Paul Auster is an acclaimed novelist, essayist, and translator. Born in Newark, New Jersey, and educated at Columbia, Auster has written dozens of works, including the novels The New York Trilogy, The Brooklyn Follies, and Man in the Dark. He has also written and directed several films, including Smoke and The Inner Life of Martin Frost.
Below is an edited transcript from the public discussion Auster had with Mark C. Taylor, Chair of the Department of Religion and Co-Director of the Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life (IRCPL) at Columbia University, as part of the “Literature and Terror” series sponsored by the IRCPL.
Mark C. Taylor: This is the final event in a series that’s been going on all year, organized roughly around the theme of literature and terror. I began to think about this series when it occurred to me how many of our major writers have written on the issue of terror going back 20 or 25 years. It isn’t simply a post 9/11 phenomenon, though we certainly have had novels already in the wake of 9/11.
So much of the discourse around the issue of terror has been political and economic and religious. All of those factors are, to be sure, very, very important, but I’ve been thinking about the relationship of literature to terror.
I think it’s important to distinguish terror from terrorism. They’re related but not identical. Just trying to figure out precisely what terror is, is not all that simple. Distinguishing it from other modes of experience, like horror and the like, is not as easy as it appears at first.
We’re very privileged to have Paul Auster with us this evening. I’ve known Paul for quite a few years, as well as his wife Siri Hustvedt, who’s here with us tonight and who’s also a major writer, whose work I’m sure you know. I regard Paul as one of the major writers now writing. I’ve always found his work engaging and thought-provoking in multiple ways. He’s serious in the best sense of that word. Perhaps it’s precisely because of that seriousness that I thought we might begin this evening by talking about baseball.
When I called Paul about a week ago to nail down logistics for tonight, his daughter answered the phone and said that he’d just left for a Mets game.I haven’t been to Citi Field yet, but Paul assures me it’s quite beautiful; it was modeled more or less on Ebbets Field. As you may or may not know, I’m often struck by how little academics know about sports in general and baseball in particular. Baseball has been very, very important to Paul for a long time. And I want to begin by thinking about baseball, photographs, and fathers.
So I want to begin with a photograph of a postcard. Baseball was also very important in my own life. My father was the high school baseball coach, and the first baseball glove I ever had was autographed by a player by the name of Andy Pafko, who used to play the outfield initially for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Pafko has achieved fame through the novelist Don DeLillo, whom you may know if you’ve read Underworld. Underworld is organized around the baseball that Bobby Thompson hit in the famous homerun. Pafko was playing left field at the time. An excerpt from Underworld is published under the title Pafko at the Wall. So I followed Pafko, and I became a Dodgers fan initially. And then Pafko was traded to the Milwaukee Braves, so I became a lifelong Braves fan in the wake of that. My father used to take me to the Polo Grounds to watch when the Braves were in town.
My father also taught me photography. These are photographs that I took at the Polo Grounds when I was about ten years old, and I developed and printed them. I can still remember the positions and the numbers of all the players who played for the Braves at that time. The Polo Grounds, it turns out, play a very significant role in Paul’s journey to become an author. And so I thought we might begin by asking him to read a few paragraphs from an essay he wrote, Why Write?
Paul Auster: Which is now in a book of true stories called The Red Notebook. Alright. The ending, as you’ll see, is a little whimsical. I think we’re two years apart. So when you were ten I was eight.
The first sentence of this piece is: “I was eight years old. At that moment in my life, nothing was more important to me than baseball. My team was the New York Giants, and I followed the doings of those men in the black-and-orange caps with all the devotion of a true believer. Even now, remembering that team — which no longer exists, which played in a ballpark that no longer exists — I can reel off the names of nearly every player on the roster. Alvin Dark. Whitey Lockman, Don Mueller. Johnny Antonelli, Monte Irvin, Hoyt Wilhelm. But none was greater, none more perfect nor more deserving of worship than Willie Mays, the incandescent Say Hey kid.
“That spring, I was taken to my first big-league game. Friends of my parents had box seats at the Polo Grounds, and one April night a group of us went to watch the Giants play the Milwaukee Braves. I don’t know who won, I can’t recall a single detail of the game, but I do remember that after the game was over my parents and their friends sat talking in their seats until all the other spectators had left. It got so late that we had to walk across the diamond and leave by the center-field exit, which is the only one still open. As it happened, that exit was right below the player’s locker room.
“Just as we approached the wall I caught sight of Willie Mays. There was no question about who it was. It was Willie Mays, already out of uniform and standing there in his street clothes about ten feet away from me. I managed to keep my legs moving in his direction and then, mustering every ounce of my courage, I forced some words out of my mouth. ‘Mr. Mays,’ I said, ‘could I please have your autograph?’
“He had to have been all of 24 years old, but I couldn’t bring myself to pronounce his first name.
“His response to my question was brusque but amiable. ‘Sure, kid, sure,’ he said. ‘You got a pencil?’ He was so full of life, I remember, so full of youthful energy, that he kept bouncing up and down as he spoke.
I didn’t have a pencil, so I asked my father if I could borrow his. He didn’t have one either. Nor did my mother. Nor, as it turned out, did any of the other grownups.
“The great Willie Mays stood there watching in silence. When it became clear that no one in the group had anything to write with, he turned to me and shrugged. ‘Sorry, kid,’ he said. ‘Ain’t got no pencil, can’t give no autograph.’ And then he walked out of the ballpark into the night.
“I didn’t want to cry, but tears started falling down my cheeks, and there was nothing I could do to stop them. Even worse, I cried all the way home in the car. Yes, I was crushed with disappointment, but I was also revolted at myself for not being able to control those tears. I wasn’t a baby. I was eight years old, and big kids weren’t supposed to cry over things like that. Not only did I not have Willie Mays’ autograph, I didn’t have anything else, either. Life had put me to the test, and in all respects I had found myself wanting.
“After that night, I started carrying a pencil with me wherever I went. It became a habit of mine never to leave the house without making sure I had a pencil in my pocket. It’s not that I had any particular plans for that pencil, but I didn’t want to be unprepared. I had been caught empty-handed once, and I wasn’t about to let it happen again. If nothing else, the years have taught me this. If there’s a pencil in your pocket, there’s a good chance that one day you’ll feel tempted to start using it. As I like to tell my children, that’s how I became a writer.”
There’s an aftermath to this story which I want to tell. I didn’t tell Mark on the phone the other night. About two years ago, Siri and I went down to a literary gathering in Key West, Florida. I think it was January ’07. And one of the people there was a woman I know a little bit and have known her for a long time, the writer Amy Tan. One of the stories in The Red Notebook, another true story, was told to me by a mutual friend of ours. And t’s about Amy, but I don’t use her name; it’s just an initial. I think the piece was written in around 1999 or 2000. And I realized when I saw her that seven years had gone by and I hadn’t seen her and had forgotten to tell her that I had written a story about her.
Our books, all our books were available in the theater there. So I went and bought the book, The Red Notebook, and gave it to her. I said, “Well, you see this story’s about you.” And so she went home to San Francisco a couple of days later. On the plane she not only read the story about herself but everything in the book, including the Willie Mays story. Well, it turns out Willie Mays lives in Atherton, California, right near San Francisco, and his next door neighbors happen to be very close friends of Amy’s. She called them up and said, “Go out and buy Paul’s book. Ring Willie’s doorbell and read him the story,” which they did. Apparently, according to them, and this is third-hand I’m telling this story, Willie was so moved he sat down and he just kept saying over and over again, “Fifty-two years ago. I can’t believe it. Fifty-two years ago.” Then he took out a baseball and autographed it for me. And it was given to Amy, and she came to New York and gave it to me. So now I have Willie Mays’ autograph, proving that books or writing can actually change reality sometimes.
Taylor: We will get to that, but there are so many issues already in this little story or these little stories. It is the music of chance in so many ways. I’ve wondered when I read this, for a time I’ve wondered whether this was the game.
Auster: It could be.
Taylor: Could be the game. The other thing that I’ve wondered over the years — Paul and I both grew up in New Jersey — so I’ve often wondered whether we ever played baseball against each other. The appliance store where my parents used to buy their appliances was Auster’s Appliance Store.
Auster: And I spent the summer when I was 17 working there.
Taylor: So maybe my parents bought their dishwasher from Paul.
Auster: Or maybe I installed your air conditioner.
Taylor: No, my parents didn’t have an air conditioner. They were Protestant to the core, so suffering was good. But in a nontrivial sense, is there a relationship between baseball and writing?
Auster: Baseball and writing? As far as I can tell, and I’m sorry to give this answer, but no. I think for me playing baseball was a way of finding myself as part of the world. I was rather unwell as a very small child. I didn’t have too many friends. Then when I got better and started doing sports — I’m talking about five, six, seven years old — it turned out I was quite good at it.
Taylor: What position did you play?
Auster: Shortstop. I think having some success in life at an early age gives you some kind of confidence. The idea of being on a team, working with other people, all these, I know, are clichés about life, but sports can be a very important thing for a young person.
Taylor: And also, as you know all too well, it’s not uncommon for people to think about certain relationships between play and art or writing. And that has always seemed to me to be a relationship worth thinking about, as there is a certain kind of relationship between various aspects of religion.
Auster: The difference between writing and baseball, or any kind of sport, is that the rules are very rigid. I think that’s what’s so beautiful about baseball, both playing and then watching it. Very rigid rules, but in all the games that I’ve played in over my life or watched that probably number in the thousands, certainly the high hundreds, I’ve always seen something that I’ve never seen before in a game. But with art —
Taylor: What I was going to say is that one could also think about your writing in that way, too, because you bend the rules. Your writing brings us into proximity with the unexpected.
Auster: Yes, but, you see, with writing, you make your own rules. Yes, you’re working against a tradition, of course. You remember all the rules of the masters before you. But I think the idea of becoming an artist of any kind is that you get to make your own rules and to break them as well.
Taylor: Let’s shift slightly, to think a little bit about photographs. Photographs and photography figure in your work in multiple ways, both in your fiction and also certainly in your film Smoke. So I want to think a little bit about what’s going on with photographs. And ask you to read another passage. This is from Leviathan, which is a text in which Paul engages in the problem of terrorism in a certain kind of way. This involves the Sophie Calle figure, who, some of you may know, is a performance artist about whom Paul writes in this novel. And then she makes art out of your writing about her in the novel, if I remember correctly.
Auster: Well, I should explain about Sophie Calle. This character is called Maria Turner. She’s an American woman. Sophie Calle is a French woman. The only thing that pertains to Sophie in this novel is a few of the works that Maria Turner did early in her career are the same as what Sophie did. I asked her permission, and so there’s a little acknowledgement. But these things that are recounted here in this excerpt have nothing to do with Sophie. Alright. Mark picked these, so I’m just going along.
“The next morning, she caught a flight from La Guardia to New Orleans, checked into a hotel, and bought herself a black wig. For three days she made inquiries at dozens of hotels trying to track down the man’s whereabouts. She discovered him at last, and for the rest of the week she walked behind him like a shadow, taking hundreds of photographs, documenting every place he went to. She kept a written diary as well. And when the time came for him to go back to New York, she returned on an earlier flight in order to be waiting at the airport for a last sequence of pictures as he stepped off the plane.
“It was a complex and disturbing experience for her. Left her feeling that she had abandoned her life for kind of nothingness. As though she’d been taking pictures of things that weren’t there. The camera was no longer an instrument that recorded presences. It was a way of making the world disappear, a technique for encountering the invisible.”
Ah, so I see why you picked this passage.
Taylor: By the way, I neglected to mention that Paul has a new novel that will be out in November entitled simply Invisible. I want to take that passage as a point of departure for another photograph, which is at the beginning of The Invention of Solitude, the first work of Paul’s that I read. It is simply remarkable work. And I want to read a brief passage here from Roland Barthès alongside of the text that Paul just read and then ask him to read one more paragraph from The Invention of Solitude:
“With the Photograph, we enter into flat Death. One day, leaving one of my classes someone said to me with disdain: ‘You talk about death very flatly.’ — As if the horror of Death were not precisely its platitude! The horror is this: nothing to say about the death of the one whom I love most, nothing to say about her photograph, which I contemplate without ever being able to get to the heart of it, to transform it. The only ‘thought’ I can have is that at the end of this first death, my own death is inscribed; between the two, nothing more than waiting; I have no other resource than this irony: to speak ‘the nothing to say.'”
Reading the first paragraph of The Invention of Solitude was when I knew Paul Auster was a real writer. Could you read that?
Auster: This was written a long time ago, more than 30 years ago. O.K., this is the beginning of the book:
“One day there is life. A man, for example, in the best of health, not even old, with no history of illness. Everything is as it was, as it will always be. He goes from one day to the next, minding his own business, dreaming only of the life that lies before him. And then, suddenly, it happens. There is death. The man lets out a little sigh, he slumps down in his chair, and it is death. The suddenness of it leaves no room for thought, gives the mind no chance to seek out a word that might comfort him. We are left with nothing but death, the irreducible fact of our own mortality. Death after a long illness we can accept with resignation. Even accidental death we can ascribe to fate. But for a man to die of no apparent cause, for a man to die simply because he was a man, brings us so close to the invisible boundary between life and death that we no longer know which side we are on. Life becomes death, and it as if this death has owned this life all along. Death without warning. Which is to say: life stops. And it can stop at any moment.”
Am I going to be reading about this photo?
Taylor: We’re going to come back to that, the text from Leviathan along with this, the photograph and its relationship to representation in absence. The Invention of Solitude begins with a photograph of absence. There, the photograph is torn, and it’s all about the person who’s not there. Two pages after this text that you just read, you write of your father: “It was never possible for him to be where he was. For as long as he lived he was somewhere else between here and there, but never really here and never really there. Between here there but never really here.” That’s something about the space of writing and literature, it seems to me. So can you think about that and the photograph.
Auster: Well, just to point out, I’m sure some people have read the book, but not everyone in this room. My father’s mother shot and killed her estranged husband when my father was seven years old in 1919, and this is a picture of the family. When I first looked at this picture, it was after my father died. I was going through the house. I didn’t notice this, but there was this chair in the photograph. If you look very closely, you can see a pair of hands. It was obviously my grandfather sitting in a chair holding the kid. It had an eerie, tormenting effect on me, I have to say. She just expunged him from what was probably the best photograph of the whole family archive.
Taylor: But so much of your writing is about absence and about what’s not there, so that the figure of that which cannot be figured is precisely what you’re trying to figure so often.
Auster: It’s hard to talk about it, you know. It’s a sense one walks around with, and I think it has to do with this feeling of the transience of everything. These are feelings you don’t have until you reach, well, at least adolescence. Before that, children aren’t thinking about this. But once you understand that you’re mortal, and once people around you start dying, you understand how precarious everything is and how everything hangs in the balance every instant. And I think I’m trying to talk about that in a lot of the things that I’ve written.
Taylor: I use the phrase advisedly in asking you to think about the space of writing or the ‘space of literature,’ which, of course, is borrowed from Maurice Blanchot. There are some other fatherly ghosts to whom I want to return, because ghosts are obviously also something you think and write about. The title of this book is The Invention of Solitude, and I’d like to have you think a little bit about solitude and what’s going on with solitude. In the early 1970s, you and Lydia Davis and Gary Hill hung out for a while up around Rhinebeck. And at least some of the early translations of Blanchot came out of that time, I think. Gary Hill, if you don’t know, is a remarkably sophisticated video artist and has what I think is an amazing video called The Incidence of Catastrophe. It sort of plays off of Blanchot’s writing about disaster, although it consists of a prolonged film of Gary naked on a stage with Blanchot’s text, Thomas the Obscure, projected on to this body.
Lydia Davis did one of the first translations of Blanchot under the title The Gaze of Orpheus, in which The Space of Literature was included. I want to read a brief passage from The Space of Literature as a way of coming back to this theme of solitude. This is Blanchot:
“The time of the absence of time is not dialectical. What appears in it is the fact that nothing appears. The being that lies deep within the absence of being. The being that is there when there is nothing. That is no longer when there is something, as though there were beings only through the loss of being, when being is lacking. The reversal that constantly refers us back to this presence as absence. To absence is affirmation of itself, affirmation in which nothing is affirmed. In which nothing ceases to be affirmed. In the aggravation of the indefinite. This movement is not dialectical.”
Your books are haunted by absence and filled with solitude: empty rooms, locked rooms. Even your own stay in jail in 1968 figures — and I use the word advisedly — figures those who are there by not being there. What’s the relationship between solitude and writing?
Auster: This book is divided into two parts. The first part is written in the first person, and it’s entitled Portrait of an Invisible Man. It’s about my father and his sudden unexpected death. The second part is called The Book of Memory, and that’s written in the third person, even though the character A is really myself. So I’m talking about myself in the third person, and it is a book of many references to writers, painters, artists of one kind or another, philosophers. I think of it almost as a collective work.
I came to the startling conclusion, as I was working on this thing, that when a person is most alone you understand that it’s impossible to be alone. Because we are all inhabited by other people. The very fact that we can say the words “I am alone” already proves that we’ve been formed by other people. Because we don’t learn language by ourselves. You learn it through other people, and so every person is connected to other people, even when physically isolated. I know it sounds very basic, but it’s an astonishing thought because we complain so much about how lonely we are, and, finally, we’re not.
Taylor: Is loneliness the same as solitude?
Auster: No. No. They’re very different. English has that distinction, not all languages do. For me, solitude is a very neutral term. It just means someone isolated from others, neither positive nor negative. Loneliness is someone who is isolated from others and longing to be with others.
Taylor: Why does solitude have to be invented?
Auster: I don’t know. I don’t even know what the title means. I know it means something. The phrase —
Taylor: I thought it meant nothing.
Auster: The phrase popped into my head. And I said, “That’s the title of the book.” But we could be here for two hours trying to explain what it means. I think it’s about growing up, inventing yourself.
Taylor: Inventing also involves, in a certain way, going into solitude. Let’s shift here. I haven’t been sure of the way to phrase this question, but the heading under which I finally decided to think about it was what we might call the tactility of writing. One of the challenges of communicating with Paul is he doesn’t use e-mail. You write in a room that might not be locked, but it surely is solitary. And you write, at least according to what you’ve written, on a 1962 Olympia typewriter, with which, if I might say, you have a complicated relationship.
In your text The Story of My Typewriter, you write, “I have trouble thinking of my typewriter as an it. Slowly, but surely, the ‘it’ has turned into a ‘him.’” So what’s the deal with this typewriter? And why don’t you write on a computer?
Auster: Alright. That’s a lot of questions at once. The context in which those remarks were made see were in response to a painting that a friend of mine, Sam Messer, a very good painter, made of my typewriter. For some reason, about ten years ago he got interested in my writing machine. God knows why, but he churned out scores of paintings, maybe 100 paintings, of the typewriter. Then, at one point, he asked me to write a text for a little book that he wanted to do of some of the paintings. So it was in response to his portraits. They are portraits of the typewriter, and they’re all different. Some of them are very angry, some of them are very serene. I understood that he saw this typewriter had a personality and different moods. And I really had never stopped to think about it. To me, it was just an inanimate object that I typed up my work on. I don’t even compose it on the typewriter; I do everything by hand. So it’s just a machine to type up on.
Why don’t I use a computer? It’s because every time I tried to use it I’d push the wrong buttons. I got so frustrated that I decided not to have one. I like my old way of writing. It’s not a fetish, it’s just a comfort. A comfort.
Taylor: The issue of tactility is interesting. I guess part of the reason I ask the question is that in my own work there’s certain things that I write in hand with pencil — it’s always pencil — and certain things that I write on the computer all the time, but it’s different kind of writing. So it does seem to me, and I don’t know if it’s the same for you, that there is something about the tactility of the pencil and the writing that is more than just — there’s a different dynamic there.
Auster: I can’t even think with my hands in this position on a keyboard. It’s always holding the pen.
Taylor: Do you use a pen or pencil?
Auster: Both. It depends. If I’m feeling unsure of myself I use a pencil.
Taylor: Do you erase or cross out?
Auster: Cross out. It’s faster. And I do have this eerie feeling sometimes, especially with the fountain pen that I use, that the words are coming out of my body. I think a lot of people feel this.
Taylor: Right. Manuscript: by hand.
Auster: Siri thinks it’s crazy, but I do have that feeling sometimes.
Taylor: Alright. Let’s return to the issue of fathers or father figures. After graduating from Columbia you spent time in France where you came to know Edmond Jabès. And, as you know, it was Edmond who first suggested that I get in touch with you. It was through Edmond that we first had contact. How did you meet Jabès? Well, maybe I should say who Jabès is.
Auster: Edmond Jabès. Egyptian writer who wrote in French. Born in 1912. Died at around 1992, I think. A remarkable writer. Translated into English by Rosemarie Waldrop. I think the books are still around.
Taylor: Yeah, Wesleyan University Press Publishing.
Auster: Yeah, Wesleyan University Press. A writer very difficult to describe. Unlike anybody. He’s not a poet. He’s not a novelist. It’s something utterly original and different. Edmond and I became really close. He was like a literary grandfather to me. I met him through a chain of friends, poets in Paris. I remember the most memorable thing, I think, he ever said to me about writing, which I think about almost every day. I think it was the early 80s, just after Siri and I had gotten married and we went to Paris. We went out to dinner with Edmond and his wife, Arlette, and afterwards we were walking down the street. And the women were in front of us, and we were behind.
He had just published a book called The Little Book of Subversion. And he said, “Well, you know every writer wants to feel as if he’s subversive, that he’s changing people’s perceptions of things, that he’s shaking up the world in some way.” Then he said, “The only thing that’s really subversive in writing is clarity.” And he said, “You know, you can be a poet and you think you’re making some kind of revolutionary gesture by destroying syntax, for example, and you can scatter your words all over the page and think that you’ve struck a blow at the status quo. But,” he said, “Nobody cares. It doesn’t make any difference at all.” He said, “But think of somebody like Kafka, a writer so clear that, you know you can grasp everything he’s saying and yet he continues to haunt us.” That’s the great message I learned from Edmond, among many others. Something that I’ve tried to live up to in my own work.
Taylor: Let me raise an issue that’s also complicated. The institute, as I’ve suggested, and indeed this series, is concerned one way or another with the issue of religion and an expanded sense of that term. I suspect that you resist the suggestion, but it has always seemed to me that your work is implicitly haunted by religion in countless ways. It seems to me that that haunting has something to do with a certain kind of Judaism. Edmond was, of course, one of the most remarkable poets to write out of the Jewish tradition in a certain way. In a conversation I once had with him I made the mistake of referring to him as a Jewish poet. He immediately interrupted me and said, “I am not a Jewish poet. I am a poet and a Jew.”
Edmond’s work, like yours, is, among other things, a meditation on language. His works might be understood as a midrash inspired by the Kabbalah in certain ways. I want to read brief lines from two books. One from El or the Last Book: “Out of the nothingness of the book a deeper nothing strove towards light. Conniving with a rebel point.” Kabbalah, of course. “Conniving with a rebel point, which the infinite dark had hidden from me.” And then from The Book of Shares: “What if the book were only the infinite memory of a word lacking; thus absence speaks to absence.”
My question is, if we assume an expanded notion of religion, what place if any does it have? And more specifically, your Jewish heritage, does it play any role in your writing?
Auster: Wow, there’s a big question mark. It’s very complicated. I don’t want to give a frivolous answer. So let me try to be serious about this. As a young person I was sent to Hebrew school, the way a lot of kids were at that time. I went through a bar mitzvah without any interest in it at all. It didn’t mean anything to me. But then a little later, when I was about 14, I started wrestling with these questions. Is there a god? Is there not a god? You know, all the big metaphysical questions that you start to ask yourself.
And I started meeting with a rabbi every week. We talked for probably about six months. He was very kind to me. He gave me things to read. Many discussions. And I realized as these six months had gone by that I had no interest in being a practicing Jew. I finally couldn’t bring myself to believe in any of it. And we parted amicably. He was very, very kind to me. He understood my decision.
That being said, I still have a tremendous interest in the Jewish tradition. A certain kind of thinking, which I think is more political and social than spiritual. I talk about it in this book, because there’s a long meditation on the book of Jonah, which is a very interesting book. I’m sure you’re all familiar with it. Jonah is the shortest book of the Bible. It’s the only prophetic work written in the third person, and it’s almost like a comic story. It’s funny, the story of Jonah.
And yet it’s read on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. And you begin to ask yourself, “Why? Why would that funny story be reserved for the most serious day of the year?” Well, when you think about it, see, this to me is the great gift of Jewish thinking to the world. God says to Jonah, “Go out and preach against the Ninevites because they’re sinning and they bother me.” Well, the Ninevites were the enemies of the Jews, the Israelites. I mean, it would have been like telling a Jew in 1938 to go to Nazi Germany and start railing against the Germans.
Jonah doesn’t want to go. And so he runs away and then there’s the whole business of the whale, the ship and the whale and so on and so forth. But finally God catches up with him, of course. And he goes, and he preaches to the Ninevites. And surprisingly enough, they all repent. And Jonah is really angry. He wanted to see them burn. He wanted to see them all die. And he goes up on the hill to watch the city, waiting for the big fire to come. And it doesn’t come.
The message is this: ultimately, in spite of what people say about the chosen people and so on, the Jewish idea of justice is that there can’t be justice for one people, one group. There has to be justice for everybody, or there is no such thing as justice. So I think the first universal idea about mankind is in this kind of story. And there are many other elements in Jewish writing that would support this. So that’s what interests me.
In a funny way, I think the ideas that founded the United States are very similar to Jewish ideas. The Constitution seems to me something — well, you see, it’s about law and the rule of law over the rule of men. And this is what Judaism gave the world.
Taylor: Let’s come at the issue from a slightly different angle, although it’s related. And that’s the issue of language. Certainly your work is a prolonged meditation on language in many different contexts. The first work of fiction of yours that I read was The City of Glass, which is a remarkable work in so many ways. One of the central themes in that work, as in others, is the relationship between words and things or language and word. To frame this, I’d like to ask you to read two passages. One, a short passage from The Invention of Solitude. And second, the longer passage from Leviathan.
Auster: O.K, this is on page 32: “Never before have I been so aware of the rift between thinking and writing. For the past few days, in fact, I’ve begun to feel that the story I am trying to tell is somehow incompatible with language. That the degree to which it resists language is an exact measure of how closely I have come to saying something important. And that when the moment arrives for me to say the one truly important thing, assuming it exists, I will not be able to say it.”
Taylor: For me that’s a theological statement.
Auster: O.K., I wouldn’t resist that. Theological or spiritual. Alright, now in Leviathan on page 55 our narrator is talking about his friend Sachs, who was a writer who wrote one novel but mostly nonfiction and journalism, all kinds of articles. And he cranked them out very quickly. And so the narrator says the narrator is a novelist:
“Language has never been accessible to me in the way that it was for Sachs. I’m shut off from my own thoughts. Trapped in a no man’s land between feeling and articulation. No matter how hard I try to express myself I can rarely come up with more than a confused stammer. Sachs never had any of these difficulties. Words and things matched up for him. Whereas for me they are constantly breaking apart, flying off in 100 different directions. I spend most of my time picking up the pieces and gluing them back together. But Sachs never had to stumble around like that, hunting through garbage dumps and trash bins, wondering if he hadn’t fit the wrong pieces next to each other.
“His uncertainties were of a different order. But no matter how hard life became for him in other ways, words were never his problem. The act of writing was remarkably free of pain for him. When he was working well he could put words down on the page as fast as he could speak them. It was a curious talent. And because Sachs himself is hardly even aware of it, he seemed to live in a state of perfect innocence, almost like a child, I sometimes thought. Like a prodigious child playing with his toys.”
Taylor: And it’s precisely that innocence that is lost and stolen, to be sure. So language – in the first passage that you read there’s a certain sense in which it is precisely the failure of language that is somehow its success.
Auster: Well, as I said elsewhere in a little text I wrote when I was an undergraduate at Columbia, language gives us the world and it takes it away from us all at the same time, the same breath. You know we couldn’t exist as human beings without language. We couldn’t think. We couldn’t speak. We couldn’t communicate in the ways we do. And yet language is remarkably crude, it seems to me. And I think this is the frustration that everyone feels, and particularly writers who are wrestling with this every day. Because language necessarily breaks things down into categories.
I’m looking at feet here. You know, everyone’s wearing shoes in this room. And I can say the word shoe, and it can describe how everybody in this room has shoes on. But what about the particulars of all the shoes? Those are black and these are brown and those are green over there. And I see black and white sneakers over there. And suddenly things become very, very complex. We have the words to express this. But when you’re dealing with things that are very complicated and elusive, it becomes almost impossible. And it’s as if you’re banging your head against the wall.
I just got finished reading the first volume of Beckett’s Letters, which have just been published. And there’s a passage, very interesting, which he wrote when he was young, around 30 years old. And he’s writing to a German person that he had met. He’s talking about the world behind a veil of language. He felt he just couldn’t get through to what he was trying to say. Perhaps on the other side was nothingness. But he felt so inadequate to the task. He wanted to rip through that veil, and he didn’t know if he had the means to do it.
I think it expresses very well what writers feel. And I think for him, just in parentheses, I think this frustration, which came out of his relation with English in particular, is the reason why he started writing in French.
Taylor: And Beckett, I know, is another of your ghosts. And in certain way — I mean, of course, his great work, The Unnamable — it’s precisely “unnamability” that makes writing, at the same time, impossible and unavoidable. I can’t go on and must go on.
But let’s shift from the problem of unnamability to naming, because in all of your fiction names are so important. And so many of your proper names are improper. You play with names. You have characters that are named for colors. You have anagrams of your own name, anagrams of Siri’s name. You have your daughter’s name, your son’s name. What’s going on with all this business about names and naming and doubling and twinning?
Auster: Well, in the case of Ghosts where all the characters have the names of colors, they are all real names, too. People have the name Brown and White and Grey and Green and Black. These are real names. I think what I was trying to do with that was — because talking about language, the words for colors are the most interesting things. You can’t define what a color is without experiencing the color. You can’t tell a blind person what blue is. You can’t do it. And so for me, this was some kind of metaphor of the specificity of human life. You can’t know a person until you experience that person and penetrate that person.
So it looks very abstract. But for me, I was trying to make it very, very concrete. Siri though, you see, I have to say, yes. In Leviathan there is a character named Iris, which is the anagram of Siri’s name. But the important thing to remember is Siri’s first novel, The Blindfold, was about a graduate student at Columbia University named Iris. She started it. And what I did was make a trans-fictional marriage between my character and the lost character from her novel. I wanted to give her a happy ending by marrying my character.
Taylor: So this is sort of inter-textuality on steroids.
Auster: On steroids? On love is what it is.
Taylor: Time’s slipping away. But I do want to talk a little bit about terror, not terrorism but terror. So much of your writing explores a world that is terrific. And the word is double, the notion of terrific, both marvelous and threatening in its incomprehensibility. I think they are inseparable. Man in the Dark, your most recent published novel (but not written one), has some distinctively different strands I want to get to in a minute. You write, at one point, “That’s what I do when sleep refuses to come. I lie in bed and tell myself stories. They might not add up to much, but as long as I’m inside them they prevent me from thinking about things I would prefer to forget.” The “story” is an important category for you. And certainly one of the reasons we tell ourselves stories, I think, is precisely what you’re after here. But it seems to me that’s only part of what stories do, and certainly part of what your stories do. Because your stories — and this is a Blanchot moment I think — they turn you toward that which turns away and that which turns you away. That is, the stories also bring you into proximity with precisely what you want to avoid. So, it seems to me, there’s a double play going on there.
Auster: Well, this is a particular case. He is trying to forget. But, of course, he can’t. This is just a vain attempt to ward off the evil spirits, so to speak. Stories, for all of us, I think, function as some way of penetrating the world. Without stories I don’t think we could even understand the world. Because what they do is simplify, they eliminate. In order to tell a story you have to ignore about 99.9 percent of the world in order to focus on the one thing you’re trying to express. And by making things with these clean lines as in a drawing, you begin to see. Because the world is very confusing. And painting serves the same function visually. Everything’s swimming, swimming. There’s so many things going on in this room at this moment. But to do a drawing of every single detail would be very boring. It wouldn’t even look interesting. So there is this editing and shaping in the act of telling or creating that in some way expresses our very humanity.
Taylor: Right. And yet to come back to the issue of — I don’t know what to call it — chance, let’s say, it’s also the case that part of what one does when one narrativizes, if I can use that word, is try in a certain sense to mediate the aleatory, to mediate chance in certain ways. There’s an interview somewhere, I can’t find it here, but you say something like, “I can’t understand why people keep calling these coincidences.” In a certain sense, chance is the mechanism of reality. So, on the one hand, narrative seeks a certain continuity and thereby to smooth over precisely that which interrupts it, while, on the other hand, your writing is precisely an effort to stage the interruption, it seems to me.
Auster: I’m trying to write about the world as I experience it or have it experienced it all my life. And there are random things that happen, accidents. We have that word, accident — philosophically and also just physically. We have accidents, that which is not necessary. It happens. Contingency. Life is made up of all these unforeseen events. It would be absurd to deny that this is not true. At the same time, I don’t mean to say that everything in the world is random. I have never said that. We have the ability to make choices, make decisions, make plans, think ahead. But so often our goals are thwarted by something we weren’t expecting.
I think my books are a lot about that. And I’m often starting novels, for some reason or another, not always but a number of the books, at a moment of crisis. Somebody has just lost something or someone has died or someone is in a fix of one kind or another. And so his or her life is at a crossroads, changing. I’m interested in what happens then. How do people keep going? How do people reinvent themselves? Or how do people fall to pieces?
Taylor: Man in the Dark is a wonderful title. It seemed to me to be a novel that, if not political, was certainly in response to political events that were going on in a way that some of your others have not been. And part of what lies at the root of the novel is a profound conviction that ideas matter. The novel, if you haven’t read it, concerns a retired book critic by the name of August Brill who imagines basic parallel universes. In one, America is at war with itself rather than with Iraq. So it’s definitely involved with the war in Iraq.
There’s one point at which you write that because he owns the war, he invented it. And everything that happens or is about to happen is in his head. Eliminate that head and the war stops — it’s that simple. I’d like you to read, this will be the last I ask you to read, a bit from the novel that gets at some of these issues that you’re probing here. Multiple realities.
Auster: I should say, too, that a lot of the book was partly inspired by something that happened to good friends of mine. David Grossman, the Israeli novelist who’s a very close friend, lost his son Uri in the Lebanon War in 2006, a 20 year old boy. And it was a devastating loss for them, of course. And when this happened I understood that this book that had been rumbling around inside me finally found the focus. There is the death of a young man in this book. But a lot of the story, particularly the first half of the novel, is this imaginary world that Brill has invented. And so this is inside that imaginary world in this head, the one he’s invented so he won’t have to think about the things he doesn’t want to think about:
“She said I was going back. Is that true?
Yes. But first I have to tell you why. Listen carefully, Brick, and then give me an honest answer.
Putting his arms on the table, Frisk leans forward and says: Are we in the real world or not?
How should I know? Everything looks real. Everything sounds real. I’m sitting here in my own body, but at the same time I can’t be here, can I? I belong somewhere else.
You’re here, all right. And you belong somewhere else.
It can’t be both. It has to be one or the other.
Is the name Giordano Bruno familiar to you?
No. Never heard of him.
A sixteenth-century Italian philosopher. He argued that if God is infinite, and if the powers of God are infinite, then there must be an infinite number of worlds.
I suppose that makes sense. Assuming you believe in God.
He was burned at the stake for that idea. But that doesn’t mean he was wrong, does it?
Why ask me? I don’t know the first thing about any of this. How can I have an opinion about something I don’t understand?
Until you woke up in that hole the other day, your entire life had been spent in one world. But how could you be sure it was the only world?
Because… because it was the only world I ever knew.
But now you know another world. What does that suggest to you, Brick?
I don’t follow.
There’s no single reality, Corporal. There are many realities. There’s no single world. There are many worlds, and they all run parallel to one another, worlds and anti-worlds, worlds and shadow-worlds, and each world is dreamed or imagined or written by someone in another world. Each world is the creation of a mind.”
Taylor: That’s a fine summation of writing in fiction and of its effect. I want to leave some time for questions. So let me try to draw this to a close, and, actually, this will link back to Siri in a way. Siri’s father taught at St. Olaf College, and she grew up at St. Olaf where many Scandinavians are. Her heritage is Norwegian. And in her most recent book, American —
Auster: The Sorrows of an American.
Taylor: The Sorrows is a marvelous novel, in which she incorporates passages that she found that her father had written before he died. He taught linguistics at St. Olaf. For me, St. Olaf’s claim to fame is that it’s the home of the Soren Kierkegaard Library. I once spent several days at the Kierkegaard Library going through the microfilms of all of Kierkegaard’s handwritten manuscripts. And much to my surprise I discovered that Kierkegaard doodled. His doodles had never been published, and I eventually published them. And here’s one of them.
So I want to draw this discussion to closure by talking about tightropes or tightrope walkers, which is what this is for Kierkegaard. I want to do that by returning to an event that took place on August 7, 1974. A man by the name of Philippe Petit walked across a tightrope strung between the twin towers. He published a book on this stunt entitled To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk between the Twin Towers. You first encountered Philippe Petit on the streets of Paris many years ago when he was a street performer and had been fascinated by him ever since. You actually went so far as to translate a text of his entitled On the High Wire.
And in that Philippe Petit writes of the tightrope walker: “He measures space, feels out the void, weighs distances, watches over the state of things, takes in the position of each object around him, trembling.” Kierkegaard. He savors his solitude. He knows that if he makes it across he will be a high wire walker. Perhaps you could describe your writing as a high wire act. What makes Philippe Petit so fascinating to you?
Auster: Well, those are my words, the English words I translated. I feel that I could have written that about myself. I’ve admired Philippe now for — oh, well, when did I meet him? Nineteen seventy-one was the first time I saw him. So it goes back a long ways. Many of you probably saw the film, right? Man on Wire. It won the Academy Award for best documentary. And there’s Philippe, you know 60 year old Philippe talking about his 24 year old self. But there was footage in this film, Mark, that I had never seen, of the walk which he did before the World Trade Center in Paris between the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral. So there was some film footage. And at one point Philippe is on the wire and he takes out some pins, juggling pins. And he starts juggling on the wire.
And as I was watching the film I started to cry. Because I had never seen anything more beautiful than this. It was absolutely useless. Nothing was accomplished by this except the beauty of a human being doing this absurd and sublimely wonderful thing.
Taylor: Sort of like baseball.
Auster: Well, it’s sort of like saying, “You know, this is a fellow human being doing this and his ability to do this enhances me as a human being.” Rather than all the things that make you ashamed of being a human that we encounter every day. Someone like Philippe makes you happy.
Taylor: Yeah, and also the figure of the tightrope I think is really quite interesting. Kierkegaard says at one point — and by the way Kierkegaard as a general noun, not a proper name, it means cemetery, kirkegård — he says that death is a good dancing partner. And part of the allure, part of the fascination of the tightrope is, of course, the danger, the terror of falling, and yet the balance maintained in all of that. I’d like to conclude by asking you to comment on a remark you once made in which you described your work as “Coming out of a very deep nihilism. The fact of our own morality.” But then you add, and this is the point that is crucial for the balancing act that your writing so brilliantly sustains: “And yet, at the same time, I’ve wanted to express the beauty and the extraordinary happiness of feeling yourself alive.”
Auster: Well, that’s it. It’s a position that’s very difficult to maintain, of absolute honesty all the time. And because, yes, the world can be a very bleak terrible disgusting place, and men are doing horrible things to one another. At the same time, there are such joys about being alive, so many beautiful things that I don’t want to descend into total bleakness. I just think it would be a dishonest position. But nor do I want to turn my back on the darkness either. So you’re living in both worlds all the time.
Taylor: Paul, thank you very, very much. We deeply appreciate it. We do have a bit of time for a few questions.
Question 1: Given that you were saying that you write to some extent to achieve clarity, like a painter, I was wondering if you would write if there were no audience to read your work. Whether it’s partly just to come to some understanding personally.
Auster: Well, the fact is I would. I had the very interesting experience when I was starting to write fiction of getting rejected all the time. No one wanted to publish my books. So I wrote the first volume of The New York Trilogy, those are my first novels, City of Glass. And it was rejected by 17 publishers I think it was. During the year and a half I waited to get a publisher, I wrote the second book of The New York Trilogy, but with no hope of having a publisher. I was into the third when I finally got somebody who was going to do it.
And I understood then that I didn’t care. I was going to write and whether someone published it or not was secondary. I had to do it. It’s better to be published than not to be published. But still, I would have done it anyway.
Question 2: My question is about stories. Do you think it’s possible to grab the substance, the essence of things happening with someone, let’s say at a turning point of his or her life, as you mentioned. You are interested in that. Is it possible to grab the substance without simplifying what’s happening around and with the person?
Auster: It’s impossible to do, to tell any story without simplifying. Because if you want to give the complete account of anybody’s activities, then you’d probably have to record every little ache that goes on in a body during a day. Every stubbed toe, right? Every time you have an itch. Every time you have to blow your nose. All these things, that’s reality. This is what we’re living. But who really wants to tell the story in which we’re just scratching and blowing our noses while we’re suffering great love loss or, you know, an international catastrophe is going on? We’re living on so many levels at once that it’s impossible to get them all in.
I suppose you could write a novel, maybe, that it could be about a thousand pages, five minutes in the life of somebody. You know, that’s all possible, but I’m not interested in that. And what I’m doing is telling tales, I suppose. And tales necessarily eliminate everything that is not apropos of the thing you’re trying to tell.
Question 3: Death has come up a few times in this lecture. What do you think of the equally frightening alternative of immortality?
Auster: I’ve never really considered it because I certainly don’t believe in an afterlife. But if you want my opinion, it is frightening. Terribly frightening. It would be horrible. Therefore thank goodness for death, I suppose.
Question 4: We didn’t really discuss your previous work as a translator at all, but I was wondering how your experience translating other authors into English influenced your own writing.
Auster: I don’t think it influenced my writing at all, but it helped me learn how to become a writer. There’s a difference. I think translation is a great thing for young people to do, when you’re starting out and you want to be a poet or a short story writer, playwright. But you don’t really know what you’re doing yet and you don’t really have anything to say. It usually takes some years on this earth before you’re ready to write fiction. Poetry is often done by younger people, but still you have to have been around for a while.
I think what’s great about translation is the pressure’s off. You don’t have to be the original genius of the universe; you’re someone who is confronting someone else’s text, texts one must admire deeply to do. You just can’t translate anything. You have to enter into the very flesh and bone of a text. You have to break it apart and rebuild it in your own language. And in the act of doing that you begin to feel more comfortable working with your own language. I think it’s a great exercise. Ezra Pound always recommended translation to young poets. And some of the best translations are by very young people.
Question 5: You told the story about keeping a pencil in your pocket and how that’s how you became a writer. But when did you really realize that you wanted to be a writer? And do you believe in the idea of vocation?
Auster: Yeah. Needless to say the very last paragraph of that little story is a bit whimsical. But I nevertheless do always carry around a pen in my pocket. I think I was about 15 or 16 when I really got serious about it and I thought it was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I’d always been writing, even at eight or nine or ten I was writing poetry. Terrible, terrible poems. And I remember when I was in the sixth grade I wrote a short detective novel. I remember I had a fountain pen with green ink. And I made pictures of all the characters. And the teacher allowed me to read it in installments to the class at the end of every day for ten minutes. So that was my first work, I suppose when I was 12.
But by around 16, I thought, “This is the only thing I want to do.” And I think it’s something — it is a vocation. It’s a calling. It’s not a profession. There’s no such thing as a professional writer. Because just about anything is better than being a writer. It’s a terrible way to live your life. And only people who are really crazy enough and even ill — I think it’s a disease — would want to shut themselves up in a room all their lives, just putting words on pieces of paper. When there’s so much else to do.
Question 6: Alright. Hopefully, this will be a good question. I feel like there are some writers who are writing one story their whole life until they get it or get closer. And then there are some writers who are writing multiple stories. Do you feel like you’re writing one story that you’ll never be able to finish? Or do you feel like you’re writing many stories?
Auster: You know it’s a bit of both with me. I can see certain obsessions keep popping up in my work. But, at the same time, I’ve tried to explore different sides of myself. I mean, some things I’ve done are more comic than others. Different structures, different voices, different kinds of stories. And, you know, this is not an arrogant statement at all, but the person I think about often, who helps me to be brave enough to go in unexpected corners, is Shakespeare. He’s the one who wrote the best tragedies but also the best comedies. And to explore these different parts of yourself I think keeps you going in an interesting way.
Taylor: Hawthorne’s been really important for you. Can you say why?
Auster: Definitely. You know, it’s hard to say why. I think there’s something in his sensibility that just resonates with me. And the funny thing is I particularly like his notebooks. The American Notebooks are among the greatest things in American literature. I don’t know why. I could give you a long talk about Hawthorne, but he is someone I think about a lot and go back to a lot.
Taylor: Paul, we really appreciate your generosity with your time. And thank you very much.
Auster: Thank you, Mark.