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1 May 2024

Paul Auster’s literary legacy

The novelist, who has died at the age of 77 in Brooklyn, leaves behind a body of work haunted by the mysteries of life and death.

By Erica Wagner

“It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.” So begins City of Glass, the first book in what became Paul Auster’s acclaimed New York Trilogy. Published in 1985, it marked the arrival of a truly unique voice in fiction, one quite distinct from many of the currents in American writing at the time. This was not the minimalism of Raymond Carver, or the expansiveness of Tom Wolfe; this was work much more connected to the traditions of European literature in which Auster was steeped. Paul Auster, who has died at the age of 77 in Brooklyn – where he lived his wife, the writer Siri Hustvedt – leaves a lasting and distinctive legacy in English-language literature.

City of Glass, in which a writer of detective fiction is pulled both into and away from “the real world”, or the world at least as he has perceived it, reads like a mystery, but the real mystery at its heart is one of identity and the role that chance plays in all our lives. These issues would echo throughout Auster’s work, in novels such as Moon Palace (1989), The Music of Chance (1990) and The Book of Illusions (2002). Character names (including the author’s own) appear and reappear, and the figures in his books are subject to larger forces beyond their understanding.

He returned to these themes again and again, most notably perhaps in 4 3 2 1, published in 2017 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize. This expansive novel was a shift from the slim volumes that make up much of the rest of his oeuvre – which comprises dozens of works, including poetry, non-fiction, screenplays – and directly addressed what was to him one of life’s unanswerable questions. His first book, The Invention of Solitude, was a kind of memoir, published in 1982; the sudden death of his father plays a large role in it. But in 4 3 2 1 he drew in detail on the moment when, as a young teenager at a summer camp, a boy was killed in a lightning storm just inches from Auster.

It was an experience he had addressed in earlier books (The Red Notebook, Winter Journal) but here it was the hinge of a vast novel that considered in sequence the different paths a life might take. When we spoke about the novel at the time of its publication for this magazine, he was forthright about the effect that boyhood trauma had had on him. “It changed my life,” he said. “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?” This cosmic questioning would haunt his whole body of work. He published his final novel, Baumgartner, late last year.

Like another great American writer, Philip Roth, Paul Auster was born in the industrial city of Newark, New Jersey; he went to Columbia University before spending some years in France as a writer and translator along with his first wife, the writer Lydia Davis. The pair had a son, Daniel; in recent years Auster’s life was marked by tragedy. His young granddaughter died in 2021 while in Daniel’s care; some months later, in April 2022, Daniel himself died of a heroin overdose. With Hustvedt he had a daughter, Sophie, an actress and singer-songwriter. Hustvedt revealed Auster’s cancer diagnosis in the spring of last year.

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During his lifetime he was garlanded with honours: made Commandeur de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government, a laureate of the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Auster’s was a powerful voice for free speech, and for democracy in America: one of his last books was Bloodbath Nation, a passionate plea against America’s epidemic of gun violence; the text is accompanied by eerie images by his son-in-law, the photographer Spencer Ostrander.

His style was both spare and expansive, restrained and interrogatory. As the critic Lucy Sante wrote in an introduction to City of Glass, one of Auster’s greatest achievements was as a visionary of New York City. Like Walt Whitman and Stephen Crane (another Newark boy who made a remarkable life across the Hudson) before him, Auster invoked his beloved city in a manner that built it anew. Auster’s New York is “a realm within New York City”, Sante writes, “a current that runs along its streets, within its office buildings and apartment houses and helter-skelter through its parks – a force field charged by synchronicity and overlap, perhaps invisible but inarguably there, although it was never identified as such before Auster planted his flag.” Auster may have left us; his flag still waves over the city he created and recreated for us.

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