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Paul Auster: Memoir as Musical Composition

The author discusses Brooklyn, baseball, writing autobiographically, and why he has never written a memoir.

Paul Auster: Memoir as Musical Composition

Paul Taunton is a Senior Editor at the Knopf Random Canada Publishing Group. He lives in...

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||Photo by Darren Calabrese

In his 1973 book The Pleasure of the Text, the French theorist Roland Barthes defined two kinds of reading experiences: the text of “pleasure” and the text of jouissance, or “bliss.” The former is a text that fulfills the reader’s expectations—a mystery novel, for example—and the latter, well, it doesn’t. A text of bliss challenges those expectations, and through them, the reader themselves. Barthes died before Auster came to prominence with The New York Trilogy, but undoubtedly would have seen his two texts at play in Auster’s fiction. How many people have started to recommend City of Glass as a mystery novel before ultimately admitting that it’s something else? Or as I describe it to the author, The New York Trilogy continually puts forth a detective story, but then—

“Then not,” he replies, matter-of-factly.

That didn’t stop City of Glass from being nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America in 1986. Perhaps not a total anomaly, because Auster wasn’t the only unconventional nominee: the Coen brothers got a nod in the motion picture category for Blood Simple. (While we’re at it, so did Andrew Bergman for Fletch.) Though Auster didn’t win—that was L.R. Wright’s The Suspect, the first Canadian to win—it was nonetheless memorable.

“The funniest thing happened,” he said. “I had a very small publisher then: Sun and Moon Press. Douglas Messerli came from Los Angeles, and he and I and Siri [Auster’s wife, the writer Siri Hustvedt] went to this event. We knew I wasn’t going to win, but it was just a kind of a joke to be nominated. Again, I have no feeling of myself as a detective writer. I was using all those conventions to do something else. But it was amusing enough to want to go to the event. So afterwards we went to the Algonquin Hotel to have a drink, and the funny thing was, Douglas had no money, and I remember he could only afford to buy a half a bottle of champagne. We were sitting in the bar in the lobby, and I had my one sports jacket on, my one tie, my one white shirt, and the waiter came and he opened up the champagne—and he just spilled it all over me. It was like a fire hose drenching me. So that’s what I remember about the Edgar Awards: the champagne bath.”

The anecdote sounds like it could have come out of The Red Notebook, Auster’s book of true stories about fantastic coincidence, and it’s this kind of irony that readers have often found so engaging in Auster’s writing: the seductive notion that there must be a meaning behind events so accidental, or improbable, or random. Auster heightens this by being so inter-textually fluid. His novels are famously peppered with references to each other, and seemingly share commonalities to his own biography, tempting readers to identify him (returning to Barthes in The Death of the Author) as “the past of his own book.”

But ever a master of red herrings, the answer is always, blissfully, just out of reach. Auster may have best described it himself when he wrote this about the writer Georges Perec: “Half the time, the reader can’t be sure if he is being conned or enlightened.” Readers often look to Auster’s autobiographical works in an attempt to determine whether they are being conned or enlightened in his fiction, which is why his newest book, Winter Journal, is such an exciting departure. After years of “looking for Auster,” it is Auster who, in a way, finds you.

On Winter Journal

The first sentence of Winter Journal begins with “you.” So does the final sentence, and “you” is part of the majority of the sentences in between. Winter Journal is written entirely in the second person.

“It allowed me to enter into a kind of intimate dialogue with myself,” Auster explains. “And then there’s the subsidiary effect of the you on the page, which I hoped would implicate the reader in what was going on, too.”

The two parts of The Invention of Solitude, by contrast, were written in the first and third person. Furthermore, while his earlier book gives us the iconic image of Auster’s world reduced to an isolated writing space (a one-room sublet on downtown Manhattan’s Varick Street), Winter Journal moves away from isolation and toward the universal, focusing almost entirely on the kind of sensory experiences we all share.

“I wanted to do it from that perspective,” Auster explains, “the sensory physical perspective. Because it seems to me that no one has ever done that—or not that I’m aware of. And the book is mostly about things that we all have in common. We all have bodies. We all ARE our bodies. I think that’s why it’s written in the second person and not the first, because I really wasn’t interested in telling the story of my life—which is not a particularly interesting or exciting story at all—but finding those places in me that are, well, like everybody else. And by writing in the second person I found that I was able to separate myself from myself, but only by a little. Much less than say, the third person, which is in The Invention of Solitude.”

The effect can be hypnotic: one memorable passage is a list of all the things “your” hands have done. “Opening and closing doors, screwing light bulbs into sockets, dialing telephones…” And so it continues for nearly seventy items, spiraling upwards, until the author seems to disappear and it becomes just as much a description of “you” the reader. After all, these are mostly things that your hands have done as well. Auster’s recollections have transference, and can serve as, he says, “a kind of catalyst for other people’s memories—the reader’s memories.”

On Autobiographical Writing

Auster has often had creative ways of thinking about form. In a Bomb magazine interview with Joseph Mallia, he described The Invention of Solitude not so much as autobiography, but “as a meditation about certain questions, using myself as the central character.” In a Paris Review interview with Michael Wood, he equated his prose with poems, in which the paragraph is his “line.” (He also refers to coincidence as a “rhyme in the world” in The Book of Memory.) With Winter Journal, Auster continues to draw parallels between forms.

“The way I thought of what I was doing was a kind of musical composition, so it gave me the liberty to jump over time, over space. I didn’t want to write a coherent consistent narrative. The logic in the book is associative rather than logical. There’s so much in this book that is not told. There are so many gaps.”

Accordingly, when Auster’s American publisher wanted to call the book a memoir, he was adamant that it was not.

“I said, no, no, no, no. It’s not a memoir. It’s a musical composition in words composed of autobiographical fragments. That’s how I look at it. It’s a literary work: it’s not the story of my life. It’s a book. It’s not the baring of all my secrets.”

Despite that, Auster shows an ability to be extraordinarily frank. Especially in areas that make many others more than a bit shy.

“I didn’t put in anything that I find embarrassing,” he says. “I mean, we all do stupid things. The whole point of writing a book like this is to open yourself up and tell things as honestly as you can. I didn’t write the book to make myself look good: it would have defeated the project.… And when I think about all the explicit books we’ve had in the last two or three hundred years, this one hardly qualifies as anything very scandalous, it seems to me. But I guess most people want to hide.

“I don’t know. Do I really care if my daughter knows that I slept with a prostitute in Paris when I was twenty-five years old, who recited Baudelaire afterwards? It doesn’t embarrass me at all. It’s a good story. And a true story, you see. It sounds like something you’d make up, but I didn’t.”

Auster describes autobiographical writing as an impulse he’s returned to from time to time. “I think I’ve come at some of the events of my life from different angles in all of the different books,” he says, “but each time it has a different texture to it.” In addition to The Invention of Solitude and The Red Notebook, there’s also Hand to Mouth as well as a forthcoming book—a sort of companion to Winter Journal. It, too, is written in the second person, but focuses more on his intellectual and moral development. “As opposed to the book about the body,” he says. “It’s a book of the spirit.”

Despite exploring this territory, however, Auster tends not to read memoirs or autobiographies himself.

“One thing that drives me nuts [with] the proliferation of memoirs is that most of them are fake. Because people use the conventions of fiction—but not even very interesting fiction—to write about their lives. But who can possibly remember four page conversations you had when you were ten years old? It’s not possible. And these books are filled with such stuff. I can’t even remember what I said to you twenty minutes ago, so how am I going to talk about something my parents said to me when I was a little child? It’s not possible. And so these books are fake, and I think they should be read as novels, or what the French call auto-fiction: this genre that maybe better captures the spirit of these books than memoir.”

But perhaps there is a distinction to be made between truth and accuracy, the point being that the memoirs are fake because the memories themselves are impossible. Auster, meanwhile, seeks to treat the memories he actually has with fidelity. For instance, he explains his description of a grammar school graduation in great physical detail, even decades on.

“I remember it. I just remember that day. It was a spectacularly beautiful late spring day. Maybe I’m mis-remembering. But I wrote it as I do seem to remember it, but I could be deceived. Maybe it was slightly overcast, but that’s not how I remember it.”

He does admire the autobiographical writing of J.M. Coetzee (with whom he recently published a book of correspondence, Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011), especially Youth. Like Auster, Coetzee is known for blurring the lines between genres. But if there’s any literary model for Auster’s autobiographical writing, it’s Michel de Montaigne:

“I suppose if there was anybody I was thinking about as I was writing this book, it was Montaigne. He’s been a source of tremendous inspiration for me for forty-five years. More. He’s inexhaustible, and he’s the first one to do this kind of work. He didn’t just open the door, he blew up the whole wall, and it’s so invigorating to read him. It’s worth just spending a whole summer reading all of the essays. It’s a self-portrait of such complexity and intelligence and beauty and humor. He’s an amazing writer.

On New York

One of the most compelling sections of Winter Journal is the catalogue of every address Auster has called home—however temporarily.

“The way I justified doing this was the fact that, if this book is about my body, it seems legitimate to write about the places that have sheltered my body from the elements. But also, in all the great memory systems, place is a trigger for memory, so by walking mentally into those old places where I lived, things came back to me that I hadn’t necessarily remembered with great clarity.”

He moves from his birthplace in New Jersey, through Manhattan apartments, flats in Paris, country homes in Provence and Vermont, and finally circles Brooklyn: a borough that’s had a well-publicized renaissance during Auster’s residence, and many of whose writers regard him as a sort of dean. In Winter Journal he describes things like the hostility toward outsiders in now-gentrified Carroll Gardens, and in our interview he spoke about how Fourth Avenue has changed since the near-fatal car accident he describes in the book, a decade afterward. “It was a very burned-out, bombed-out place,” he says. Now the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets play close to its terminus at Atlantic Avenue, with the NHL’s New York Islanders set to join them. As in many cities, the forces at play are often in conflict with each other, and progress doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. But not everything has changed.

“I could tell you that the lamp post that the car smashed into when we were spinning around after being hit by the van, the lamp post has never been repaired. At the base there’s a big dent in one of the facets of it. So every time I go by there, which is fairly frequently, I look at that lamp post and think ‘Well, that was us—we made that dent.’ And our lives were nearly destroyed when that dent was made.”

On Shoplifting?

One of the more peculiar aspects of Paul Auster’s fame in New York is that he’s long been one of the authors whose books have been most shoplifted from local stores. In one of the city’s largest, the Union Square Barnes & Noble, readers have been greeted by a sign in the fiction section requesting that they seek Auster’s books at the counter.

“I don’t know what to make of it,” Auster says. “I think there is or there used to be a kind of traffic in stolen books in New York. You know those stands on the street, people would be selling books: I think they were all stolen, and I have a feeling mine were stolen for those purposes, not by ardent fans. But then again, maybe they were. But what does that mean? That I appeal to the criminal element of society, right? It’s a mystery. I remember reading William Burroughs was one, and Nabokov was another. And I was on the list, and there were one or two other people.”

One of those others is Martin Amis, who recently moved to Brooklyn himself.

“It’s interesting about Martin. Have you ever thought about his name, about first persona and third person? His name is Am-Is. Martin Am-Is. I told him that. He had never thought of it. I said, ‘Don’t you realize why you’re so fucked up? You’re a split name. You’re both first and third person. Am-Is.’”

It’s as if he’s both parts of The Invention of Solitude at once.

On Baseball

Baseball is commonly viewed as the most literary of the American sports, especially since boxing and horse racing have faded from the public view. “Never a dull moment,” Auster says about the sport in Winter Journal, “despite what critics of the sport might think.” Famously a Mets fan, he goes back all the way their early days in the Polo Grounds, the former home of his childhood team, the New York Giants—for whom he still has a soft spot even though they broke his heart by moving. Baseball makes a number of appearances in “the book about the body,” which makes sense given a recent discovery by its author:

“People who don’t love baseball don’t understand it,” Auster claims. “I can see why they would think it’s dull. But it’s not—at least to me, it’s not. I had a very interesting experience about two months ago. The very young sportswriter for the Daily News that covers the Mets, a kid named Andy Martino, he’s apparently a big reader of my books, and he called up my publisher and said ‘I know Auster loves baseball. I’d like to watch a game with him and write a story about it.’ And so we did it. Rather than go to Citi Field, I said, ‘Come on over to the house. We’ll eat. I can smoke, we can drink. And we’ll watch the game on TV and we can really talk.’

“We had a wonderful conversation about baseball and watching baseball, and I finally understood something about why I care about it which had never occurred to me: having played so much as a young person, my body understands everything that’s going on on the field, and when I’m watching a game, I’m actually in some sense experiencing it physically. And that’s why a sport like hockey means nothing to me, because I never played it. So I watch them doing what they do, and I don’t understand the gestures, and I don’t have that visceral connection with what’s going on. So I understand people who never played baseball wouldn’t be able to physically recreate the sensations of being in the game, and once it just becomes actors on a stage who are disconnected from you, it is boring, I guess.

“The thing that I think that I love the most about watching baseball is to watch shortstops, and the extraordinary plays these guys make on the major league level. They are so good. They turn in play after play that just seems almost humanly impossible, and they make them routine…the stops the shortstops make, the throws they have to make—it’s beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.”

During Auster’s childhood, there was a family friend in the minor leagues: his name was Roy, but everybody called him “Whoops” because that’s apparently what he used to say every time the ball went through his legs. Unsurprisingly, he never made it to the majors, but as a member of the legendary Newark Bears, Whoops played with and against many famous players, including perennial Cardinals all-star Stan Musial. One day a nine-year-old Paul Auster got a postcard in the mail that said, “Dear Paul, hurry and grow up. The Cards can use a good third baseman. Yours, Stan Musial.” But the stranger story came after Whoops offered to introduce Auster to Yankee great Whitey Ford.

“Yeah. Of course I’d like to meet Whitey Ford,” Auster says. “And he brought Whitey Ford around to my house one day after school. This was the post-season after the Yankees had won the World Series and Whitey Ford had had his greatest year. [But] the fact is, it didn’t look like Whitey Ford to me.”

A skeptical Auster asked the pitcher a few questions about his record, and the answers checked out. But the doubt remained.

“Whitey Ford always had kind of slightly long hair brushed back, and this guy had a flat top—a crew cut. So it didn’t look like Whitey Ford, and to this day I don’t know if it was or not. The first great mystery of my life had to do with baseball: whether it was the real Whitey Ford, or an impersonator.”

And perhaps on that day, the many impersonators scattered throughout Auster’s fiction were born.