Apple[3]. In the previous century, Henry James and Edith Wharton did perhaps succeed in having a towering view over the gilded microcosm of the New York elite. Yet unlike Auster, who refuses to be seen as a social chronicler and is keen to distance himself from those two classic writers, they failed to capture the essence of the urban condition, so intensely modern. In this respect, one may suggest that Auster's New York does bear similarities with Joyce's Dublin, a city he visited on his first trip to Europe in 1965.

However, and more singularly, by choosing Brooklyn - the New York district Auster has called home for over twenty-five years - as its somewhat off-centred core, Auster has intriguingly managed to turn the swarming eight-million metropolis into the best incarnation of the global village. In this respect, The Brooklyn Follies, with Harry's Attic, the Cosmic Diner, Caroll Street all within a stone's throw of each other, where everyone happens to be everyone else's neighbour, is an unparalleled praise of the ancient kingdom of Brooklyn, New York (BF, 21). The representation of the city in this novel differs from that of City of Glass, where New York is nothing but a gigantic maze, the city of chaos, randomness and lost souls, such as Stillman's or Fanshawe's. The Brooklyn Follies' portrayal of the city is closer to the representation of Paul Benjamin's neighbourhood in Smoke and Blue in the Face, two films directed by Wayne Wang for which Auster wrote the script and that turn Brooklyn into a cheerful place without anonymity, where human friendship is the rule, where people can walk from one place to the other, spend hours in a bookstore or in a diner flirting with a waitress, as Nathan does with Marina.

In this respect, the closing chapter of The Brooklyn Follies may be seen as representative of Auster's conception of his urban haven, his own Hotel Existence, as it were. When one reads that two hours after the 9.11 attacks, the smoke of three thousand incinerated bodies would drift over toward Brooklyn and come pouring down on us in a white cloud of ashes and death. (BF 304), one is given to understand that human folly, or in this case madness, does not exactly belong in Brooklyn, but that those who live in this kingdom of humanity cannot totally escape from being true New-Yorkers all the same.

4. The art of storytelling

Ultimately, what is probably most fascinating about Auster's work is his talent as a storyteller. When reading any of his books, the reader cannot help but feel dazzled by the myriad of surprising anecdotes, moving tales, metaphysical narratives his mind has received. Often these stories are embedded in each other, as for instance Aurora's tale in the late chapters of The Brooklyn Follies. Telling a story-within-the-story has indeed become almost a trademark of Auster's writing, and although his narrative technique may be deemed somewhat predictable, it deserves to be rightly appreciated as a personal creed and statement, as a modus vivendi more than a mere modus literary. August Brill's fast-paced and desperate narrative in Man in the Dark seems to illustrate Auster's creed in the healing potential of storytelling, in the therapeutic nature of narrative. Stories are what allows us to connect with the world and more importantly, with other people. That is why Auster's work is more than metafictional, postmodern or philosophical, it is at its very root deeply humanist, trying to establish bonds between each and everyone of us, starting with the first narrator and ending with the reader. One should never underestimate the power of books, says Nathan (BF, 303) shortly before concluding his narrative and embarking on his biographical enterprise. Hardly surprising a statement for someone like Paul Auster, who never tires of telling anecdotes and who famously published an outstanding collection of True Tales of American Lives in 2001. Clearly a man for whom the power of stories will never be underestimated.


[1] Although Poe's influence over American literature as a whole is simply too vast to be quantified, it must be noted that in The New York Trilogy, one of the characters is named William Wilson, presumably after the title of one of Poe's famous short stories, and besides, one that stages the figure of the double or Doppelgänger.

[2] Once again, this is found in The New York Trilogy, a key text in many ways. For more information, see "Le Fanshawe d'Hawthorne: la filiation avouée d'Auster" by William Marling in L'oeuvre de Paul Auster, A. Duperray (ed.), 128-140.

[3] It must be said, however, that not all of Auster's novels unfold in New York City. Oracle Night and The Book of Illusions for instance, have their characters travel to other, more distant places such as Kansas City. In The Brooklyn Follies, the trip to Chowder Inn in Vermont also evidences that Auster's prose is not exclusively associated with the East Coast metropolis.

Works cited

Auster, Paul. The Brooklyn Follies. London: Faber and Faber, 2005.

Marling, William. Le Fanshawe d'Hawthorne: la filiation avouée d'Auster in L'oeuvre de Paul Auster, A. Duperray (ed.), Arles : Actes Sud, 1995. 128-140.

Pour citer cette ressource :

Jocelyn Dupont, "Paul Auster: A General Introduction", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), février 2009. Consulté le 18/03/2018. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-americaine/dossier-paul-auster-1/paul-auster-a-general-introduction