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Rencontre avec Paul Auster et Siri Hustvedt

Par Clifford Armion : Professeur agrégé d'anglais - ENS de Lyon , Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt
Publié par Marion Coste le 13/02/2018

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Le 17 janvier 2018, la Villa Gillet a permis à neuf classes de lycée de rencontrer les auteurs Paul Auster et Siri Hustvedt. Les questions portaient principalement sur les nombreux écrits de Siri Hustvedt ainsi que le dernier roman de Paul Auster, ((4 3 2 1)). L’enregistrement audio de l'échange est accompagné d'une retranscription, modifiée par endroit pour être adaptée au format écrit.

Les questions des élèves sont cliquables et renvoient au moment correspondant dans l'enregistrement audio.


Clifford Armion: First I’d like to thank you, all the students and the teachers who came here, because obviously you had the privilege of reading some Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt, which is always a great pleasure, but you’ve also done quite a lot of work ahead of this meeting, so thank you. And thank you to our two authors, of course, because it’s always a pleasure to have them here. I was asked to introduce them but I realised it was quite stupid because you all know them; first because they are obviously widely acclaimed authors and also because all of you, thanks to your teachers have already encountered their works. You know that Paul Auster is a great storyteller. Both of them actually have made the news recently in France: Mr Auster was awarded a very prestigious prize in France, le Prix du livre étranger France Inter/Journal du Dimanche, which was awarded – was it this month?

Paul Auster: I don’t know, yes, I guess so.

Clifford Armion: I am sure that many of you have read some of the illuminating essays by Siri Hustvedt, and some of her novels as well. I know some of you read her excellent article which was in the September issue of America I think, an article about self-made man and a sort of case study of Donald Trump, which was very interesting. Without further ado we are going to move on to your questions. We’ve had to select some of them because there were so many of them. We’re going to start by a question from each high school and then we’ll have time for conversation between you and the authors. Let’s start with the Lycée Saint Exupéry.

Question (Lycée Saint Exupéry): It’s a question to Paul Auster. We were wondering how you wrote your novel 4 3 2 1. Did you write the four stories separately or did you write them simultaneously […]? 

Paul Auster: It’s a very interesting question. A good question. But I must say that I wrote the book in the order in which it is published. So I did chapter 1.0 to begin with, and then 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 2.1, etc. I could never write a book out of sequence, because I really don’t know what I am doing. I’m improvising and I don’t have a very clear plan of where I am going. What happens on page 5 is going to influence what happens on page 25, and what happens on page 25 will influence what happens on page 200. So I have to do it in order, and that’s the only way to do it. I’m very moved to hear that you are from the Lycée Saint Exupéry. I have a little story to tell: my mother was born in Brooklyn in 1925, and right around the time of World War II, when she was sixteen, in early 1941, she moved to Manhattan with her parents and her sister. They lived in a building, in New York where Saint Exupéry was living. And in that building, he wrote Le Petit Prince. In New York. So I feel that little personal connection there.

Clifford Armion: Thank you. A question now from the Lycée Saint Marc, still in Lyon.

Question (Lycée Saint Marc): Can you say that your wife has contributed to the creation or development of the last novel?

Paul Auster: Well, Siri, do you want to answer that?

Siri Hustvedt: Well, was I important in the development of the last novel? No. I was important as a reader of the novel, for all his novels. It’s an interesting thing, this “husband and wife” business. At times, the inside and the outside are two different things: we have a long friendship, we’ve been together for many years, but I think everyone should pay attention to the fact that all Western cultures still have a tendency to look at the wife as the helpmeet. The second. The number two. Simone de Beauvoir was right. That the woman remains the other to men. And when you have a famous man, the idea is always to look then to the wife as the second. The other. The helper. I can assure everyone in this room that my imaginative and intellectual life has been in the making since I was considerably younger than you. Long before I met this man.

Clifford Armion: When I read 4 3 2 1, it was one of your essays that came to mind, the one that was in The Delusions of Certainty, about the twins, and it seemed to me that what you wrote on twins is somewhat very similar to the different facets of the character in 4 3 2 1. Is that right?

Siri Hustvedt: Yes. When Paul was writing the novel, and I really don’t think I was influential in the generation of this book, I said to him: “What you are writing is an epigenetic book”. Epigenetics, as some of you may know, is not the study purely of genetics, not just of what happens with the replication of genes, the DNA replication, but how the environment influences the organism. That essentially is an epigenetic story of quadruplets.

Clifford Armion: Would you agree with that?

Paul Auster: Yes, I would. I have to say, I just write novels, and sometimes non-fiction, but I am not a scholar the way Siri is. Siri has a double life: as a novelist, and as a thinker, in many domains. She has written much about art, but also a lot about psychiatry and neuroscience and biology and medicine. I’ve learned so much with her writings because we share our work. Everything I know about these subjects I’ve learned through reading her texts. And I think over the years – this is to answer the question – Siri’s ideas and explanations of these complex fields have influenced how I think about the world and have changed how I think about things. For a long time we’ve had a long conversation about these very issues of men and women and the differences in societies of how men and women are treated. I feel that Siri’s analyses and arguments are so precise and revelatory that it’s changed how I think. And I can simply state, I can get up in front of you, all the boys and girls here and say: “I am a feminist and I am deeply committed to total and equal rights for women and equal respect for women all over the world”. Siri has been a passionate defender of these principles and I am 100% with her.

Clifford Armion: A question from the Lycée Edouard Herriot now.

Question (Lycée Edouard Herriot): Good morning. We have a question for Siri Hustvedt, which is why are there self-made men, and no self-made women in America’s history?

Siri Hustvedt: Well actually, my argument in this little essay is that the idea of a self-made person is a kind of lie. We’re all born out of other people, human beings are social animals, like […] rats. We’re all social animals, we need a collective reality in order to thrive. But the idea of the self-made man in America […] is a myth that permeates culture, [and it] is, I think, about the cowboy. Everybody has seen American movies, and violent American movies usually feature some guy with a lot of muscles, and he’s alone and he’s fighting off hordes of aliens or terrorists. That fantasy of the individual is probably stronger in America than many other cultures – certainly more than many tribal cultures. So the idea of a self-made person is a lie to begin with. I think the reason why it has become such a powerful masculine myth [and why] it’s usually a guy, it’s usually a man, is that the idea of dependency, the idea that you needed your mother, your father, that you were raised by people you can’t live without, has fear attached to it. So you create this fantasy of being alone. As I point out in the essay, De Tocqueville talked about this as a danger in this kind of democracy, rugged individualism. There’s also a pollution aspect […]: the borders between one person and another in Enlightenment thinking or thinking in the West has been very clear. In fact, I think those borders are less clear, and one of the great examples of blurring is of course pregnancy and birth. The masculine fantasy of independence is I think connected to this idea that “I was never inside that woman, and I never came out of her body and there was never an umbilical cord and there was never a placenta. Let me get away from that. From the breasts, the body of the mother.” This is not original, exactly. That makes people very uncomfortable to say these things. So [why has] philosophy, in the history of the West […] repressed that fact? That strange blurring fact that we are born out of the bodies of other people, that we are physically, biologically connected to them. It has to be cut. And then for the rest of our lives, we find ourselves in the eyes of others. I think until cultures begins to recognize these truths, we will be stuck in a mythos, especially in America, that is now ripping apart our country. This is the ground people have to talk about and nobody does.

Clifford Armion: You said “especially in America”, why is that?

Siri Hustvedt: First of all, it’s the new country. The new land. The myth came up very quickly that women and black people were founded with slavery, that that was an uncomfortable reality and so what you had was the “single guy”. A Davy Crockett. Daniel Boon. The man marching out to tame the wilderness. There was always a sexual quality to that. It was called the Virgin Wilderness. The great white man goes out and penetrates the virgin wilderness. These myths die hard and the gun culture in the United-States is a direct result of this. Every guy with his guns. It’s sad. It’s truly sad.

Clifford Armion: A question from Grenoble now.

Paul Auster: It’s like a political convention. Will the great province of Grenoble stand out?

Question (Lycée Argouges): In 4 3 2 1, .1, .2 and .3 are parallel. They are superimposed onto .4. They become part of the fictional reality of .4. The three fictional biographies and the fictional autobiography share many elements with your personal biography. Some characters in previous works also share some biographical elements with you. Would you say that 4 3 2 1 and some other works of yours superimpose onto your own life? Or is it just another literary technique to add layers of meaning? Why do you feel the urge to add some of your avatars in your novels?

Siri Hustvedt: A very sophisticated question!

Paul Auster: I really don’t know how to answer this. The novel that I’ve just finished, which you are talking about, 4 3 2 1 – how shall I put it? Every novelist is writing out of his or her life, and his or her experiences. Even if you’re writing about imaginary characters, you can only understand humanity through your own experiences and your own memories. I would say that even if you’re writing historical novels, set in Ancient Greece, in order to write the characters you have to look into yourself and find the emotions and forces that have acted upon you in order for you to be able to write about these other characters. This book is more complicated in one sense, in that I’ve written a strange book because there’s not one main character, there are four of them. They’re all genetically identical and we see how their different parallel lives play out. But this boy, Archie Ferguson, he shares my chronology: he’s born the same year I was born. He shares my geography: he grows up in the same part of the world where I grew up. He goes to the same cities that I went to: New York City and Paris, which figure heavily in the book. So in that sense, it might look as if I’m writing about myself, and to some degree I am. But to the larger degree, I am not. I am projecting my inner world onto an outer world which is reimagined, reconfigured and completely different from my particular story. And yet, this makes it even more complicated because in every novel I’ve ever written, I’ve always used something from my own personal story. Whether it’s a job I might had when I was your age, when I was in high school. For example, I had one summer worked for an appliance store installing air conditioners in people’s houses. So I know about installing air conditioners. In another novel, I gave one of the people a job working in a library as a student. Well, I had a job working in the Columbia University Library when I was a student. So you do write about the things you know, but the experiences of my imaginary air conditioning installers and librarian assistants are not the actual accounts of what I have experienced but the ground on which I can write about certain experiences. So it’s very complex and I think in the end, it’s really not that interesting to try to figure out in a novel what came from real life and what is imaginary. Because even if you use a real event, from your own life, and put it in a work of fiction, it becomes fiction. And it’s subsumed by the great organism that is the novel you’re writing. I think it’s a very vague answer that I’ve given you, but I can’t be more precise than that.

Siri Hustvedt: Years ago, I tried to formulate something about this, and I have been thinking about the sentence I wrote in the nineties ever since: “Writing fiction is like remembering what never happened”. And what I mean by that is that one is drawing on the material of memory, which is I think what Paul is saying, you really did install air conditioners, you really did work in a library; and so the conviction of those experiences become part of the imaginative world of your books. So you are drawing on forms of memory but they are not always literal memories. You’re making something true that’s drawn from experience: it never happened, really.

Paul Auster: Exactly.

Clifford Armion: And isn’t memory somehow a fiction? That’s what you wrote in one of your essays I think.

Siri Hustvedt: Absolutely. There is no original memory. This is neurobiology: when you take out a memory, from your childhood say, every time you retrieve it, it’s vulnerable to change. So in the brain there is no original memory, and I think that memory and the imagination are really one faculty. There’s a little part of the brain called the hippocampus and it’s very important for autobiographical memories. When both sides of the hippocampus are damaged, people not only don’t remember well, they can’t imagine very well either. Those faculties are completely mingled.

Paul Auster: About twenty years ago, Siri and I were in Jerusalem, in Israel. We were invited by the Jerusalem Foundation, a good organisation, to spend some time there. And they were very kind to us, they wanted us to meet as many people as we wanted to and we had a tremendously interesting afternoon with scientists and scholars from the Weizmann Institute. I had this big question – I had always been wondering about this – and I asked a neuroscientist if they had any information about this. What happens in the brain, what actually is going on when you read a book, when you read a novel? What is happening? This was twenty years ago. He said, "Well, the research is just beginning. But so far, what we seem to be discovering is that the part of the brain that is involved with memory is also involved with imagination". And it’s this part of the brain that is being activated. So it’s as if you can’t separate memory and imagination, and Siri, who’s then pursued all this for the last twenty years has come to the same conclusions: it’s impossible to separate them.

Siri Hustvedt: […] I use the hippocampus as an example, because it seems to be –

Paul Auster: You should explain what the hippocampus is.

Siri Hustvedt: It’s the part of the brain that’s related to autobiographical memory and interestingly enough, navigation, how you move yourself in space and the world. If you think about memory, conscious memories, you will understand that no memory takes place nowhere. You’re never floating. You’re always remembering inside some kind of geographical space. They knew this long ago. I mean, Cicero knew this. Artificial memory is all about space. Many parts of the brain are involved, it’s not localisation quite so crudely.

Clifford Armion: If the process of reading can affect you, what about the process of writing? You wrote about the fact that story-writing can change someone, can even be used in therapy. I think you wrote an essay in which you suggested that it can maybe help with personal reconstruction, even personal catharsis. Do you think it can affect the person who writes?

Siri Hustvedt: I’m interested in psychiatry, but also how writing might be used. I was a volunteer for psychiatric patients for four years and […] we did writing together. I started to realise that people left the room better than when they came in. Simple thing. They just felt better. So you ask yourself why would that be the case. There have been some studies, one that I cite, that twenty minutes of free writing about emotions every day helps not only psychiatric patients but everybody, and that it improves both liver and immune function, and respiratory function. Now, that’s extraordinary results. Nobody knows exactly why. There’s no model to formulate this, but I do think that the act of writing which puts you outside yourself allows forms of self-reflexion on the self. In other words, as soon as you write something, it’s outside the body. And that distance can have a therapeutic value. You’re looking at yourself, or something that you’ve done or something that you’ve written from the outside. It increases that human quality that we have which is the ability to reflect on ourselves, the ability to know that we know. That’s what writing is part of. Rats don’t do it. Rats can’t do that. So we’re lucky!

Paul Auster: I just want to say one more thing about this subject, because it’s really interesting. When I first started writing, I was very young. I think I wrote my first poem when I was about nine years old and it was really a very, very bad poem. I mean, about as stupid as anything anyone has ever written in the history of humanity. But I remember, I was walking along and it was April, I think, it was the very beginning of spring, after a long, cold winter. I was feeling very happy that the new season was coming; and I felt so happy about it that I wrote a poem about the spring. I was sitting in a park, in the little town where I grew up, writing my stupid lines. But, I felt in the act of writing, and maybe that’s relevant to what you were saying, I felt more connected to the world around me than I had ever felt before. And suddenly, I was less important; I wasn’t inside myself, but out, and I was part of what I was looking at. It gave me a great feeling of connectedness and happiness, and I think that’s why, maybe, I continue to write. People talk about “self-expression”; well, yes, that’s part of it, but it’s also a way of feeling part of the big world that’s outside of you. I think this is the beauty of writing and I think that’s why we read also: we read books so that we can learn not only about ourselves, but about other people. And in investing our imagination and our emotions in these imaginary other people, we feel more connected to the world. And I think this answers others, and this is what literature does.

Siri Hustvedt: It’s real experience: reading is real experience. It is part of our experience, and the more you read, I’d like to think you get fatter and fatter and fatter. And after a while, you become a kind of giant of these thoughts. So you’re not singular, you’re plural. You’re inhabited by thousands and thousands of other consciousnesses. And that gives you a lot of power and a lot of flexibility. I recommend it.

Clifford Armion: Would you say that reading is an experience of transcendence?

Siri Hustvedt: You have to read against yourself, say, books you don’t like, a book that’s really, really hard. I had a lot of trouble with symbolic logic, I didn’t really want to read it. But I read it, I forced myself to read it. To understand it as well as I could. And that gave me an entrance into the way certain people think that’s been really important to me. Not because it was ever fun for me – it’s fun for some people – but because that gave my mind a flexibility it could never had had I not worked to read against myself.

Clifford Armion: Let’s go back to the questions from the students. Is there anyone from Montluel?

Question (Lycée Montluel): We know that Archie’s life changes throughout the different decisions he makes in his life. I was wondering if you had ever considered how your life would have changed if you had made different life choices and I think this question may also apply to Siri.

Paul Auster: What happens to the different Fergusons is not so much the choices they make but the circumstances in which they find themselves. One of the big factors in the differences of their personalities comes from the differences in the financial situation of the family. In one of the cycles, the father’s store is robbed and he loses his money and they continue to struggle after that. So things are difficult. In another cycle, Ferguson’s father dies when the boy is only seven years old. And this changes everything, that circumstance. In number four, the father becomes very rich, everything goes well. And this creates new kinds of conflicts and problems. And that Archie is very much embattled, in conflict with his father and even with his mother during his adolescence. Then again, there are decisions people make that will change the outcome of their lives as well. I think in the novel, it’s both: it’s outer forces and also inner compulsions, moving in this way or that way. Ferguson 3, the one whose father died, is a very confused kid. He’s the one who gets into all the trouble. He’s the one who flunks school on purpose. He does badly because he wants God to punish him. He says, well if I really act bad, maybe then, if God punishes me, then I’ll know that God exists. But nothing ever happens. Circumstances change him. In my own life, I don’t know, I can’t think of another path I could have taken. I think that nine year-old boy writing that terrible poem was the future me, the one sitting here today, the one who’s written all these books. I think it’s the only thing I ever wanted to do. And so I’m glad I was able to do it, because not everyone is so lucky, and I feel very lucky.

Siri Hustvedt: I think the question about the inside and the outside is really difficult. And this book is exploring that terrain. The difference between the circumstances that may create a choice and the choice itself – or, alternatively, the choice that is made within a set of circumstances – what comes first and what comes second and can we actually create a line between them. […] Because after all, language, our experience of something, is internal as well as external. So where do we draw that line? It’s an old philosophical question but it’s something to think about and […] 4 3 2 1 is a book that is not worrying those questions so much as presenting the complex reality of the ambiguities to us.

Clifford Amion: Again, when you wrote about twins, you mentioned the same difference about external circumstances and personal choices, and also about personal desires. Have you always felt the urge or the desire to write yourself?

Siri Hustvedt: Yes. I also wrote terrible poems about spring when I was seven and eight. But I made the decision to write when I was thirteen years-old. I was in Reykjavik, Iceland, my father was a professor, he was studying the Sagas – the Icelandic Sagas, probably not every French student had to read the Icelandic Sagas, but I did – and I was reading and reading and reading. That was the moment when suddenly I could read novels for adults and I never stopped.

Paul Auster: And tell them, the sun never set.

Siri Hustvedt: It never got dark. It was light all night and I couldn’t sleep so I just stayed up and read and read and read, 24h a day I was reading novels. I was reading David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (a great novel) and I stopped reading one night and I went to the window and looked out at Reykjavik which was still in the light, and I remember thinking: “If this is what novels can make you feel… This is what I am going to do. I’m gonna do this”. And when I was fourteen, I lived in a little town in Minnesota and I was interviewed by the newspaper, just at random – they would pick a kid in the school and interview them – I was not a special person, I just happened to get picked. And they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I said, very pretentiously, “an author”. And I’m sure everyone in town thought I was an absolute twit. A pretentious little twit. But I never stopped writing. I know people have a tendency to think that I’ve started writing after I married this man, but it’s not true.

Clifford Armion: I think there’s a question from Parc Chabrières now?

Question (Lycée Parc Chabrières): Hello. In 4 3 2 1, who do you play around with the most, your protagonist or your readers?

Paul Auster: I don’t know! Am I playing around? I don’t know, I am never thinking about the reader, except as a very vague other person who will be very favourably inclined to read what I write, who wants to follow what I’m doing. I feel this connection with that person, even though person does not really exist (the “ideal reader”, as we call it). I’ve never felt like I’ve played around with anything. I’ve always felt like I’m following the characters; once I’ve gotten into the spirit of the book, I’m not controlling them, they’re controlling me. I’m listening to what they’re telling me and I’m following them. Years ago, […] in 1990 exactly, I published a novel called The Music of Chance. There was some interest from movie producers to turn the book into a film. I got a call from a producer and he said: “I love the book so much, I want to make it into a film” and in the exaggerated way of Hollywood, [he said] “Nobody loves this book more than I do”. He said “But there’s one thing: you have these two characters, Flower and Stone, and they’re so interesting, it’s so fascinating, but they’re there and then they leave. They go away and they never come back.” He said “I think, when we make the movie, we should bring them back”. And I said “But we can’t do that. It’s not possible. They leave, and that’s the book.” He said “I know, but you wrote it, therefore you can do anything you want”. I said “No, actually, I can’t, the book is the way it is because it has to be that way, and I don’t have the right to change it.” And he was so confused by this that he hung up the phone, and well, of course he never made the movie. But no, I don’t feel like I’m in control. I’m listening and following whatever it is in my imagination that’s telling me what to do. But it’s not fully conscious.

Clifford Armion: I know that some of the students wanted to ask you whether 4 3 2 1 could be made into a film. I thought it was interesting because maybe Hollywood is not ready for fragmentation and postmodernism.

Paul Auster: I can’t possibly imagine it. Those sentences are so long, the book is all about the dance of words. I guess if you made a movie it would be about 64 hours long, I don’t know if anyone would want to sit through that. A TV series, I guess you could do that.

Siri Hustvedt: A miniseries.

Paul Auster: A miniseries. But I don’t know why it would be interesting, you keep seeing the same kid in slightly different situations. It might get very confusing. Well, listen, no one’s asked me. No one has called and said “Can we bring those characters back?” or anything like that. We’ll see what happens.

Clifford Armion: Any more questions, from anyone?

Question from a student: When you start writing a novel, do you write every day? Only in the morning or late at night? Are there periods when the words don’t come out? We also wanted to know what you felt when you are unable to write.

Paul Auster: It’s a really good question. When I am working on a novel, I work every day. I get up early – reasonably early – and I work generally seven hours a day. I have a period in the morning and usually I have a lot of problems and I have questions that I haven’t solved, then I often take a break for maybe 45 minutes, have a sandwich for lunch, and then often in the afternoon, the problems that I was facing in the morning I can figure out – it takes a while. One day’s work would be one page. […] If I have one good page, I’m happy. If I can do two, it’s extraordinary. And every once in a while in my life I’ve done three, which is almost unimaginable. So I write slowly. And then of course after a book is done, I go through a period when I am completely emptied out and I have no idea what to do next. I can often go several months without any ideas. Those are kind of depressing times because I prefer working to not working, but if you don’t know what you want to do, you can’t work. Then there are always moments, in the writing of a book, when you come to a difficult spot, where you make a mistake, you’ve taken a wrong turn. Then, often, I have to pause and rethink what I am doing. That can take days, it can take weeks… I remember with one book, Invisible, I stopped writing for about three or four months, I didn’t know what to do next. But then something came and I was able to go on. Every book is different: some books come, as if they were dictated to you from the outside, and others – you’re grinding away at every sentence, pulling it out of the earth with great difficulty. It’s unpredictable. And I think with you, Siri, it’s the same thing, isn’t it?

Siri Hustvedt: I know it wasn’t a question addressed to me, but I work slightly differently. I’m usually up a bit earlier than Paul, at about six o’clock, I’m at my desk before seven. I write until one or two in the afternoon and then I stop and I read for three or four hours […], whereas Paul takes a break and returns to the writing – I’m usually reading by then. That’s the difference. But I agree with you completely that there are easier books and harder books. Some books are really difficult and there are moments when you break through and you don’t know what’s happened, why suddenly you understand what you’re doing and you didn’t it at all before.

Paul Auster: There was a great American painter named Philip Guston and he said this beautiful thing that I think of often. He says: “Years and years of struggle for a few moments of grace”. Making art often feels that way.

Clifford Armion: Other questions?

Question from a student: Good morning. Paul Auster, I was wondering, you spoke of improvisation and you said that when you started this book, you had no plan, that you were following the characters, that you’re not in control. I’m wondering: does that mean you really didn’t know the ending of this book, which is so crucial.

Paul Auster: When I started writing, I didn’t know what the ending would be. And I didn’t have the end in mind clearly until I was two-thirds of the way through. For others, I had written 700 pages manuscript, and I still didn’t know how it was going to end. And then one day it came to me, and I knew that that would be the ending. But it took all that time to have an idea about where it was going, where it would stop.

Clifford Armion: Do you have the same approach to writing fiction, Siri?

Siri Hustvedt: Yes. In fact, sometimes I have an ending in mind and then it turns out it is the wrong ending for the book. I think the important thing is that you feel like you’re going somewhere. It is a journey, it is like a trajectory, like walking or running or dancing or skipping in some direction. But the characters dictate. In fact I remember in a particular novel I really wanted two of the characters to have an affair, to fall in love and for it all to end well. And I just couldn’t get them to do it. I mean, they just refused! I kept trying to manipulate them into that position and they said no and the book ended differently.

Clifford Armion: We’re talking more and more about Artificial Intelligence; do you think somehow a character becomes independent from the writer?

Siri Hustvedt: Yes, I have a long thing about artificial intelligence. If you – and you may because you probably go to the movies a lot – if you are waiting for androids to appear among us, who are feeling, self-conscious beings, you are going to wait a long time. Maybe forever. The models are wrong. That doesn’t mean that we’re not going to have lots of robots doing a lot of amazing things. But they’re not going to feel, and they’re not going to be conscious, and they’re not going to manipulate a room. They’re not going to be able to walk around a room the way you and I do. They’re not going to have this kind of unconscious […] knowledge unless they fix their models and even then, I think it would be unlikely. I’ll be dead, but I would bet money on that. Nevertheless, the idea of human beings being occupied – what is a fictional character, what a great question is that? Who are these people? Where do they come from? Why do we have these plural internal realities where all these imaginary people are marching around? This is a fantastically interesting question. Why do writers feel that those imaginary lives are actually making decisions? As Paul says, the Archies were deciding, not you. Why do we feel that? This must have to do with the unconscious life is organised, and there’s still a lot to be understood about that.

Clifford Armion: Another question maybe?

Question from a student: Is New York still the best place in the world […]?

Paul Auster: I don’t think I’ve ever said New York is the best place in the world. It’s where Siri and I live. I want to live there but I think there are probably other places that are more pleasant than New York. New York is a very difficult, aggressive, exhausting city to live in; it’s also very exciting and you have all of humanity there. That’s one of the things about New York that makes it distinctive. But it’s not the only in the world where you see people from everywhere. Lyon looks pretty good to me too. We’ve been in Paris. Paris is a beautiful place; it’s a much less aggressive city than New York. It’s a big urban capital but at the same time, it doesn’t have the same pace as New York City. It’s something I’m used to, I like it but I wouldn’t recommend it for everybody.

Siri Hustvedt: There was a beautiful quote from Charles Dickens. I think it doesn’t only applies to New York, it applies to all large, chaotic, diverse cities. He said, in the nineteenth century of course: “If you don’t love London, you don’t love life.”

Question from a student: As you said, you shared your work, and we were wondering if you ever considered writing a book together, even though your minds could go [in opposite directions]?

Siri Hustvedt: We did write a screenplay together. And we really worked well together. But only a screenplay, not a novel, because a novel is too private. But it didn’t work out, we took our names off that screenplay.

Paul Auster: We were doing a favour for a friend, who wanted us to write something fast. So we did it fast. The whole project turned into something that was quite unpleasant. But what we did I think was very good. And we really worked together well. Basically, the story was about a man and a woman. We were both contributing: we were writing at the same table together and there would be for example one piece of dialogue where someone would say something, and often Siri would write the first sentence of the dialogue and I’d write the second. Or vice-versa.

Siri Hustvedt: And then we would edit the other’s dialogue. It worked very well. We could be a script-writing team, if the movies were amenable to the kinds of stories we want to tell.

Paul Auster: If I had two lives to lead, one of the lives would be to live with Siri in old Hollywood, say in the 1930s, and write comedies together. That would have been a great life! But these things aren’t possible any more.

Question from a student: Hi. I wanted to know, since we’re in France, which French authors inspired you in your works.

Paul Auster: Well, I’ve had more to do with France than Siri. […] Montaigne was always very important to me. I studied him closely when I was in University. In the twentieth century, […] – these are names everyone knows – Proust, the early novels of Céline, Beckett, Georges Perec. Twentieth century and nineteenth century poets who have been important to me: Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Yves Bonnefoy, Jacques Dupin. Lots of writers, too many to enumerate.

Siri Hustvedt: I’ll mention some that Paul didn’t mention – I mean, there’s quite a bit of overlap, of course – I think I’ll mention some women: George Sand, Simone Weil is very important to me, a genius – a strange genius but a genius –, and Simone de Beauvoir. Those are hugely important writers for me.

Clifford Armion: We should stop here. Thank you again Mrs Hustvedt and Mr Auster.

Pour citer cette ressource :

Clifford Armion, Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt, "Rencontre avec Paul Auster et Siri Hustvedt", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), février 2018. Consulté le 25/07/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/entretiens-et-textes-inedits/rencontre-avec-paul-auster-et-siri-hustvedt