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Newark, New Jersey, 3 Feb. 1947 • American novelist
|Much later, when he was able to think about the things that happened to him, he would conclude that nothing was real except chance. But that was much later. In the beginning, there was simply the event and its consequences.
This sentence from the opening of Paul Auster's first novel, City of Glass, could also serve as a template for the author's career, both in circumstance and theme. City of Glass is perhaps the best known of Auster's postmodern detective New York Trilogy, which is rounded out by Ghosts and The Locked Room. Though the novels nominally involve cases to be solved, at base they are about the mystery of identity and how easily it can be lost or altered. In City of Glass, a mystery writer mistakenly receives a phone call for detective Paul Auster and assumes his identity, becoming embroiled in a case. The trilogy was a welcome breath of fresh air for both detective stories and postmodernist writing, and it put Auster on the publishing map.
Setting out to write his subsequent novel, Auster kept in mind the subtitle 'Anna Blume Walks Through the 20th Century'. The result was a woman's post-apocalyptic urban journey, In the Country of Last Things. Subsequent works such as Moon Palace, The Music of Chance, Leviathan, and Mr. Vertigo offered heroes caught up in strange worlds, playing out their stories over existential subtexts. The Music of Chance carries references from Beckett's Waiting for Godot in its story about a drifter who ends up teaming with a card player named Jack Pozzi to hustle two wealthy eccentrics in a fateful poker game. In Mr. Vertigo, a boy who has the ability to levitate goes on the road in the 1920s as "the Wonder Boy," moving through a panorama of pre-Depression America.
Auster's ability to blur the line between fantasy and reality has resulted in unique stories that never operate solely as good yarns. The New York Times wrote of Leviathan – a dead man's coincidence-ridden story, as narrated by his friend – 'Thus in the literary looking glass of Leviathan, in which things are not always what they seem, our pleasure in reading the story is enhanced by the challenge of making other connections'. Auster's fondness for allegory has earned him both praise for his cleverness
| and criticism from reviewers who, even as they praise his talent, occasionally find him heavy-handed.
The director Philip Haas adapted The Music of Chance for the 1993 film starring James Spader and Mandy Patinkin. But it was Wayne Wang who drew Auster to the movie business in earnest, convincing him to write the screenplay for 1995's Smoke, which was adapted from the short story 'Auggie Wren's Christmas Story'. The film did well enough to get producer Miramax on board for a sequel bringing back star Harvey Keitel, Blue in the Face. This time, Auster not only wrote the script but co-directed with Wang; he later went full-fledged auteur with the 1998 film (also starring Keitel) Lulu on the Bridge.
In 1999, Auster made the unconventional choice of writing from a canine's point of view in Timbuktu – although as Auster noted in the Guardian, Mr. Bones 'is and isn't a dog'. In telling the story of himself and his owner, a homeless 'outlaw poet' named Willy G. Christmas, Mr. Bones offers a meditation on mortality, human relationships, and dreams. 'If anything,' Auster said in a chat with Barnes & Noble.com readers, 'I thought of Willy and Mr. Bones as a rather screwball, nutty, latter-day version of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the befuddled knight-errant and his loyal squire'. The New York Times called Timbuktu his 'most touching, most emotionally accessible book'.
Auster earned some of his best reviews with his tenth novel The Book of Illusions, about a widower who develops an obsession with an obscure silent-film star and is surprised with an invitation to meet the presumed-dead actor. Book magazine called it 'certainly his best...the book [has] the drive and dazzle reminiscent of the classic hardboiled yarns of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett'.
Auster is an author who, in both his fiction and his nonfiction, rekindles hope for the romantic, the coincidental, and the magical in everyday life. He does this not with fantastic story lines but by heightening the significance of twists and coincidences that happen to us all the time – if we approach things in a certain light, our lives become like movies. Auster spins the projector.
|BOOKS BY PAUL AUSTER:|
The New York Trilogy
1985-1986 (published together in 1990)
Three stories on the nature of identity. In the first a detective writer is drawn into a curious and baffling investigation, in the second a man is set up in an apartment to spy on someone, and the third concerns the disappearance of a man whose childhood friend is left as his literary executor.
|The Music of Chance|
Nashe comes into an inheritance and decides to pursue a life of freedom. He meets Pozzi, a gambler, who exerts a terrible fascination over him, and together they take a desperate gamble.
Several months into his recovery from a near-fatal illness, novelist Sidney Orr enters a Brooklyn stationery shop and buys a blue notebook. It is September 18th, 1982, and for the next nine days Orr will live under the spell of this blank book, within a world of eerie premonitions.
|ON PAUL AUSTER'S BOOKSHELF|
The Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850
The tale of a passionate woman in 17th-century Boston who challenges the system of moral authority and places belief in the higher law of her own heart.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain, 1884-1885
The story of Huck and his companion Jim, a runaway slave, as they travel down the Mississippi to escape from slavery and 'sivilization'.
Franz Kafka, 1926P
The story of K., the unwanted Land Surveyor who is never admitted to the Castle nor accepted in the village, and yet cannot go home, seems to depict like a dream from the deepest recesses of consciousness, an inexplicable truth about the nature of existence.
The Maltese Falcon
Dashiell Hammett, 1930
The Maltese Falcon set the standard by which the private eye genre is judged.
The Big Sleep
Raymond Chandler, 1939
The Big Sleep was Raymond Chandler's first novel and features Philp Marlowe, the neat, cleanshaven and sober man who is everything the well-dressed detective should be.
Albert Camus, 1942
('cycle des absurdes')
An ordinary man is unwittingly caught up in a senseless murder in Algeria.
Edgar Allan Poe, 1839
'William Wilson' is Poe’s most sustained character study of the doppelganger, or double.
|City of Glass|
When a stranger calls on Daniel Quinn's phone asking to speak to Paul Auster (supposedly a detective), Quinn claims to be Auster and soon is drawn into a case involving a man who fears his father is trying to kill him. ('Part I' of 'The New York Trilogy', 1985)
|WHAT TO READ AFTER CITY OF GLASS?|
'POSTMODERN' DETECTIVE STORIES
Samuel Beckett, 1947 (published in 1951)
Part I of a trilogy of novels. Written in the first person, Molloy consists of two monologues - that of Molloy on his odyssey towards his mother, lost in town and country and finally emerging from the forest; and that of Moran, a private detective who is sent to find him.
Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1953
A detective must solve a murder that hasn't yet been committed.
[Het huis M]
Atte Jongstra, 1993
The inspector himself is the suspect in these 'memoires of a speaker.'
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886
In seeking to discover his inner self, the brilliant Dr Jekyll discovers a monster.
The Dark Room of Damokles
Willem Frederik Hermans, 1958
Nihilistic novel about a weakling drawn into the Resistance by his (stronger) doppelgänger - or was it just his imagination?
The White Castle
Orhan Pamuk, 1985
A young Italian scholar is captured by pirates. Put up for auction at the Istanbul slave market, he is bought by a Turkish servant, eager to learn about scientific and intellectual advances in the West.
The Secret Sharer
Joseph Conrad, 1910
A captain saves a young stowaway and hides him in his cabin.
Jorges Luis Borges, 1936
Short story by the 'master of mirrors.' See also Borges and I.
Borges and I
Jorges Luis Borges, 1946
Short story by the 'master of mirrors.' See also Mahomed's Double.
THE MUSIC OF CHANCE
Snow Falling on Cedars
David Guterson, 1994
In 1954, Ishmael Chambers, a local reporter who lost an arm in the war, covers the murder trial of a Japanese-American fisherman, whose wife had been Ishmael's boyhood sweetheart.
Tim Krabbé, 2001
Can a single encounter with evil poison an entire life?
Marga Minco, 1983
The fatal fall of a Jewish woman is contrasted with the falling accident that saved her from deportation 40 years earlier.
|The Book of Illusions|
Auster filters the 'homeless experience' through the relentlessly unsentimental eye of a dog.
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