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26 March 2017updated 01 May 2024 10:53am

“In America nobody cares what writers think about anything”: Paul Auster on art, life and Donald Trump

The cult author speaks on the sudden rebirth of American activism and writing “the book of his life”.

By Erica Wagner

On 1 May 2024, it was announced that the novelist Paul Auster had died at the age of 77 in Brooklyn. This interview was originally published in the 22 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman.

Not every author gets a trick from ­David Blaine as a birthday present – but then, Paul Auster himself knows a thing or two about magic. Auster’s work has always been distinguished by the seductive games its author plays with the art of writing. His first published prose book, The Invention of Solitude, was both a memoir and an interrogation of the art of memoir. There is the clever intertextuality of his now-classic New York Trilogy, the eccentric absurdism of The Music of Chance. City of Glass, the first volume of the New York Trilogy, has just been adapted for the stage, and will open at the Lyric Hammersmith in London next month. He is a writer who pushes the boundaries of whatever form he turns to: he is also a bestselling author with a cultish fan base. Blaine has been a fan, I learn, since Mr Vertigo – Auster’s novel of magic and illusion – appeared in the Nineties. A chance encounter at a restaurant not long after the book was published led to a friendship, and some real-life magic in honour of Auster’s 70th birthday last month.

But then chance has always been at the heart of his work – not least 4 3 2 1, which he tells me is “the book of my life”. Before I hear about Blaine’s turn, Auster and I return to his teenage years, to the moment he has said absolutely changed his life. He was 14 and at summer camp. A group of boys went out on a hike and got caught in a thunderstorm. As they tried to shelter from the weather, the boy right beside him was struck by lightning and killed.

It is a story he has written of in The Red Notebook, a collection of true tales which appeared in 1995; he returned to it in Winter Journal, a memoir published five years ago. In 4 3 2 1, the near-900-page epic he has just produced, the lightning strike appears again. When I mention that summer day nearly six decades ago, I misremember the story and say that the other boy was a few feet away from Auster. He swiftly corrects me. “Inches,” he says. “A few inches.” It’s no wonder that since then he has been fascinated by the power of chance. “It changed my life,” he says of that moment. “I mean, it opened up a whole chasm of reflection about the instability of the world, the precariousness of reality itself and the . . . lack of a line between life and death.

“You’re alive one second, you’re dead the next, struck down by lightning. Which has a kind of cosmic force to it, doesn’t it?”

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That cosmic force is in full view in 4 3 2 1, which is not, in fact, a single novel, but four novels of four possible lives. Archie Ferguson is the protagonist of each book: but in each book, Archie takes a slightly different path early on – and the whole of the rest of his life changes as a result. He is the son of the energetic Rose Adler and the rather more staid Stanley Ferguson in every iteration of the story; every boy grows up in New Jersey, the metropolis of Manhattan beckoning in the near distance. His father is an appliance salesman, but in one story he is successful and Ferguson’s life goes one way; in another he is unsuccessful, and Ferguson’s life goes another way; and so on. The stories are interwoven, so the reader must keep all four Fergusons in her head at once. It is this layered effect that demonstrates how easily fractured a life can be. One Ferguson is held up against another, creating a palimpsest of voices and sensibilities.

Auster’s connection to 4 3 2 1 runs deep but the attachment is emotional rather than actual, he says. One of the Fergusons is killed by a bolt of lightning; in another thread, the protagonist’s dearest friend, Artie Federman, dies of a brain aneurism at summer camp. And, Auster admits, “You combine those two things, and they carry the emotional weight of the real story for me. And I think that event is what’s at the heart of the book. I mean, that’s the autobiographical source: being haunted by the death of that boy when I was 14. And I think this is what the whole novel is ultimately about.”

Ferguson is born in the same year as Auster, and in the same state; but this is not, the author stresses, an autobiographical novel. “It’s my chronology and my geography, but except for physical traits, it’s not really autobiographical in that sense.” Yes, he was athletic as a kid, as all the Fergusons are; they share a love of music and gravitate towards writing. “But so what?” he shrugs. “I mean, needless to say, a writer’s always drawing on his own experiences, so I could not have written the passages of Archie 3 going to London in 1967 without myself having been here then and smelled the smells of that London which doesn’t exist any more – because coal is not burning in the air the way it was then; Player’s cigarettes are not permeating the atmosphere; I don’t smell the damp wool that I used to smell.” He sounds perhaps a little regretful when he mentions cigarettes; a long-time smoker, he has turned to vaping. It’s been a while since he and I have met, and there’s a little more silver in his swept-back hair. In photographs Auster can look forbidding; in person, he has a quick laugh and a warm and easy manner, even when he’s still getting over jet lag.

Archie Ferguson is just hitting his teens when John F Kennedy is elected as president; in his first iteration, he is gripped by Kennedy from the first time he sees him on television and his fascination fuels a career as a journalist, one who reports from the front lines of the tumultuous Sixties, from the student protests on college campuses across the United States to the riots in Newark and at Attica Prison in upstate New York. Now, in 2017, a time of political turmoil, 4 3 2 1 offers a vivid reminder of the activism of those years – though that was never in its creator’s plan. He began the novel in spring 2013 “just two months”, he notes, “after Obama started his second term. So the next election was really far off. No one was thinking about it yet.” The book began life with a different title, too: Ferguson. A year later, however, Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri, and the title, Auster says, became “unusable”. It was as if history was running to catch up with him as he wrote. But that, he says, was always the point.

“I was trying to show how simultaneous all these things were,” he says of those tumultuous days. “I mean, everybody knows about the Selma-to-Montgomery march; there was the 50th anniversary a couple of years ago, and it’s a part of American history that we’re all familiar with. Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. But what everyone forgets is that the very next day, [Lyndon B] Johnson sent the marines in to Vietnam, and the real escalation began. That’s what’s interesting.” Auster’s political consciousness was awakened. “I watched it growing,” he says of the build-up to the Vietnam War. “It was quite extraordinary. I graduated from high school in ’65, but even before the Gulf of Tonkin [when a US destroyer exchanged fire with North Vietnamese torpedo boats in August 1964], before the real declaration of hostilities, we were there and we were doing things.”

He recalls what sounds like Sixties anti-communist propaganda. “A woman came to our high school to talk, a photographer named Dickey Chapelle. I remember her – she was giving a very pro-American, anti-communist speech about the importance of fighting in Vietnam. It was really a rabble-rouser speech. Within two or three years, she was dead. She was blown up, covering the war.” Chapelle, the first female war photographer to be killed in action, died in November 1965 when one of the US marines with whom she was patrolling triggered a tripwire that sent shrapnel flying. She was buried with full military honours. “It was a jolt,” Auster says now of her death; his tone is still shocked. “I mean, I knew things were going on, but she was so specific.”

Vietnam is a flashpoint in 4 3 2 1, as is the issue of race. Just after the US bombing of North Vietnam begins, Ferguson 1 – the one who becomes a journalist – asks a girl called Rhonda Williams out on a date; Rhonda turns him down, because she’s black and he’s white. As Auster writes, it was Rhonda who “politely kicked him in the face and taught him that the America he wanted to live in didn’t exist – and probably never would”. Auster points to America’s present predicament (for surely we must call it that) as a sign of Ferguson’s despair. The election of Barack Obama, he says, “revived racism in America in ways that we couldn’t have predicted, but that was the ultimate effect – that they couldn’t stand the idea that a black man was in office. And I tried to understand that those people hated him as much as I hate Trump. It’s true; and it’s very hard to understand that.” Wistfully, he recalls the 44th president of the United States. “Such a dignified, intelligent, graceful, worthy man, who always acquitted himself with the most elegant poise: really, a remarkable human being. We’d never had anybody like that. And a scandal-free administration for eight years. Everything above board. No crooks in there. No one on the take. But they hated him, and this gave us Trump, in the long run.” For a while, he says, he was one of those who held out hope for a Hillary Clinton victory, but: “Brexit was the jolt that made me understand that there was a good chance Trump would win.”

Auster has been vocal in his criticism of the new administration. It’s one of the reasons he is glad to be in Europe, because he sees the trip as an opportunity to raise his voice publicly against Donald Trump: “In America nobody cares what writers think about anything,” he says. He traces Trump’s mendacity back to the “birther” lie: the new president’s former insistence that Obama was born in Kenya.

“You know, in retrospect we can see this as Trump’s first great venture into political life using the big lie techniques of Joseph Goebbels. You just keep saying the same lie again and again and again, and people will start to think there’s something to it. And it’s frightening to know how weak-minded people are. Not everybody, but huge swaths of the population start to soften. ‘Why does he keep saying it? Well, there must be something to it, then.’”

Auster says he is “throwing his hat in the ring” to become president of PEN America, a post held at the moment by Andrew Solomon. Auster has been vice-president and secretary of the organisation, which defends free expression and promotes international literary fellowship, but never felt he wanted the top job, until now. He has been inspired by “the sudden rebirth of political activism in the United States. We haven’t seen the likes of these demonstrations and this pushback since the Sixties. I think it’s real: it’s profound and it’s here to stay. This is not Occupy Wall Street, something that’s going to blow away in a year or two. I think these people – Siri and myself included – we’re committed for the long haul, and we’ll do anything we can to keep fighting it.”

His wife is the writer Siri Hustvedt; they have a daughter, Sophie, a singer. Auster is keen to stress Hustvedt’s own commitment to political resistance, recalling with energy a rally on the steps of the New York Public Library the week before Trump’s inauguration. It was a gathering of writers at which many people read poems; Hustvedt chose “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, the verse engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty. “But she also gave a speech, which other people weren’t doing, and it was, I don’t know, about a page and a half of wonderfully tuned rhetoric. People were cheering after every sentence. So I knew I’d married this brilliant writer, but I didn’t know I’d married Rosa Luxemburg also!”

There is time for enjoyment as well as activism: which brings us back to the prestidigitations of David Blaine. Auster happened to be in Miami for his milestone birthday. The bookseller Mitchell Kaplan, a co-founder of the Miami Book Fair, threw a party for him that included performances by Blaine and Auster’s daughter. Leaning forward in his chair, he describes Blaine’s finale with the enthusiasm of a teenage Archie Ferguson. There was a huge jigsaw puzzle, made from a photograph of Auster, but it had a single piece missing. A volunteer from the audience then miraculously picked the one necessary piece from a box of hundreds of others – all of which, Auster assures me, were different. “I don’t know how he did this,” he says, shaking his head. “I don’t know, I don’t know how he did it. It could have been sleight of hand – but we were all watching, and you saw nothing. So I don’t know, I don’t know how he did it.” Which isn’t a bad description of the novelist’s art, when you come to think of it.

“4 3 2 1” is published by Faber & Faber
“City of Glass” will open at the Lyric Hammersmith, London W6, on 20 April

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This article appears in the 22 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution