Authors: Paul Auster

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Squeeze Play, 1982 (as Paul Benjamin)

City of Glass, 1985

Ghosts, 1986

The Locked Room, 1986

In the Country of Last Things, 1987

Moon Palace, 1989

The Music of Chance, 1990

Leviathan, 1992

Mr. Vertigo, 1994

The New York Trilogy, 1994 (includes City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room)

Timbuktu, 1999

The Book of Illusions, 2002

Screenplays:

“Smoke” and “Blue in the Face”: Two Screenplays, 1995

Lulu on the Bridge, 1998

Poetry:

Unearth: Poems, 1970-1972, 1974

Wall Writing, 1976

Fragments from Cold, 1977

Facing the Music, 1980

Disappearances: Selected Poems, 1988

Ground Work: Selected Poems and Essays, 1970-1979, 1990 (also known as Selected Poems, 1998)

Drama:

Eclipse, pr. 1977

Nonfiction:

White Spaces, 1980

The Art of Hunger, and Other Essays, 1982 (also known as The Art of Hunger: Essays, Prefaces, Interviews, 1991)

The Invention of Solitude, 1982

The Red Notebook, and Other Writings, 1995

Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure, 1997

The Red Notebook: True Stories, 2002

Translations:

A Little Anthology of Surrealist Poems, 1972

Fits and Starts: Selected Poems of Jacques Dupin, 1974

The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert: A Selection, 1983

A Tomb for Anatole, 1983 (of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poetry)

Edited Texts:

The Random House Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry, 1982

I Thought My Father Was God: And Other True Tales from NPR’s National Story Project, 2001

Biography

Paul Benjamin Auster (AW-stur) was described in 1992 by Sven Birkerts as “the ghost at the banquet of contemporary American letters” because his modernist-grounded works did not fit active categories of debate. Since then, his presence in American and world literature has been observed by many. Born in Newark, New Jersey, to third-generation Jewish parents who never attended college, his mother, Queenie, was thirteen years younger than her husband, Samuel Auster, a landlord in Jersey City. When Auster was three years old, his sister was born, and within five years psychological disorders that would disturb her into adult life were evident. Before Auster attended high school, his parents stored several boxes of books for his uncle, Allan Mandelbaum, the poet and translator of Ovid, Vergil, and Danté, who later tutored Auster in writing poetry. This literary “inheritance,” his middle-class parents’ squabbles over finances, and their eventual divorce–all recurring themes in Auster’s life–shaped his relationship with money and materialism and his desire to be a writer.{$I[A]Auster, Paul}{$S[A]Benjamin, Paul;Auster, Paul}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Auster, Paul}{$I[tim]1947;Auster, Paul}

Translation of French poetry figured prominently in Auster’s training as a student at Columbia University, where he received his undergraduate degree in 1969 and a master’s degree in comparative literature in 1970. His time there coincided with a period of social unrest, though he was never directly involved with politics. He reviewed books and films in the Columbia Daily Spectator and the Columbia Review, sometimes under the pseudonym Paul Quinn, a sign of the prismatic sense of identity he would resort to later in his career. Disappointed by an exchange program’s unchallenging curriculum, in Paris in 1967 Auster withdrew from college but was reinstated the next fall at Columbia, regaining deferment from the threat of the Vietnam War draft. At Columbia, he encountered and sheltered H. L. Humes, the downtrodden novelist and cofounder of The Paris Review, whose rants about the end of capitalism influenced Moon Palace, which Auster began around this time. He studied intensely the American Renaissance, which The New York Trilogy investigates, and was drawn especially to the modernist “hunger artists” Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, and Knut Hamsun. They inform Auster’s compulsive belief that art can uncover new meaning, his sense of ethics, and his political skepticism. His works, especially In the Country of Last Things, also conceived around this time, examine and extend the moral philosophical aesthetics of these modernist influences.

Chance, a major theme of Auster’s writing, intervened when a high lottery draft number spared him from fighting in Vietnam. Instead of seeking a Ph.D., Auster continued the erratic employment habits he developed in the last years of school. He worked at literary “hack” work and translation jobs into his thirties. In 1970 he moved to Paris, where he spent much of his three and a half years with his girlfriend, the writer Lydia Davis, whom he had met in 1966. In Paris Auster wrote his first complete work of poetry, Unearth, published, as was Davis’s first collection of stories, in the eight-volume journal Auster coedited with Davis and Mitchell Siskind between 1973 and 1976, Living Hand.

Auster’s four books of poetry Unearth, Wall Writing, Fragments from Cold, and Facing the Music are largely influenced by the French poets of the journal L’Ephémère–André du Bouchet, Jacques Dupin, and others–and Maurice Blanchot, all of whose work Auster was translating. The German poet Paul Celan and the American Objectivist poets Charles Reznikoff and George Oppen are influences as well. They recast the Objectivist’s tight, introspective, self-conscious examinations of perception, objectivity, and the act of poetic creation, and much of the existential themes of solitude and wandering are typical of L’Ephémère.

After returning to New York in 1974, Auster and Davis married and lived off shared translation jobs. Auster continued his hand-to-mouth lifestyle, developing his prose by writing articles for various reviews and literary publications. Despite a fellowship award from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, many of Auster’s literary endeavors during these years turned to failure, including three plays, two of which were reworked to become Ghosts and The Music of Chance. His financial situation worsened, and his monetary needs increased when in 1977 his son Daniel was born. In 1978 he took some effort to sell a baseball game he had invented in childhood, “Action Baseball,” and a mystery, Squeeze Play, written under the pseudonym “Paul Benjamin,” though neither met with success.

Despite relieving his prose writer’s block in 1979 with White Spaces, the morning after its completion brought news of his father’s sudden death by heart attack, one of the most significant events in Auster’s life. Auster and Davis had divorced some two months before, in November of 1978, and this childhood theme took on greater significance in financially fraught times. His father’s unexpected death brought Auster a small inheritance, enough to sustain him as he wrote his first extended works of prose, including the prismatic memoir The Invention of Solitude. Central to this work is the discovery that his grandmother shot and killed his grandfather, while his father–who was silent about the event all his life–was present. It examines his father’s absence and distance, reflects on his parents’ divorce, and contemplates his relationship with his own son and with writing. In moments of biblical exegesis, it cites and unfolds the grammar of Arthur Rimbaud’s rule-breaking declaration that “Je est un autre” (I is an other), and probes the space of solitude, that refuge of identity no one else can enter. It reconstitutes Marina Tsvetayeva’s ethical, self-objectifying remark that, “In this most Christian of worlds/ All poets are Jews.” This conflagration of poetry unearths Auster’s secular ascetics, the desire to dispossess one’s self of the horrors of histories yet preserve a hunger that makes others more important than oneself. These are themes Auster develops in his novels, which trace the history and mythology of the United States.

In 1981 Auster met, quickly fell in love with, and married the novelist Siri Hustvedt. Auster and Hustvedt moved to Brooklyn, where their daughter, Sophie Auster, was born and from where he commuted to lecture at Princeton University from 1986 to 1990. Brooklyn is also the locale for his mid-to late-1990’s films, the most heralded of which is Smoke. Although not to cinema what his novels are to literature, his screenplays are a significant contribution to his varied and dazzling array of works. Auster gained formidable popularity and critical success in France before gaining notoriety in the United States, where he has begun to receive critical recognition and popularity as a novelist equal to his friends Don DeLillo and Salman Rushdie. Philosophical in nature, Auster’s novels deal with themes of national frontiers and allegory, empires and exile, illusion and illumination, and everyday miracles in the secular epoch.

BibliographyAuster, Paul. “Interview, 1989-90.” Interview by Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory. In The Art of Hunger, and Other Essays. Berkeley, Calif.: SBD, 1982. Long interview is a rich resource for readers interested in Auster’s approach to writing.Barone, Dennis, ed. Beyond the Red Notebook: Essays on Paul Auster. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995. Collection of critical essays on Auster’s poetry and prose, some previously published in periodicals, addresses many different aspects of his work. Includes a detailed bibliography of works by and about Paul Auster.Barone, Dennis, ed. “Paul Auster/Danilo Kis Issue.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 14, no. 1 (Spring, 1994): 7-96. Special issue devoted to the works of these two authors includes essays by scholars such as Charles Baxter, Sven Birkerts, Paul Bray, Mary Ann Caws, Robert Creeley, Alan Gurganus, Mark Irwin, Mark Osteen, Mark Rudman, Katherine Washburn, and Curtis White.Birkerts, Sven. American Energies. New York: William Morrow, 1992. Contains a short chapter on Auster that describes several of his writings and his position in relation to American literary currents.Bloom, Harold, ed. Paul Auster. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004. Collection of sixteen critical essays includes discussion of The New York Trilogy and the themes of fear of identity loss, chance, and confinement in Auster’s novels. Literary critic Bloom provides an informative introduction.Bradbury, Malcolm. The Modern American Novel: New Edition. New York: Viking, 1993. Includes a chapter on The New York Trilogy.Brown, Mark. Paul Auster. New York: Palgrave, 2007. Offers extended analysis of Auster’s essays, poetry, fiction, films, and collaborative projects. Traces how Auster’s representations of New York and city life have matured from a position of urban nihilism to qualified optimism.Donovan, Christopher. Postmodern Counternarratives: Irony and Audience in the Novels of Paul Auster, Don DeLillo, Charles Johnson, and Tim O’Brien. New York: Routledge, 2005. Explores the role of Auster and three other major contemporary ironic novelists amid questions of social realism and morality in the twenty-first century.Drenttel, William, comp. and ed. Paul Auster: A Comprehensive Bibliographic Checklist of Published Works, 1968-1994. New York: W. Drenttel in association with Delos Press, 1994. An exhaustive bibliography of Auster’s works.Martin, Brendan. Paul Auster’s Postmodernity. New York: Routledge, 2008. Theorizes that in creating fictional protagonists who appear to be versions of himself, Auster constructs postmodern autobiography.Shiloh, Ilana. Paul Auster and Postmodern Quest: On the Road to Nowhere. New York: Peter Lang, 2002. Discusses Auster’s work from the perspective of the narrative of the quest, focusing on eight novels written between 1982 and 1992.Springer, Carsten. A Paul Auster Sourcebook. New York: Peter Lang, 2001. Outlines many of the real-life sources for Auster’s fictions. Also contains an extensive bibliography of his writings and further secondary sources in print, including an extensive list of interviews, newspaper articles, and Web sites.
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