Paul Auster – New York Storyteller

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Baillie Gifford Main Theatre
18th August 2017

Cliché: ‘A giant of American Literature’. Justified: “he can out-Roth, out-Updike and out-Franzen the greatest” (Financial Times). I wrote earlier this week of selecting a flagship event for the Festival; well, unless I missed something else, this one would take a lot of beating. The sponsorship of the University of Edinburgh managed to net an appearance by an author for whom one can soon run out of superlatives. The problem of how to describe him doesn’t stop there. His first novel, The New York Trilogy…

Now hold on a minute! The New York Trilogy is a collection of three, separately-published novellas, only later gathered into a single volume. Start again. His first novella, City Of Glass…

Stop right there! What about Squeeze Play? That was published three years before City Of Glass. True, but under a different name. What is more, on being given a copy of both the trilogy and his latest book 4321 to sign by a fan this evening, he remarked very clearly “Ah, my first one and my latest one.”

And there we have (already) a wonderful set of contradictions, when it comes to Auster’s world. His real world and his fictional. The trilogy uses the genre of the detective novel not to unravel a mystery the way Hammett or Chandler or Paretsky might, but to raise questions about identity and reality, existentialism and the absurd, meaning and meaninglessness. 4321, not only his latest but his largest work, presents four parallel stories where the same protagonist (possibly) lives four separate lives (possibly) in the turbulent 1960s. City of Glass contains sparse, economic sentences such as “Quinn had been prepared for this and knew how to answer”. In 4321, however, Auster has mastered the perfect, long sentence, many of which last a whole paragraph, some of which seem to go on for pages; “I started writing a different kind of sentence,” Paul said. “It had a kind of propulsion, a paratactic urgency. I wanted to create a different tone.”

This event was sub-titled ‘New York Storyteller’. Every time Jackie McGlone, chairing the event, mentioned an aspect of his writing, or hinted at a question, Auster would take the topic, either squarely and obliquely, and run away somewhere with it. Often relevantly, often interestingly, always away. And always taking the listener along. A New York storyteller is precisely what Paul Auster is.

He read a long passage from 4321, in which he described Ferguson the protagonist (which one – does it matter at this stage? Not until we read the book in its entirety, and then it will become relevant, or so we hope) dealing with the certainty (to him) that the world and what was happening to it – the Vietnam War, International reaction, US politics, New York politics, campus politics, personal opinion and experience – was made up of concentric layers. The passage itself was fascinating, not only for its introduction of this mental impression, but the facts it was conveying, the people, the names, the organisations and their initials and acronyms, jocks and radicals, politicians and protesters, counter-protesters and cops, and every so often, almost without breaking the flow, Paul would insert a note of explanation for the Scottish audience, a footnote, a snippet of commentary. And it felt like part of the continuing storytelling. He also gave us the opening paragraph, which contains a piece of humour which depends on the reader knowing about the Ellis Island immigration process in 1900, and a little bit of Yiddish on top of that. In a way it’s an old story, but I won’t spoil its retelling for you. I will say that in order to appreciate a little piece of incidental humour, Google the Empress of China’s maiden voyage.

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Jackie McGlone steered Paul onto the subject of politics and the current situation in the USA. Could anyone have come up with a fictional character like Donald Trump? Yes, Alfred Jarry, who created Ubu Roi in 1896, only without all the orange. Comparing the situation in America today with that of the 1960s, Paul referred back further than that, to the founding and expansion of the United States:

“We haven’t gotten anywhere, we’re just exactly where we were half a century ago. Nothing has changed. And then, you know, you start to question the very fundamental building blocks of the country. This great country of America is built on two crimes, two enormous sins – the extermination of the Indians and slavery of black people. And we’ve never really faced up to these things, never confronted them, and I think it has poisoned us, and now it’s coming out more and more and more again, another wave of racism and nationalism of the ugliest sort.”

“I can’t keep quiet. It’s too dangerous. It’s too serious to stand back and watch the country melt… A lot of the American system will be eroded by the time Trump leaves office. We need to keep beating the drum.” Paul admitted to being pessimistic, citing the way that Donald Trump had used Goebbels’ ‘Big Lie’ principle to slander Barack Obama, and by the time of the election he could utter any falsehood and would be trusted by the people who had come to heed him.

But of course, tempting though it is to harp on about the political situation in the United States, and though to do so caresses the confirmation bias of Brits who, like myself, do not like the political flavour of things there, this was supposed to be a literary event, we are supposed to remember what Paul said about his books, his low-tech methods of writing, his seven day working week, and our excitement at such a major work’s publication after an apparent gap of seven years. The solid ovation and the queue of people wanting books signed attested to that. The combination of the Festival, the University of Edinburgh, and the author delivered.

Reviewed by Paul Thompson

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