Saturday, October 2, 2010

An Hour with Paul Auster


One of the perks of working in a university library is being able to take an hour off from work to go see a famous author. My supervisor allowed me to go in exchange for taking detailed notes and telling her all about it. (It was actually in our department. Practically right outside the door.) And this is how I came to attend a seminar headed by Paul Auster on Thursday afternoon.

Auster kicked off with a discussion on writing fiction vs. writing non-fiction. Memory, he said, is "tremendously ambiguous." According to Freud, what we remember about an event is simply the last time we thought about it. Although some things are objective and can be backed up by external sources (i.e. I was fourteen years old in 1973), Auster is highly suspicious of the explosion of memoirs published in recent years due to the sheer amount of detail they reveal. How the heck can some of these people recall entire conversations? That they overheard when they were three years old? In composing a work of non-fiction such as The Red Notebook, Auster merely tries to be as accurate as he can.

When it comes to fiction, by contrast, "all bets are off." There are "objectively no rules." Instead, you make your own. But naturally, we still draw from our own lives when inventing new ones. The third book of The New York Trilogy, entitled The Locked Room, features a character living in Paris who befriends a Russian composer. Does it really make any difference to the reader that Paul Auster too lived in Paris and befriended a Russian composer? No, but it would if this was a work of non-fiction.

The field was then opened for questions. One of the students asked what, if any, were differences between novels and screenplays, as Auster has authored both. "Writing a screenplay has nothing to do with writing a novel," was the reply. Screenplays are very visual; films are "jigsaw puzzles" in which the only words are dialogue. Novels, on the other hand, are 3-D. They are "whole worlds." But, Auster added, I have begun to incorporate film into my novels, in The Book of Illusions for example. Translating film to prose is very challenging. The trick is finding the right balance.

He then wondered why it is that characters in books never seem to read books.

The New York Trilogy was written in the present tense, which gives it a very cinematic feel. Tense is very important.

The professor conducting the seminar mentioned that she often heard echoes of Beckett in Auster. I never wanted to write like Beckett, Auster said. No one can. When I was your age, he went on, indicating the students, I was obsessed with literature. I drank it up. And this damaged me. Whenever I tried to write I felt the weight of hundreds of years, of millennia, on my back. I had to learn to write from raw need, to take a visceral approach and not focus on making it pretty or sound like a proper novel. Beckett was suffocated by "his own dexterity." He had to start from scratch. (Auster then related a story of Beckett and another Irish author in Paris, but I forgot what it was.)

What draws you to translation? another student asked. When Auster first started writing, he wanted to be a novelist but wasn't ready yet. Poetry was his preferred medium at the time: it is generally short and therefore manageable. He was learning French at Columbia University when he discovered contemporary French poets. He found translating them highly beneficial to his creative process. You "never penetrate a text more fully than by translating it." To translate a text one must "destroy it." It is a great tool to learn how to read and write because when you're translating, it's like the pressure's off.

English is a new language and therefore a very rich one. Only within the past four hundred years has it been recognizable. The British Isles used to speak Anglo-Saxon, which is much closer to Icelandic. But then the French conquered England and their language ruled the royal court for three hundred years. It was sixteenth-century poets like Thomas Wyatt in the decades before Shakespeare who made English what it was today.

New topic: The "only really subversive thing is clarity." A poet can decide they want to be "avant-garde" and start scattering words all over the page to somehow demonstrate the corruption of capitalism. But really, it's been done. Everyone wants to be subversive. But who was the most subversive writer of the twentieth century? Kafka. He was also the clearest writer of the twentieth century. And he's still scaring and disturbing us today.

Back to the relationship between fiction and non-fiction. Shortly after he moved to Brooklyn in the late seventies (or was it the Bronx?), Auster received a phone call asking if this was the Pinkerton Agency. Naturally he told them no, you have the wrong number. The next day it happened again! Again, Auster told them the same thing and immediately regretted it upon hanging up. Why oh why didn't he say yes, this is the Pinkerton agency! and see what happened next? Alas, there was no third phone call. But that's how The New York Trilogy became a saga about detectives who aren't really detectives.

Auster, like most authors, is always addressing that ideal reader.

Auster strongly recommends the works of Heinrich von Kleist, a German dramatist, novelist, poet, and short story writer who died in 1811 at the age of thirty-four. There is "no narrative style more ferocious" than that of Kleist. His works are like fairy tales with all the grit of real life.

Yes, Auster's characters do often surprise him. You're the writer, you can do whatever you want! someone once said to him. No I can't, he responded.

And lo! I got a question in! It had occurred to me right at the beginning, when Auster was criticizing how contemporary memoirs are written. My regular readers may have noticed a recurring topic of mine, that of the relationship between the narrative and human perception. As Auster talked, I was reminded of Gert Jonke's The System of Vienna, of an essay on Henry James by Louis Menard, and of my own interpretation of "The Part About Archimboldi." Since life itself is so vast, I said, is not the act of channeling it into a coherent narrative a sort of fiction of its own? Auster's answer was very simple. We write our own narratives. We live in the past, present, and future and what makes us who we are is how we comprehend it all. Without some sense of story in life there is no meaning. We write about ourselves to make ourselves. That narrative capability is what makes us human.

The seminar ended with students giving him random interesting facts about our school and city.

* * *

Something very strange happened that evening. Paul Auster was scheduled to give a talk on translation. That's what it said on the poster outside the door. But all he did was read from his upcoming novel Sunset Park. It sounds fascinating - the first selection he covered concerned a runaway from a wealthy family in New York City who has gotten a job cleaning foreclosed homes in the titular neighborhood (located between Park Slope and Bay Ridge in the NYC area). He feels compelled to take pictures of the detritus and destruction left behind (of which Auster gives a completely random list). Each house represents failure in the abandonment of things and the rage of the dispossessed. Great start.

I kept waiting for Auster to finish up with his reading and begin his talk. Except he never did and finally a whole hour went by and the event was finished! I have to confess that I eventually tuned him out, expecting each reading to be the last. I'm not sure what happened - if there was a miscommunication between planners or if Auster just changed his mind because he's famous and he can do that. Oh well. Weird but interesting.

Click here for my recap of Margaret Atwood at Hamilton College in March 2010. And click here for Emily's excellent review of The New York Trilogy.

5 comments:

Lightheaded said...

Despite your disappointment in the end, this post is simply precious! It's like being there and watching him (though now I have to imagine how he speaks and all). Thank you for posting about it!

Jenny said...

This is really interesting, I've been thinking of reading Paul Auster for a really long time - he's been recommended to me by several people - but just haven't quite got round to it. He sounds like an interesting chap.

I miss being at University and getting to go and see things like this!

JoAnn said...

Such an interesting post - thank you!! Why have I not read Paul Auster yet? I keep meaning to...

E. L. Fay said...

Lightheaded: You're most welcome! My job being what it is, I should have more of these in the future.

Jenny and JoAnn: I too have been meaning to read Auster for some time now and just never got around to it. I absolutely recommend checking out Emily's review.

Emily said...

I'm so behind on my blog-reading (just got back from vacation), but this event sounds awesome! I've only read the New York Trilogy and haven't quite decided what I think of Auster yet, but that lack of decision almost makes him MORE fascinating to me. This sounds like a very thought-provoking talk - love the idea of narrative being what makes us human.

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