The Art of Austerity

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Author: Joan Frank
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 2,536 words

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[(essay date winter 1992) In the following essay, Frank examines Auster's public and private personae, recounting a conversation in which the author revealed insights into his creative process.]

Together with his 1982 memoir Invention of Solitude, Paul Auster's subsequent novels The New York Trilogy, In The Country of Last Things, Moon Palace, and The Music of Chance have accrued enough respectful notices from critics to fuse him into the vanguard of American letters.

His European appeal is even stronger: the French made him a Chevalier, German cab drivers ask for his autograph, and in England Trilogy [The New York Trilogy] sold out its first printing. Both Auster's work and his authorial image--sensuous and austere, starkly modern yet steeped in historical reference--embody a lean, questing-intellectual glamour of arguably European precedent. Yet Auster admirers in this country tend to be a consequential lot, if not megatrend-setters, often themselves working artists. Pulitzer-winner Oscar Hijuelos called Invention of Solitude one of the most influential books in his life.

But Paul Auster is not buying any notions of his own celebrity.

"No, I don't even think about it. It's all so--small, really, in the culture at large."

One's not inclined to argue. The authority of his physical presence prevails, different from the existential chic of his publicity photos. Auster's gaze and bearing echo the scholarly inquiry seen in photos of Franz Kafka, whose work and spirit he so admires. But when Auster laughs, his pensive features relax. "He's just a guy," insists a friend. "He loves baseball. He drinks beer."

Even so, the first sentences of his new book Leviathan remind us why that singular Auster voice stuns readers to attention--calmly exact, forceful, yet smoky and haunting as the opening notes of a sax solo: A man is blown up by a car bomb into such small bits that the police and FBI must look for teeth to identify him. Narrator Peter Aaron prepares us to receive the story of the man who has exploded with his car: his longtime friend, the complex and anguished writer Benjamin Sachs. Aaron, also a writer, patiently recounts Sachs' tortured quest for right livelihood, separating the strands from a gnarl of simultaneous dramas, traded identities, sexual intrigue, even murder--all of it peppered with teasing allusions to people, places, and events we know appear in Auster's own life, clues woven alluringly into the fictive fabric--this, a clue in itself.

Central to Aaron's difficult tale is Maria Turner, a ravishing free spirit whom Auster loosely modelled on contemporary French photographer Sophie Calle. Calle's method of photographing random lives and framing the result as artistic (even archaeological) statement, gleefully experimenting with the strange (and, in Maria's case, fatal) effects of the imagined impinging on the real--and vice versa--pulse at the heart of virtually all Auster's investigations. Eerily one senses that Auster himself is in ways as much audience to them as we are, tensely awaiting the next revelation. Yet he is also masterfully in command as a storyteller, panning over...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100074291