Fat women gesturing operatically
Paul Auster began as a poet, essayist, anthologist and translator, but since City of Glass (1985) he’s been recognized above all for being one of our most spare, lucid and elegant novelists. The protagonists of many of his books, including The Music of Chance, The Book of Illusions, and Oracle Night, are pensive but gentle urban everymen, and some are writers or other artists. They’re easy for Auster’s many young admirers to identify, rightly or wrongly, with both themselves and with the author who put them on the page. In my twenties, when I was becoming a writer, I was certainly one of those young admirers. When I was lucky enough, years later, to have the chance to know Paul, I wasn’t disappointed.
JONATHAN LETHEM: What were you doing today before I appeared in your house?
PAUL AUSTER: The usual. I got up in the morning. I read the paper. I drank a pot of tea. And then I went over to the little apartment I have in the neighborhood and worked for about six hours. After that, I had to do some business. My mother died two years ago, and there was one last thing to take care of concerning her estate—a kind of insurance bond I had to sign off on. So, I went to a notary public to have the papers stamped, then mailed them to the lawyer. I came back home. I read my daughter’s final report card. And then I went upstairs and paid a lot of bills. A typical day, I suppose. A mix of working on the book and dealing with a lot of boring, practical stuff.
JL: For me, five or six hours of writing is plenty. That’s a lot. So, if I get that many hours the other stuff feels satisfying. The other stuff feels like a kind of grace. But if I have to do that stuff when I haven’t written—
PA: Oh, that’s terrible.
JL: That’s a terrible thing.
PA: I’ve found that writing novels is an all-absorbing experience—both physical and mental—and I have to do it every day in order to keep the rhythm, to keep myself focused on what I’m doing. Even Sunday, if possible. If there’s no family thing happening that day, I’ll at least work in the morning. Whenever I travel, I get thrown off completely. If I’m gone for two weeks, it takes me a good week to get back into the rhythm of what I was doing before.
JL: I like the word “physical.” I have the same fetish for continuity. I don’t really ask of myself a given word or page count or number of hours. To work every day, that’s my only fetish. And there is a physical quality to it when a novel is thriving. It has an athletic component. You’re keeping a streak going.
PA: Writing is physical for me. I always have the sense that the words are coming out of my body, not just my mind. I write in longhand, and the pen is scratching the words onto the page. I can even hear the words being written. So much of the effort that goes into writing prose for me is about making sentences that capture the music that I’m hearing in my head. It takes a lot of work, writing, writing, and rewriting to get the music exactly the way you want it to be. That music is a physical force. Not only do you write books physically, but you read books physically as well. There’s something about the rhythms of language that correspond to the rhythms of our own bodies. An attentive reader is finding meanings in the book that can’t be articulated, finding them in his or her body. I think this is what so many people don’t understand about fiction. Poetry is supposed to be musical. But people don’t understand prose. They’re so used to reading journalism—clunky, functional sentences that convey factual information—facts, more than just the surfaces of things.
JL: This relates to the acute discomfort of publicity, so much of which consists of requests to paraphrase the work. Which inevitably results in something unmusical. It’s as if you’ve taken the body away, then drawn its outline and described its contents.
PA: I don’t know why the world has changed so much that writers are now expected to appear in public and talk about their work. It’s something I find very difficult. And yet, one does have some sense of responsibility towards one’s publishers, to the people trying to sell the book.
I’ve tried to pick my spots. I don’t do it that often. But every once in a while I’ll come out and do it as an act of good faith. Then I hope I’ll be left alone again for a while. For example, with the last novel I published, Oracle Night, I just simply refused to go on book tours. I just didn’t have the stamina for it.
JL: Kazuo Ishiguro has a funny way of talking about it as if it’s a giant, consensual mistake all authors made together, by agreeing to this. And then suggesting we need to end it together. It’s like a version of Prisoner’s Dilemma. If one of us tours, we all have to tour. If everyone refuses…
PA: He’s speaking from deep experience. He did something that no one else I know ever did. He was on book tour for about two years. He went everywhere, to every country in the world where his book was published. In the end, it probably nearly killed him.
JL: Did you read The Unconsoled?
PA: I’ve wanted to.
JL: It’s one of my favorite novels by a living writer. An epic Kafkaesque account of a pianist’s arrival in a city to give a recital which never seems to happen. One possible description of it is as the longest and bitterest complaint of a book-touring author ever written.
PA: There’s a great entry in Kafka’s diaries in which he describes an imaginary writer in the process of giving a public reading. So-and-so is up there on stage and people are getting restless and bored. “Just one more story,” he says, “just one more…” People start getting up and leaving. The doors keep slamming shut, and he goes on begging “just one more, one more,” until everyone is gone and he’s left alone at the podium, reading to an empty room.
JL: It does seem that lately you’ve managed to reinstate your primary relationship with novel-writing. I mean, judging from the degree of concentration evident in the two recent novels and from your testimony that you’re already deep in another one, which is nice news.
PA: Yeah, deep, deep in it.
JL: When you talk about the exclusivity that the novel demands I’m very much in agreement with you. So I wonder about the years when you were apparently happy in the world of film. Did you feel that you had to retrench?
PA: I stumbled into filmmaking by accident. I’ve always been passionately in love with movies, to such a degree that even as a young person of about nineteen or twenty I thought maybe I would try to become a film director. The reason I didn’t do it was because I felt I didn’t have the right personality. At that time in my life, I was mortally shy. I couldn’t speak in front of other people, and I thought: if I’m going to be this silent, morose, brooding person, I’m not going to be able to communicate effectively with the actors and the crew and so on. So I gave up that idea. And then ironically enough, it was only after I started publishing novels that I got involved with film—because people started calling me about potential film rights, writing original screenplays, and eventually I got lured into it.
JL: In your recent novels I imagined I’d spotted a subtle turn from film, toward fiction. That is to say, the last two books both portray artists. In The Book of Illusions, your main character is a filmmaker, and the reader encounters extensive—and beautiful—descriptions of his films. In Oracle Night the main character is a novelist, and we read a portion of his novel-in-progress. Does this match a turn in your own attentions?
PA: I want to disentangle this a little bit. During the years I was making films, I never believed I was abandoning the novel. The two films with Wayne Wang took two years of my life. It was a wonderful experience. One of the great pleasures was getting out of my room for a while, working with other people, opening up my mind to new ways of thinking.
Lulu on the Bridge was an accident. I wrote the screenplay for Wim Wenders and then he had a conflict; he wasn’t able to direct the film. At his urging, I decided to take on the job myself. And so, boom, there went another two and a half years of my life. But, then again, it was an irreplaceable experience, and I’m glad I did it. Then came the promotional tour which was far more exhausting than making the film itself. You think books are hard. Films are deadly. I can remember doing forty interviews in two days in Japan. Long interviews, one after the other, one after the other. I was so worn out, I got sick and wound up in the hospital. That was when I came to a decision. As much as I enjoyed making films, and as much as I thought I was beginning to get the hang of it, I understood that it’s a full-time job. You can’t do it as a hobby. In order to go on making films, I would have been forced to give up writing, and that was out of the question. There was no doubt in my mind that what I’m supposed to do is write novels. So, very happily, without any regret at all, I retired. I’m not in the movie business anymore.
But to get back to the Book of Illusions, to Hector Mann and his film career: the fact is that Hector was born inside me long before I got involved with the movies myself. He came to me one day in the late eighties or very early nineties, full-blown in his white suit with his black mustache, and I didn’t know what to do with him. I thought perhaps I would sit down at some point and write a book of stories that would describe his silent films—each story a different film. I walked around with him for years before the book finally coalesced into the novel it is now. People have said, “Oh, this is a result of Auster’s foray into filmmaking,” but it really predated all that.
The last thing to say about this little adventure into moviemaking is that it’s rare that a person gets a chance at a somewhat advanced age—I’m talking about my mid-forties—to learn something new. To get involved in something you’ve never tried before. In that way it was good for me. It was good for me not to write a novel for five years. The only piece of prose I wrote during that period was Hand To Mouth, my little autobiographical essay about money.
JL: This is something I wrestle with. I am actually in the middle of the longest break from novel writing of my adult life. I began trying to write novels when I was eighteen.
PA: Me too.
JL: They weren’t any good, of course, but I’ve never been away from the activity since then. But in the past two years I’ve done a tremendous amount of promotion, and then worked on assembling two collections—a book of stories and a book of essays.
PA: Nothing to be ashamed about.
JL: Thank you. But it means that this body that’s been accustomed for twenty years to this practice, as an athlete’s body is accustomed to showing up at the clubhouse and putting on the cleats and running, my writer’s body is—
PA: Atrophied a little bit.
JL: Yes, atrophy. It’s a bit dismaying. I have a friend, a novelist with a delightfully unembarrassed sense of ambition. He’s got a bit of that Norman-Mailer-getting-into-the-boxing-ring-with-Tolstoy thing. He says a thing that haunts me: “If you look at the record, with very few exceptions novelists are at their best between the ages of thirty-five and fifty. The crossroads of youthful energy and experience.” And here I am kissing off a couple of years at the start of my forties.
PA: Just to reassure you, I’m a firm believer that there are no rules in art. Every trajectory is different. My French publisher once told me that a novelist has twenty years, that all his best work will be done in that span of time. I don’t necessarily buy that. But the interesting thing is how easy it is not to work. Yes, writing is a necessity and often a pleasure, but at the same time, it can be a great burden and a terrible struggle.
JL: I’m glad to hear you say that.
PA: In my own case, I certainly don’t walk into my room and sit down at my desk feeling like a boxer ready to go ten rounds with Joe Louis. I tiptoe in. I procrastinate. I delay. I take care of little business that I don’t have to do at that moment. I come in sideways, kind of sliding through the door. I don’t burst into the saloon with my six-shooter ready. If I did, I’d probably shoot myself in the foot.
JL: You’ve reminded me of another thought I had when you mentioned going to your little apartment. I hope you don’t mind me saying you have an extraordinary house. The sort of house which, in my fantasies, I would never leave. There’d be a beautiful office in it and I would write in that office. In fact, you’ve arranged to slip out of this house. That slippery, crabwise kind of movement is one the writer thrives on. Or, anyway, another thing I identify with.
PA: It’s complicated. When we lived in a crowded apartment with children, there was nowhere to me to work, so I found a little studio apartment for myself. I worked there for six or seven years, and then we bought this house. In the beginning, there were tenants downstairs, but eventually they left and I decided to move my operation here. For quite a number of years, I contentedly worked downstairs. But last year we started doing work on the house. We were invaded by contractors, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, painters. There was so much noise. The doorbell was ringing all the time. The phone was ringing all the time. I realized I wasn’t able to concentrate. And I thought, maybe I should go back to the old way. I found a little apartment in the neighborhood about nine months ago and I find it good, very good. This is a magnificent house. It’s the product of Siri’s [Siri Hustvedt, Auster’s wife] tremendous aesthetic sense, her brilliant eye for harmony and order. But I think working in a rougher, meaner environment is good for me. I’ve always been a kind of Caliban. I feel happier in a bare space.
JL: My equivalent, perhaps, is that I enjoy an indirect relationship to place. People understandably think I moved back to Brooklyn in order to write about it, but the odd truth is that I’ve written the majority of these Brooklyn books in Toronto or Saratoga Springs or German hotel lobbies. I seem to write most happily about Brooklyn from a little distance, glancing back, yearning for it.
PA: Like Joyce and Dublin. As it happens, I’m writing about Brooklyn now, as well. The last book, Oracle Night, was Brooklyn twenty-two years ago. Now, I’m writing about the Brooklyn of today. I can tell you the title of the new novel because I’m not going to change it: The Brooklyn Follies. It’s an attempt to write a kind of comedy. I’ve never been in this territory before, and I’m having a lot of fun with it, doubting every word I write, and yet finally, I think, producing something that’s interesting. I hope so, anyway.
JL: I can’t wait.
PA: You try to surprise yourself. You want to go against what you’ve done before. You want to burn up and destroy all your previous work; you want to reinvent yourself with every project. Once you fall into habits, I think, you’re dead as an artist. You have to challenge yourself and never rest on your laurels, never think about what you’ve done in the past. Just say, that’s done, now I’m tackling something else. It’s certain that the world’s large enough and interesting enough to take a different approach each time you sit down to write about it.
JL: Anyway, your voice is going to be helplessly your own. And so the books will be united despite your attempts to ignore your own earlier work.
PA: Exactly, because all your attempts to flee from yourself are useless. All you discover is yourself and your old obsessions. All the maniacal repetitions of how you think. But you try. And I think there’s some dignity in that attempt.
JL: I’m laughing, because now, as I’m about to begin a new novel at last, the only thing I’m certain of are the exclusions, the things I’ll refuse to do again. I’m avoiding Brooklyn. I’m going to avoid writing about parents and children. And I’d noticed that each book, as different as I thought they were, had mortal stakes attached. Someone was capable of pulling a gun on someone else. So I decided to restrict myself to emotional stakes.
PA: Well, that’s good. When you become aware of what your limits have been so far, then you’re able to expand them. And every artist has limits. No one can do everything. It’s impossible. What’s beautiful about art is that it circumscribes a space, a physical and mental space. If you try to put the entire world into every page, you turn out chaos. Art is about eliminating almost everything in order to focus on the thing that you need to talk about.
JL: Do you find it difficult to include certain technologies, now deeply imbedded, such as email and cell phones, in your fiction? I find that technologies invented beyond a certain date—for me it might be 1978, or 1984—don’t seem to belong in the realm of fiction.
PA: That’s a very interesting question. In The Book of Illusions, which is set in the late eighties, there’s a fax machine. Something very important happens through a fax machine. So, I’m not, per se, against talking about technology. In the book I’m working on now, there’s a reference to email. Also to cell phones.
I’m one of the few people left without a computer. I don’t write on a word processor, and I don’t have email and I’m not really tempted to get it. I’m very happy with my pen and my old portable typewriter, but I’m not against talking about anything, actually. I think the glory of the novel is that you’re open to everything and anything that exists or has existed in the world. I don’t have any proscriptions. I don’t say, “This is not allowed because…”
JL: Not an ideological boycott, of course, but more a tendency to flinch from including those things. I email frequently. But if I include it in fiction I begin disbelieving the fiction instantly. It seems to disqualify the reality of the page.
PA: But this leads to a much larger and more interesting question that I’ve debated with various people over the years. You know, there are the enthusiasts for technology and they always say—and this has been happening now for probably 150 years—they say that new technology is going to change the way people think and live. It’s going to revolutionize our lives. Not just our physical lives, but our inner lives as well. I am not at all a believer in this view for the simple reason that we have bodies. We get sick. We die. We love. We suffer. We grieve. We get angry. These are the constants of human life whether you live in ancient Rome or contemporary America. I really don’t think that people have changed because of the telegraph or the radio or the cell phone or the airplane or, now, computer technology.
Seven or eight years ago, I was invited to Israel by the Jerusalem Foundation and stayed at an artists’ center called Mishchanot. A wonderful place. I was fifty years old, and I’d never been to Israel, a Jew who had resisted the idea my entire life. I was waiting for the right moment, and when the letter from Teddy Kollek came and he said they wanted to invite me for three or four weeks to stay here and live in this building and write and do whatever I wanted, I thought it was the appropriate moment to go. Siri and Sophie [Auster’s daughter] went with me. At one point, we took a tour around the country. We visited the town of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. There’s an extraordinary museum there with the scrolls and other artifacts that were found in the cave and around the site. These artifacts are so fascinating because there are plates that look like plates you could buy in a store today, with the same patterns, the same design, or baskets that any French or Italian person would use to take to the market today. And I had a sudden revelation about the extraordinary sameness of human life through the ages. That’s why we can read Homer and Sophocles and Shakespeare and feel that we’re reading about ourselves.
JL: I spent my early twenties in the Bay Area during the late eighties. I was witness to this extraordinary boom in the ideology of computing, the birth of Wired magazine and all that gave it context. There was a tremendous excitement at the idea that human life would never be the same once virtual reality existed. But if you read Dziga Vertov, the great Russian theorist of cinema, a hundred years earlier he was making the same claim for film. And then, if you search just a decade or so earlier, the advent of radio was surrounded by the same rhetoric.
PA: It must have seemed revolutionary then. The world—people from distant places, were suddenly in contact. This isn’t to say that there aren’t dangers in technology. We’re all too aware of teenagers today spending their lives in front of their computer screens, dulling their senses, not living fully anymore. But, I think as they grow up and life begins to impinge on them, they’re going to join the rest of us.
JL: The sweet irony is that so much of the online world takes a written form. What was meant to be a post-literate or visually-literate culture is now obsessed with epistolary exchange. Letters. Or diaries.
PA: Exactly. That gets us back to the question of fiction. Over the generations, countless people have predicted the death of the novel. Yet I believe that written stories will continue to survive because they answer an essential human need. I think movies might disappear before the novel disappears, because the novel is really one of the only places in the world where two strangers can meet on terms of absolute intimacy. The reader and the writer make the book together. You as a reader enter the consciousness of another person, and in doing so I think you discover something about your own humanity, and it makes you feel more alive.
JL: I like your emphasis on the privacy of the experience. No matter how enormous a novel may become, the physical act of reading determines that there’s no way it can become a communal experience. To read is intimate. It’s almost masturbatory.
PA: There’s only one reader of a novel. That’s, I think, the crucial fact about all this. Only one person. Every time, only one person.
JL: I’m also fascinated by this notion of the novel’s capacity for extensive descriptions of other art forms. It seems to me one of the novel’s defining strengths: that it can swallow a song, a poem or a film—
PA: Or a painting.
JL: Or a painting. It has a scope that other art forms are denied, because a novel can’t be recapitulated in some other art form.
PA: I think the word is exphrasis, which is a rhetorical term meaning the description of imaginary works of art. It’s so interesting to me that one of the things that novels have tended not to concentrate on over the centuries is the fact that people read books. I show books and the experience of reading as part of the reality of the world. And the same goes for film. Why not describe movies? After I published The Book of Illusions, I sent a copy to my friend Hal Hartley, the filmmaker. And he said to me, “You know. I think maybe written films are better than real films. You can see them in your head and yet everything is exactly as you want it to be.”
JL: Novelists get to direct the perfect films. We get to cast every part. We dress the set exactly as we wish.
PA: With a book you can read the same paragraph four times. You can go back to page 21 when you’re on page 300. You can’t do that with film. It just charges ahead. It’s often difficult to keep up, especially if you’re watching a film you admire very much. Good films demand to be looked at several times in order to be observed completely.
I think one of the mistakes I made with Lulu on the Bridge was that I wrote the script too much as if it were a novel. I think the film has to be seen several times before you can really penetrate what’s going on. There’s a moment early in the film when Harvey Keitel is walking down the street and there’s a little graffito on the wall that says “Beware of God.” I had seen this on a T-shirt and liked it very much. It’s the dyslexic “Beware of Dog.” Later on, I very consciously put a barking dog in the distance. That dog, to me, was a deity. And that’s when Harvey’s character discovers the dead man in the alley. Nobody, nobody could possibly understand what I was trying to do.
JL: A reader, encountering a sentence about a barking dog, would have to dwell on why that choice was made at that moment. Everything in a novel is explicitly chosen, whereas some of what a film captures feels incidental, according to the vagaries of photography and sound recording.
JL: Meanwhile, I just can’t help noticing that while you described that, a dog was barking in the distance, here in Brooklyn.
JL: So what’s your fondest example of exphrasis—the work of art depicted in another work of art?
PA: There’s a great moment in War and Peace when Natasha is taken to the opera and Tolstoy deconstructs the whole experience. Rather than write about it from an emotional point of view or an artistic point of view, he depicts it simply from a raw, physical point of view. You know, “Then some fat woman came on stage and started gesturing, and then a gong sounded in the background, and then lightning struck, and then a skinny man sang an aria that no one understood.” And I think that’s probably the funniest description of a work of art I’ve ever read. But, probably the best and most beautiful, and I’m doing this right off the top of my head—
JL: That’s ideal.
PA: I hate to bring this so close to home, but I think it’s Siri’s last novel, What I Loved. The painter’s artworks are of a sublime profundity, and the artworks are part of the novel. It was so beautifully articulated. I don’t know that I’ve read another novel in which art has played such an integral role in the story.
JL: I’m remembering the description of a painting in which the artist’s presence is shown, just barely, at the edge of the frame.
PA: A little shadow.
PA: Over the years, I’ve been intensely interested in the artificiality of books as well. I mean, who’s kidding whom, after all. We know when we open up a book of fiction that we’re reading something that is imaginary, and I’ve always been interested in exploiting that fact, using it, making it part of the work itself. Not in some dry, academic, metafictional way, but simply as an organic part of the written word. When I was a kid, I’d pick up a novel written in the third person, and I’d say to myself, “Who’s talking? Who am I listening to here? Who’s telling this story?” I can see a name on the cover, it says Ernest Hemingway or Tolstoy, but is it Tolstoy or Hemingway who is actually talking?
I always loved the books in which there was some kind of excuse for the fact that the book existed. For example, The Scarlet Letter, where Hawthorne discovers the manuscript in the custom house and then proceeds to print it in the subsequent pages. It’s all a ruse. Art upon art upon art. And yet it was very compelling to me. I think that’s why most of my books have been written in the first person rather than the third.
JL: When you first started out, did you think that would be the case? I, too, gravitate towards the first person, but when I was a young reader, I thought of third person as the more pure. It seemed to me in some way the higher form of fiction.
PA: Perhaps, but I like the low. I’m very interested in the low, the close to the ground, something that’s almost indistinguishable from life.
JL: At what point in a project are you certain of which you’ll choose?
PA: I think in every case I’ve known from the beginning. The only time I was confused was when I was writing a book of nonfiction, The Invention of Solitude. The first part of that book is written in the first person, and then I started the second part in the first person as well. But there was something that I didn’t like about it. I couldn’t understand why I was dissatisfied. I wrote, I wrote, I wrote and then I had to stop. I put it away, meditated for several weeks, and understood that the problem was the first person. I had to switch to the third. Because in the first part I was writing about somebody else—my father. I was seeing him from my point of view. But, in the second part, I was mostly writing about myself. By using the first person, I couldn’t see myself anymore. By shifting to the third person, I managed to get a certain distance from myself, and that made it possible for me to see myself, which in turn made it possible for me to write the book. It was very strange.
JL: You use the word distance. And it seems to me one aspect of your work—omnipresent, but very elusive, and difficult to speak of—is a quality of reserve.
PA: This might come as a surprise to you, but I tend to think of myself as a highly emotional writer. It’s all coming out of the deepest feelings, out of dreams, out of the unconscious. And yet, what I’m constantly striving for in my prose is clarity. So that, ideally, the writing will become so transparent that the reader will forget that the medium of communication is language. So that the reader is simply inside the voice, inside the story, inside what is happening. So, yes, there is a certain—I wouldn’t call it reserve, but precision maybe, I don’t know. At the same time, I’m trying to explore the deepest emotional questions I know about: love and death. Human suffering. Human joy. All the important things that make life worth living.
JL: Yes, I certainly didn’t mean to suggest I experience the books as dispassionate. I found Oracle Night a wrenchingly emotional book. I’m not surprised by that. I do think you’re right, that what I’m trying to characterize proceeds from the precision of the prose, its exacting quality. The effect is one of timelessness.
PA: I want to write books that can be read a hundred years from now, and readers wouldn’t be bogged down by irrelevant details. You see, I’m not a sociologist, and the novel has often concerned itself with sociology. It’s one of the generating forces that’s made fiction interesting to people. But that’s not my concern. I’m interested in psychology. And also certain philosophical questions about the world. By removing the stories from the morass of things that surround us, I’m hoping to achieve some kind of purer approach to emotional life.
JL: What’s lovely is that you grant that same imperative to the characters themselves. They are often looking to purify their relationship to their own lives.
PA: I suppose in a way most of my characters are non-consumers, not terribly interested in all the little baubles and artifacts of contemporary life. Not to say that there aren’t many specific things mentioned in my books, it’s just that I don’t dwell on them excessively.
JL: Yes, even the most contemporary references in your work seem to float off into a timeless place.
PA: I’m very concerned that every word, every sentence in my book is pertinent. I don’t want to indulge myself in the luxury of writing beautiful paragraphs just for the sake of making beautiful writing. That doesn’t interest me. I want everything to be essential. In a sense, the center is everywhere. Every sentence of the book is the center of the book.
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