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portrait of author Paul Auster
Age has not wearied the prodigious writerImage: Eva TedesjDN//TT/imago images

Paul Auster: Literary superstar turns 75

Suzanne Cords
February 2, 2022

More popular in Europe that his native United States, where he has also gained cult status, the author recalls doubting whether he'd ever gain literary success.

https://p.dw.com/p/46PjC

Paul Auster novels teem with long, complex sentences and linguistic acrobatics in a style reminiscent of Thomas Mann's. His early books, including 1987's "The New York Trilogy," were existential, postmodern detective stories of outsiders with conflicting identities that found a receptive audience, especially in Europe. Auster, who barely read French postmodern theorists such as Jacques Derrida, rejects the characterization, however.

His latest book, "Burning Boy: The Biography of Stephen Crane," was published in English in 2021 and has just been released in German. It's a tribute to Crane, a little-known US author, essayist and poet, who died of tuberculosis in 1900 at the age of just 28 but who had left behind an extensive body of work.

Auster had read Crane's Civil War novel "The Red Badge of Courage" in high school. And his prodigious writing, including short stories, novellas, poems, journalism and war reports, fill Auster's 1200-page dramatic biography of a brilliant writer who died before his time.

Auster's last literary novel, "4321," a Booker Prize finalist, was another tome that told four different versions of the life of its hero, Archie Ferguson. Each story is packed with cruel twists of fate, and typically includes autobiographical snippets from Auster's own life. The author had toured extensively to promote "4321" in Europe in 2017 — including in Germany — and his fame continues to burn brightly on the continent.

The German cover of Paul Auster's lastest work, published her eas
The German version of Paul Auster's latest book, "Burning Boy"

Bumpy literary beginnings

Auster was born on February 3, 1947, in Newark, New Jersey, a descendant of Jewish immigrants from Europe. He was fascinated by books from an early age and wrote his first poems as a child.

He studied English and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York, and went to sea as a sailor for six months after graduating. He then went on the trail of James Joyce in Ireland and settled in France in 1971.

Staying in Paris for several years, Auster had the opportunity to meet the Irish author Samuel Beckett, a literary hero and inspiration.

Auster's writing career got off to a slow start, however. After he returned to the US, he wrote a few plays and published several volumes of poetry that had little success.

First success with 'City of Glass'

To earn a living, Auster took teaching positions at Columbia University and later at Princeton University in New Jersey. He also worked as a translator and editor of French authors, including Paul Sartre.

The manuscript of his first novel, "City of Glass," was rejected by 17 publishers. It was finally published by a small publisher from California and landed on the bestseller lists — as did the follow-up volumes "Ghosts" and "The Locked Room," which were both published in 1986. All three novels were released in subsequent years as the "New York Trilogy."

a woman and man sit together in a lounge room
Auster lives in Brooklyn with his wife, the novelist Siri HustvedtImage: Eva Tedesj/TT//DN/picture alliance

Beginning like classic detective stories, the books delve into the existential identity and alienation of the characters in a fractured urban jungle, a theme that was taken up in 1989's "Moon Palace."

These early works quickly established Paul Auster as a heavyweight of contemporary US literature. He has written tirelessly ever since.

Beyond novels, Auster's extensive body of work includes essays, film scripts, memoirs, translations and poetry. His books have been translated into more than 30 languages and have won numerous awards, and he was made a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003.

Auster has been considered for the Nobel Prize for Literature. He also wrote the story and screenplay for the feature film "Smoke," which won the Silver Bear at the 1995 Berlinale.

Living with his characters

Many of Auster's books are set in New York, and against the backdrop of events such as the Vietnam or Iraq wars, or the financial and real estate crash of 2008. In 2010's "Sunset Park" for instance, a diverse cast of displaced characters are brought together by the mysterious Miles Heller, in the days following the 2008 economic collapse.    

These characters are not inventions but beings who lead their own existence, Auster told the German daily Die Zeit.

"I live with my novel characters for an average of five years before I even start writing," he said. "Then, when the book is finished, these characters remain and I simply can't get rid of them. They linger in my memory like irredeemable lodgers, or like ghosts I can't evict yet are alive and kicking."

Not burnt out yet

The prodigious author also tried his hand at directing with "The Inner Life of Martin Frost" (2007), a film about a successful but burnt-out author who was also described in Auster's 2002 novel, "The Book of Illusions."

"When we reach the age our parents were when they died, it's scary," Auster told Die Zeit while he was was writing "4321" at the age of 66 — the same age at which his father died. 

Nevertheless, he continued to work obsessively on the near-900-page book. "The worst thing I could have imagined would have been to die while I was in the middle of it."

Those fears are a thing of the past. Auster is as active as ever — and became more politically involved after Donald Trump's election as president in 2016.

He and his wife, Siri Hustvedt, also a well-known author, joined Writers Against Trump. It has since renamed itself "Writers for Democratic Action" after Joe Biden's election.

Otherwise, he is more content than many of his characters.

"I've been fortunate enough to do exactly the work I wanted to do, and I never thought it was possible," he told Die Zeit. "It was my ambition to write a single book good enough to publish. That I achieved so much more still surprises and amazes me to this day."

Meet the writer Siri Hustvedt

This article was translated from the German.

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