Paul Auster Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Newark, New Jersey, 3 February 1947. Education: Columbia University, New York, B.A. 1969, M.A. 1970. Career: Has had a variety of jobs, including merchant seaman, census taker, and tutor; creative writing teacher, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1986-90. Awards: Ingram Merrill Foundation grant, for poetry, 1975, 1982; PEN Translation Center grant, 1977; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship for poetry, 1979, and for creative writing, 1985; Cheavlier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, 1992; Prix Medicis Etranger, 1993; Independent Spirit Award, 1996.
Squeeze Play (as Paul Benjamin). London, Alpha-Omega, 1982; NewYork, Avon, 1984.
The New York Trilogy. London, Faber, 1987; New York, Penguin, 1990.
City of Glass. Los Angeles, Sun and Moon Press, 1985.
Ghosts. Los Angeles, Sun and Moon Press, 1986.
The Locked Room. Los Angeles, Sun and Moon Press, 1987.
In the Country of Last Things. New York, Viking, 1987; London, Faber, 1988.
Moon Palace. New York, Viking, 1989; London, Faber, 1990.
The Music of Chance. New York, Viking, 1990; London, Faber, 1991.
Leviathan. New York, Viking, and London, Faber, 1992.
Mr. Vertigo. New York, Viking, and London, Faber, 1994.
Timbuktu. New York, Holt, 1999.
Uncollected Short Story
"Auggie Wren's Christmas Story," in New York Times, 25 December 1990.
Eclipse (produced New York, 1977).
Smoke, Miramax Films, 1995; Blue in the Face (withWayne Wang), Miramax Films, 1995; Lulu on the Bridge: A Film, New York, Holt, 1998.
Unearth: Poems 1970-72. Weston, Connecticut, Living Hand, 1974.
Wall Writing: Poems 1971-75. Berkeley, California, Figures, 1976.
Fragments from Cold. New York, Parenthèse, 1977.
Facing the Music. New York, Station Hill, 1980.
Disappearances. New York, Overlook Press, 1988.
White Spaces. New York, Station Hill, 1980.
The Art of Hunger and Other Essays. London, Menard Press, 1982; expanded edition, New York, Penguin, 1997.
The Invention of Solitude. New York, Sun, 1982; London, Faber, 1988.
Ground Work: Selected Poems and Essays 1970-1979. London, Faber, 1990.
Smoke and Blue in the Face: Two Films. New York, Hyperion, 1995.
The Red Notebook and Other Writings. Boston, Faber and Faber, 1995.
Why Write? Providence, Rhode Island, Burning Deck, 1996.
Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure. New York, Holt, 1997.
Introduction, Hunger by Knut Hamsun, translated by Robert Bly. New York, Noonday Press, 1998.
Introduction, with David Cone, Things Happen for a Reason: The True Story of an Itinerant Life in Baseball by Terry Leach with Tom Clark. Berkeley, California, Frog, 2000.
Contributor, Edward Hopper and the American Imagination byDeborah Lyons and Adam D. Weinberg, edited by Julie Grau. New York, Norton, 1995.
Editor, The Random House Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry. London, Random House, 1982; New York, Vintage, 1984.
Editor and translator, The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert: A Selection. San Francisco, North Point Press, 1983.
Translator, A Little Anthology of Surrealist Poems. New York, Siamese Banana Press, 1972.
Translator, Fits and Starts: Selected Poems of Jacques Dupin. Weston, Connecticut, Living Hand, 1974.
Translator, with Lydia Davis, Arabs and Israelis: A Dialogue, by SaulFriedlander and Mahmoud Hussein. New York, Holmes and Meier, 1975.
Translator, The Uninhabited: Selected Poems of André de Bouchet. Weston, Connecticut, Living Hand, 1976.
Translator, with Lydia Davis, Jean-Paul Sartre: Life Situations. NewYork, Pantheon, 1977; as Sartre in the Seventies: Interviews and Essays, London, Deutsch, 1978.
Translator, with Lydia Davis, China: The People's Republic 1949-76, by Jean Chesneaux. New York, Pantheon, 1979.
Translator, with Françoise Le Barbier and Marie-Claire Bergère,China from the 1911 Revolution to Liberation. New York, Pantheon, 1979.
Translator, A Tomb for Anatole, by Stéphane Mallarmé. San Francisco, North Point Press, 1983.
Translator, Vicious Circles, by Maurice Blanchot. New York, StationHill, 1985.
Translator, On the High Wire, by Philippe Petit. New York, RandomHouse, 1985.
Translator, with Margit Rowell, Joan Miró: Selected Writings. Boston, Hall, 1986.
Translator and author of foreword, Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians by Pierre Clastres. New York, Zone Books, 1998.
Translator, with others, The Station Hill Blanchot Reader, edited byGeorge Quasha. Barrytown, New York, Station Hill, 1999.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, vol. 14, no. 1, Spring 1994 (entire issue devoted to Auster); Beyond the Red Notebook: Essays on Paul Auster edited by Dennis Barone, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.
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Paul Auster has frequently been called a "postmodern" novelist, perhaps in part because critics do not know what else to call a writer whose works include metaphysical detective stories, a dystopian fantasy, an extravagant bildungsroman, and an ambiguous parable of fate and chance. To the extent that the term denotes an ironic stance towards language and its uses, Auster is indeed postmodern; yet without surrendering this irony or foregoing the advantage of self-conscious narration, he has moved to a greater expansiveness of form and content. His later novels have not been hampered by embarrassment at asking big questions about the possibility of self-knowledge and personal redemption; rather, they have conceded to the reader the unmediated pleasures of character and story.
Such pleasures are rather scant in The New York Trilogy, the epistemological mystery novels that established Auster's reputation. What entertainment they provide is almost wholly cerebral: the delectation of intellectual puzzles that have little or no relation to a reality beyond the texts themselves. City of Glass, the first volume, is about a mystery novelist named Quinn whose attempt to live the life of the kind of hardened gumshoe he writes about ends in a tragic muddle. Not the least of the novel's ontological jokes is that the detective for whom Quinn is mistaken is named Paul Auster. Auster himself, or a simulacrum of him, appears in a scene in which the increasingly desperate Quinn goes to him for advice. Interrupted while composing an essay on the vanishing narrators of Don Quixote, Auster is unable to help; he is a writer, not a private investigator. This Paul Auster, however, is not the author of City of Glass. The "actual" author, it turns out, is a former friend of Auster's who heard the story from him and is convinced that Auster has "behaved badly throughout."
Ghosts extends the paradoxes about identity and fictive creation into a world of Beckett-like abstraction and austerity. White hires Blue to watch Black, who does little but write and watch back: "Little does Blue know, of course, that the case will go on for years." Not even violence can finally break this stasis, and as the narrator says at the end, "we know nothing."
A reader may get the feeling that The New York Trilogy is too clever for its own good, that Auster engages knotty intellectual issues partly to evade more troubling emotional ones. The Locked Room, the concluding volume, is nothing if not clever, yet it reveals a new openness in Auster's sensibility. The Paul Auster-like narrator is a young writer of promise whose life is taken over by the appearance, or disappearance, of his doppelgänger Fanshawe, his best friend from his youth. Fanshawe is presumed dead but has left his manuscripts in the care of the narrator, who sees them through publication and to a literary acclaim far surpassing that of his own work. As Fanshawe's appointed biographer, the narrator embarks on an obsessive investigation into the mystery of his friend's life, thereby discovering much about himself as about Fanshawe, for the lines separating their two identities are naturally convergent. The Locked Room may be no more than a game, but the stakes, which do not preclude the anguish that attends existential doubts about one's identity, are considerably higher than those in City of Glass and Ghosts.
The presence of a controlling author is not insisted upon in In the Country of Last Things, a nightmarish tale of total social breakdown in an unnamed city-state that could be New York some years in the future. This does not mean, however, that in this work Auster has resolved all doubts about the problematic relationship of language to reality. The narrator, a young woman named Anna Blume, comes to the city in search of a lost brother, only to be trapped in its round of violence, despair, and physical and spiritual poverty. She keeps a journal (the text of the novel) full of reflections on the inadequacy of words to describe a world where people scavenge viciously for garbage or plot their own suicides. Yet Anna, her lover, and her two remaining friends retain their decency if not their dignity. The truly lost, Auster suggests, may be those who have given up on language itself.
Language acquires a renewed immediacy and momentum in Moon Palace, one of Auster's most entertaining novels, and among his best. Its immensely complicated plot concerns the adventures of Marco Stanley Fogg, an orphan in the best Dickensian tradition, whose modest inheritance runs out in his senior year at Columbia University, consigning him—for reasons obscure even to himself—to a season of homelessness and near starvation in Central Park. Just before the weather turns cold, he is rescued by his former college roommate and a young Chinese woman who becomes the love of his life. Soon thereafter he takes a job as an amanuensis to an eccentric and irascible old cripple whose wild stories of his youth as a painter and subsequent adventures in the old West Marco faithfully transcribes. Finally Marco meets up with the old man's estranged son, now a middle-aged and obese professor of history who has taught at a succession of second-rate colleges. In the end Marco loses everything: father, father-figure, and his loving girlfriend and their child, yet his excruciating education has not been wasted. The novel ends with Marco watching the moon rise from a California beach and thinking, "This is where I start … this is where my life begins."
Auster's accustomed self-referentiality and playing up of literary patterns and allusions once again reveal the artifice that underlies any fictive representation of reality, but the emphasis in Moon Palace is on the reality, not the artifice. The more improbable the events described, the more bizarre the cast of characters, the more the reader is inclined to believe. Marco wonders if old Thomas Effing's outlandish reminiscences can possibly be true, but they are as true as they need to be: true to Effing's private wounds and world, true to the chaotic social reality of America in the 20th century, true to the novel's themes of personal loss and recovery, of the endless invention of the self.
What The Music of Chance is "about" is rather less clear. As fluidly written as Moon Palace, it begins as a fairly straightforward account of the squandering of a family inheritance by a 35-year-old ex-fireman named Jim Nashe; but about halfway through, it shifts into a Kafka-like parable in which Nashe and a young gambler named Jack Pozzi are trapped on the estate of a pair of rich and sinister eccentrics and forced to build a huge wall from the rubble of a castle disassembled and shipped overseas from Ireland. Nashe grows in moral stature as his difficulties increase, but the chances that determine his fate are ordained by the author, who ends the novel with a fatal car crash that is at once wholly arbitrary and perfectly logical. Although Auster's intelligence, humor, and inventiveness are evident throughout, the novel's realist and allegorical tendencies tend to work against one an other. The Music of Chance remains rather opaque, but it also demonstrates Auster's engagement with issues much larger than those that concerned the hermetic fabulist of The New York Trilogy.
The 1995 film Smoke, directed by Wayne Wang from a screenplay by Auster, succeeded in bringing the author's work before a larger, though still highly selective, audience. The story, of intersecting lives and the struggle for intimacy, also revealed him in a much more emotional light than his previous, more cerebral, works. In line with this increased openness, during this period Auster published Hand to Mouth, a reminiscence on his early challenges as a writer. He also began moving deeper into the world of film, and in 1997 directed his first picture, Lulu on the Bridge.
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