1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

US novelist Paul Auster dies aged 77

Suzanne Cords
May 1, 2024

The US novelist was one of the world's most important contemporary literary voices, with his books translated into 40 languages.

Paul Auster
A prolific writer, Paul Auster published 34 books during his careerImage: Soeren Stache/picture alliance/dpa

Lauded US novelist Paul Auster has died of complications arising from lung cancer, aged 77. Auster, who was born in the US but celebrated world wide, died at his home in Brooklyn, New York, on Tuesday night.

Auster, who published 34 books throughtout his career, didn't always make things easy for readers. He confronted the big issues of life through his deliberate literary confusions and unfurled his stories in compound sentences, yet his books drew a large and devoted audience.

A bumpy start

Auster was born on February 3, 1947, in Newark, New Jersey to parents of Austrian Jewish descent. He was fascinated by books from an early age and started writing poetry as a child. He earned degrees in English and comparative literature from Columbia University in New York City before joining the merchant navy for six months, then following in James Joyce's footsteps in Ireland and settling in France in 1971. Auster worked as a translator in Paris for several years, during which time he met Irish writer Samuel Beckett, who had a huge influence on his own writing.


But Auster's own writing career had a bumpy start. After returning to the US in 1974, he wrote plays and published volumes of poetry that failed to find a wide audience. At best, he achieved critical praise in 1982 with the memoir "The Invention of Solitude.”

Authors Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt at home in Brooklyn.
Auster was married to writer Siri Hustvedt and both were politically active Image: Eva Tedesj/TT//DN/picture alliance

First success with "City of Glass”

To earn a living, Auster taught at Columbia University and later Princeton University, and worked translating and publishing French authors, including Jean-Paul Sartre. He sent the manuscript of the novel "City of Glass” to 17 publishers, all of whom turned it down. It was finally released by a small publisher in California in 1985 and promptly hit the bestseller list, as did his next two novels, "Ghosts” (1986) and "The Locked Room” (1986).

Those three books form Auster's "New York Trilogy,” which all begin like classic detective stories but then develop plots that pose existential questions. They earned Auster a reputation as a heavy hitter in contemporary US literature.

He continued to write, tirelessly. "In the Country of Last Things” (1987) is a dystopian epistolary novel describing the world from the point of view of a homeless woman. "Moon Palace” (1989) deals with a search for identity. Further works include "Leviathan” (1992), "The Book of Illusions” (2002), "Oracle Night” (2003), "Man in the Dark” (2008), "Sunset Park” (2010), and "4 3 2 1” (2017).

Toying with readers' expectations

Many of Auster's books take place in New York, where he lived. They often refer to real-life events such as the wars in Vietnam or Iraq, or the 2007 real estate crisis that drove many Americans to financial ruin. His characters lose their way and stumble aimlessly through life. Auster also often used his books to muse on his own existence as a writer. Putting stories down on paper was his obsession. "Writing is not an act of free will for me; it's a matter of survival," he once told German weekly newspaper Die Zeit. He admitted that he constantly felt pressure to keep writing, to keep working.

That pressure resulted in a substantial oeuvre comprising novels, essays, autobiographical sketches, translations, and poems. His non-fiction output includes "Burning Boy,” his 2021 biography of 19th century American writer Stephen Crane, who died of tuberculosis at just 28 years of age.

Auster's books have been translated into more than 30 languages and won numerous awards, including Spain's prestigious Prince of Asturias Prize in 2006. His work is arguably more popular in Europe than in the United States and it was often speculated that he might win a Nobel Prize in Literature.

Not content to limit himself to literature, Paul Auster also turned his hand to film. He wrote the screenplay for the movie "Smoke,” directed by Wayne Wang, which won the Silver Bear award at the 1995 Berlin Film Festival. He even directed films himself, including 2007's "The Inner Life of Martin Frost,” which originated as a fictional movie about an author, described in Auster's novel "The Book of Illusions.”

Auster often mined his own life for his work. That included writing repeatedly about Daniel Auster, the writer's son with his first wife, writer Lydia Davis, even as Daniel drifted into drug addiction starting in his teenage years. In 2022, Daniel's infant daughter died of an accidental overdose of heroin and fentanyl, and Daniel was charged with manslaughter and negligent homicide. Ten days later, Daniel himself died of a heroin overdose. By that point, the elder Auster had stopped writing about his son and he made no public comment about the double tragedy. 

Political convictions

Paul Auster made no secret of his political opinions, describing them in 2012 to The Irish Times as "far to the left of the Democratic Party.” Yet he supported that party because he believed its candidates had a better chance at winning elections than socialist candidates.

Following the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016, Auster took a more active political position. He and his wife, writer Siri Hustvedt, were among the co-founders of the organization Writers Against Trump, which was renamed Writers for Democratic Action after the election of Joe Biden. The group is committed to social justice and civil rights, including voter rights. Auster said he felt that the danger that the candidate with fewer votes could still win was the biggest threat to democracy, along with the deep divisions among the population of the US.

Hustvedt posted about her husband's cancer diagnosis on Instagram in March 2023. Auster died on April 30 of complications arising from lung cancer, friends of the family confirmed. Auster is survived by Hustvedt, their daughter together Sophie Auster, his sister Janet Auster, and a grandson.

This article was originally written in German in 2022. It was updated on May 1, 2024.