“Merely a best-selling author in these parts, a rock star in Paris.”
May 1, 2024 12:22 PM   Subscribe

TIL a friend of mine was published in Auster's anthology for Weekend All Things Considered.

posted by Kitteh at 1:13 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]

posted by djseafood at 1:15 PM on May 1

posted by crazy_yeti at 1:16 PM on May 1

posted by May Kasahara at 1:20 PM on May 1

A friend recommended City of Glass to me and since then whenever I've been in a bookstore or library I've kept my eye out for any new books of his. When I was in Japan I was able to pick up a copy of The Book of Illusions and I don't know how many times I read it (English books were hard to come by at the time so good ones were treasured).
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 1:36 PM on May 1 [5 favorites]

posted by gwint at 1:51 PM on May 1


Paul Auster had a real profound effect on me. I knew of him early, because my dad really liked his works. Sometime in the early 90s, my dad interviewed him for Icelandic radio, and Auster said he should be in touch when he was in New York. My dad didn’t really think much of it, but once when he was headed to New York for a conference, he sent Auster a letter, and was promptly invited to brunch.

Some years later I read Auster’s novel Moon Palace back to back with his autobiography Hand to Mouth, and I decided that I wanted to become a writer. There was something about his way of thinking on page that I could recognize in myself, some kind of belief in the preeminence of chance and randomness in the world, that I identified with.

A little less than a decade after that, in the mid-2000s, Auster was a guest at a literary festival in Iceland, and my dad invited Auster over. I was living in the US at the time. My dad mentioned that to Auster that I was writing poetry in English on a blog, and Auster asked to see it. He really liked it. I’ll admit that I was bursting with pride that the author who’d been so fundamental to me starting to write had read and liked some poems of mine.

A couple of years later my dad goes back to a conference in New York, and gets in touch with Auster, who invites him, me and my then-wife out to dinner. He and his wife, Siri Hustvedt, are both incredibly friendly and nice, and Auster offers to send a bunch of my poems to an American publisher. I received a very nice rejection letter from them.

Shortly after that, my life was in considerable turmoil, and my self-esteem took a series of whacks, but I held onto the fact that I had met my hero, and that he’d liked my poems. So I kept writing, and not much later my first novel was accepted for publication.

I forget the exact words, but at some point early on in the evening he asked me if I was still aiming to be a writer, and when I said yes, he replied something along the lines of ‘good, the world needs more writers’. I’ve often thought about how effortlessly kind Paul Auster was, and how much interest he showed to a random young nobody, going out of his way to help. I’ve tried to stick to that model myself when I meet unpublished writers and take an interest in their work and be encouraging and helpful.

I only met him once after that, running into him by chance in Washington DC, but again he was incredibly friendly, and took a moment to chat. Not long after I moved back to Iceland. But his effect on my life wasn’t quite over. A few years after moving back I met a woman at a writer’s conference. Before her I’d never dated a fellow writer, and I was skeptical because I’d seen so many of my writer friends have bad relationships with other writers. But I’d witnessed a relationship between two excellent writers, Auster and Hustvedt, and judging from that one evening, and all other accounts, they were a well-balanced and loving couple. So I had an example I could look to, took the chance and now we’re married.

Auster was a wonderful writer. He had a unique sensibility, paying as much attention to the randomness of life, and how it can bring both good and ill, as well as the finer points of plot machinations. Whenever I’ve been asked which of his books to start with, I tend to opt for one of three, depending on what I think will suit the asker.

The New York Trilogy made his name, and it remains just incredibly fun to read. I love Moon Palace for obvious personal reasons, but it’s also in some way the most delightfully random of his books, where things just kinda happen, and it really feels like you’ve lived someone else’s life after reading it. But I think that The Book of Illusions is probably his masterpiece, a really profound meditation on death, grief and the role of art in making sense of an indifferent world.

My dad called me this morning just after he’d heard the news. We talked about Auster’s books, of course, but also just how exceptionally kind and giving he had been. In Icelandic we say that someone “leaves deep tracks in your life”, and he really did. I’ve felt very sad all day, but also incredibly thankful that I got to meet him.

May his memory be a blessing.
posted by Kattullus at 2:15 PM on May 1 [88 favorites]

(I feel he loved a mythologized New York, and then his life was consumed by the real one. He wrote some beautiful stories though.)
posted by From Bklyn at 2:16 PM on May 1 [4 favorites]

He was one of my dad’s favorite writers. Dad got City of Glass when his life started going sideways (divorce from my mom, trip to rehab, about to lose his job), and I think he saw himself in the main character. Many years later, I found Dad’s notes on City of Glass and incorporated them into my capstone project on The New York Trilogy.

Bye Paul. In the off chance that there’s an afterlife, tell my dad I said hi.
posted by pxe2000 at 2:22 PM on May 1 [7 favorites]

posted by juv3nal at 2:24 PM on May 1

A while back, I watched The Music of Chance, not knowing Auster wrote it and has a cameo in it. It was good. Just like everything else of Auster's that I've seen or read.
posted by CCBC at 2:45 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]

City of Glass and the rest of the trilogy are so great and surreal, with multiple nested layers that keep folding in on one another. My first exposure was actually via the excellent graphic novel and I sought out the actual book later.
posted by caviar2d2 at 3:09 PM on May 1 [3 favorites]

posted by nobody at 3:53 PM on May 1

That is a great graphic novel. I've bought it a couple of times because I gave my copy to someone to read and never got it back.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 3:53 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]

On my way home from O'Connors one night I had an encounter with the Brooklyn Oracle, I can't remember any specifics (I never left O'Connors sober) but clearly recall the confusion and wonder of being spoken to by red LED letters on a cold, rainy Thursday. If I had known it was Auster I would have paid more attention.
posted by Admiral Viceroy at 4:08 PM on May 1 [3 favorites]

posted by Schmucko at 4:36 PM on May 1

posted by cupcakeninja at 5:58 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]


I don't love dystopian fiction, but In the Country of Last Things had a profound effect on me. I still think about it all the time. Like, literally, at least twice this week.
posted by thivaia at 6:08 PM on May 1 [4 favorites]

posted by theora55 at 8:34 PM on May 1

posted by dannyboybell at 9:35 PM on May 1

posted by pwinn at 5:09 AM on May 2

Paul Auster was a very important author to me during a particular time in my life. Checking Goodreads, it looks like I read 14 Auster books between 1999 and 2010. I lived in Park Slope Brooklyn during the early part of that period and knew that Auster frequented the Community Bookstore, but I never encountered him there. Sadly, with the passage of time, I can't remember much from any of the books. Maybe I need to do some re-reading. Also, I've got 4321 on my shelf and really need to give it a read.

posted by Ben Trismegistus at 12:32 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]

I've loved Auster's work for most of my adult life. Currently in the middle of 4 3 2 1, which is a fantastic example of his preoccupation with how a slight (or large) change in one circumstance in a person's life can lead to entirely different existence. And like most of his work, ruminating on what might or might not be autobiographical in it is part of the fun. What a tremendous body of work he left us, what a beautiful and profound and sensitive and hilarious and strange writer.

posted by slappy_pinchbottom at 1:06 PM on May 2 [2 favorites]

posted by limeonaire at 4:51 PM on May 2

Siri Hustvedt made a heartbreaking post on Instagram:
I was naive, but I had imagined that I would be the person to announce the death of my husband, Paul Auster. He died at home in a room he loved, the library, a room with books on every wall from floor to ceiling, but also tall windows that let in the light. He died with us, his family, around him on April 30, 2024 at 6:58 PM. Sometime later, I discovered that even before his body had been taken from our house, the news of his death was circulating on media and obituaries had been posted. Neither I, nor our daughter, Sophie, nor our son-in-law, Spencer, nor my sisters, whom Paul loved as his own sisters and witnessed his death, were given time to take in our grievous loss. Not one of us was able to call or email the people dear to us before the shouting online began. We were robbed of that dignity. I do not know the full story about how this happened, but I know this: It is wrong.

Paul never left Cancerland. It turned out to be, in Kierkegaard’s words, the sickness unto death. after the treatments had failed, his oncologist offered him palliative chemotherapy, but he said no and requested hospice at home. The ravages of cancer treatment are experienced by many patients, and some are cured, but what the world of medicine politely calls “adverse effects” easily become a cascading reality of one crisis after another, caused, not by cancer, but by treatment. Immunotherapies, which act at a molecular level, can be particularly dangerous. An “effect” can be life threatening and call for dramatic intervention, which in turn causes another life-threatening effect, which demands further intervention, and the assaulted body grows weaker and weaker.

Paul had had enough. But he never, by either word or gesture, showed a sign of self-pity. His stoic courage and humor until the end of his life stand as an example for me. He said several times that he would like to die telling a joke. I told him that was unlikely, and he smiled.

Let us not forget that human beings are behind our technical inventions and social media, that the flaws belong to us, not to machines, however much the technology aids simplification. A machine didn’t scream the news of Paul’s death before I or our daughter had said one word about it. A person, persons did that.

I have laughed out loud at the stereotype perpetrated in this country’s media organs and sometimes those in the UK, too, of Paul Auster, the chilly, clever, “postmodern,” “intellectual” writer. This manufactured caricature is so foreign to both the person and the writings I have known intimately for forty-three years, and was, frankly, so confusing to him, he simply couldn’t understand what it was all about. As his witness, friend, lover, fellow writer, and first reader (as he was mine), I can only say he wrote from the depths of feeling, out of the dream spaces where great books are born, develop, and end. They are not the spaces of prescribed conventions, of novels and memoirs burped out of creative writing departments in U.S. universities, slick works of burnished prose that have become the literary equivalents of algorithms that “normalize” data by getting rid of “outliers,” absurd market commodities of “relatability.” What in heavens name does that word mean? “Relatable” to whom? A relation requires at least two particular persons. Has media culture been reduced to thinking about the huge diversity of human personalities and their stories as a single blob? Isn’t it an act of terrible arrogance to pronounce any work of art relatable or not?

I leave you with the last sentence of Paul’s last novel, Baumgartner. I will not pretend that when he read it to me I didn’t feel the gravity of its meaning. He was sick then, suffering from fevers every afternoon, and, although a cancer diagnosis had not yet been made, I had a potent feeling that he and I didn’t have all that much time left together, but note the ambiguity, gentle irony, the refusal of the final, the absolute, the rigid or categorical. Paul’s dear old man has been in a car accident:

“And so, with the wind in his face and blood still trickling from the wound in his forehead, our hero goes off in search of help, and when he comes to the first house and knocks in the door, the final chapter in the saga of S.T. Baumgartner begins.”

It may also be naive for me to request kindness, respect, and love in a world of belligerent airless categories, to which so many of us have been assigned, Paul included. The brutality of those categories shrink dynamic reality into static things. They replace the humility of not knowing with ugly certainty. It is bewildering to look around me and find that innumerable persons who knew Paul, more and less, often less, are now pontificating on the man I loved. Well, let it be. I have no control over that.

Paul’s stories travel. Unlike much literature published in the United States, his work is not parochial. Although it grew and bloomed mostly on home turf—a childhood in New Jersey, an ongoing passion for baseball, a love of American lore and history—his work has been translated into over forty languages. Years ago, we lost exact count. He is beloved in the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Japan, Korea, and I recall seeing his face on the cover of what I think was Chinese Esquire. His writing crosses borders because although his novels and memoirs are dressed in the clothes of his own particular times and places and most often set entirely in the United States, the bones of his stories address questions that move far beyond any here and now. What does it mean to be alive? How can blinkered human beings find a way forward when we are trapped by our own perceptual limitations? What is a moral act? And again and again, how do people go on after the terrible loss of a beloved person? That is an excellent question. How do we?

My husband did not own a computer. He wrote by hand, and he typed his manuscripts on an Olympia typewriter. In the last days of his life, he was writing letters to our grandson, Miles. His tiny handwriting wobbled as a result of a tremor caused by treatment, but he scratched out those letters until he lost all strength. Our assistant and dear friend, Jen Dougherty, deciphered the texts after I had photographed them, and she typed them for him. He wanted it to be his last book. In a gasp of determination, he managed to finish a letter and round off his text, but the manuscript is not long. With that letter, his writing life ended.

Paul was, above all, a storyteller. He wrote many stories, both fictional and true, but he loved telling them too, and I would sometimes find myself amused as we sat together in one doctor’s office after another in these last two years, and I would watch him wind up into storytelling mode, going back to set the stage and then moving forward with the fascinating tale of his own illness. I, in contrast, would rattle off pithy questions about biological processes that needed clarification. Many times, as I expected, the physicians had no answers.
posted by Kattullus at 10:06 AM on May 3 [6 favorites]

posted by whir at 2:00 PM on May 3

posted by taz at 12:31 AM on May 4

Mod note: [and this post and kattullus's comment have been added to the sidebar and Best Of blog]
posted by taz (staff) at 12:31 AM on May 4 [2 favorites]

posted by Latze at 10:29 AM on May 5

In 1990 I was a student at the California Institute of Technology and took a creative writing class from an instructor or professor named Douglas Messerli. It turns out that Messerli was also a publisher, running "Sun & Moon Press" (whose offices I coincidentally later lived about a mile away from). One of his strong recommendations to us students was of an author he had published named Paul Auster. I read the New York Trilogy and for years later everything else Auster wrote, and I never regretted it.

posted by Slothrup at 1:11 PM on May 5 [2 favorites]

I loved Moon Palace. I didn't like The New York Trilogy, despite the fact that I like Noir fiction and experimental fiction. Maybe I should give it another shot.
posted by ovvl at 5:49 PM on May 6 [1 favorite]

I absolutely love many of Paul Auster's books, one of my favourite books ever are Leviathan and The Book of Illusions. I think my girlfriend at the time – the one that got away – gave me The New York Trilogy back in 2001 or so, and I was very determined to buy any secondhand Auster I saw in finnish or in english. He is the main reason I started wanting to write a book, which is still half a manuscript all these years later. He was definately one of the best, for me, and I am sad that he will not be sharing his stories anymore.
posted by fridgebuzz at 11:04 PM on May 9 [1 favorite]

A couple of years later my dad goes back to a conference in New York, and gets in touch with Auster, who invites him, me and my then-wife out to dinner. He and his wife, Siri Hustvedt, are both incredibly friendly and nice, and Auster offers to send a bunch of my poems to an American publisher. I received a very nice rejection letter from them.

Being the then-wife, I had a very different take on Paul Auster. He flat out told me I was wrong on details of my family history bc their experiences didn’t match what he read in history books. He may have been effortlessly kind to a fellow writer, but to someone who wasn’t a writer, he had little goodwill to spare.

(And about that rejection, I was so angry for a long time that he had floated the idea of supporting this nobody kid, but didn’t actually do it.)

My heart is with his family and friends going through this loss, and with the literature community at large as he meant so much to so many people.

(Perhaps ironically I should note as a footnote that while I would never call myself a “writer,” writing is now what I do day in, day out as my job. Truly, you never know what roads life is going to take.)
posted by sonika at 5:52 PM on May 11 [1 favorite]

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