“I may never write anything again”: Paul Auster reflects on cancer, relationships, and the false idea of closure.
In the early stages of Paul Auster’s most recent book, Baumgartner, the main character, who shares the same name as the novel, is conversing with a therapist after his wife’s sudden and tragic death from a swimming mishap. “We are always vulnerable to unexpected events,” he states. “You and I are aware of this, and so is everyone else – unless they have not been attentive.”
When we meet Sy Baumgartner, it is 10 years after Anna’s death. Now 70 and a retired Princeton philosophy professor, we find him enduring a darkly comedic and somewhat lower stakes set of unexpectedly escalating domestic vicissitudes. In rapid succession he is frustrated in the simple task of calling his sister, scalds himself on a hot pan and tumbles down the stairs during an unnecessary visit to his basement.
“I have always been drawn to the idea of writing a short story,” explains 76-year-old Auster, speaking from his residence in Brooklyn, New York. “It is something I have not explored much in my career. I have mostly written books of modest length, but with my recent works, 4321 and Burning Boy – which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2017 and my 800-page biography of Stephen Crane in 2021 – I unintentionally ended up with two door-stopper novels. As a result, I wanted to challenge myself with something shorter. That’s when the idea of an older man, sitting in his house and watching robins pull up worms, came to me. I wrote a story called “Worms,” but I couldn’t let go of this character. There was more to his story, so I continued writing and discovered a darker undertone beneath the initial lightheartedness.”
Throughout the book, Auster uses dark humor, and at times slapstick, to delve into Baumgartner’s decade-long experience with loss and grief. Sy has a comically flawed relationship with a woman he hopes will fill the void left by Anna’s death; he reads through Anna’s journals and promotes her unpublished poetry. He also reflects on his own childhood, life, and family history, which happen to mirror Auster’s. However, most of the book centers around the day when Anna was tragically killed by a massive wave while they were on Cape Cod.
Over the past two years, Auster has experienced two traumatic incidents. The first was a tragic family event that received significant media attention, resulting in the death of his granddaughter while under the care of his son. His son, from his previous marriage to writer Lydia Davis, later passed away from a drug overdose. Then in March of this year, Auster’s wife, author Siri Hustvedt, shared on Instagram that Auster was undergoing chemotherapy and immunotherapy and they were now residing in a place she called “Cancerland.”
Last year, as Auster was completing Baumgartner, he started experiencing “mysterious fevers” in the afternoons. He was initially diagnosed with pneumonia, but then explored the possibility of long-term effects of Covid before ultimately being diagnosed with cancer. Since then, he has been undergoing constant treatment and has not been able to work. Auster describes his experience with cancer as being in an unknown territory without any guidance or certainty about how to navigate it. He compares it to being stopped by a guide who claims to be from the “cancer police” and forces you to follow him. Auster had no choice but to comply, as the guide threatened to kill him if he refused. Auster chose to go down this path and has been following it ever since.
Auster explains that his interest in the concept of a life-changing moment stemmed from a childhood event that served as the inspiration for 4321. While at summer camp, he witnessed a boy standing next to him being struck and killed by lightning. This was a formative experience for Auster, as at 14 years old, everything felt profound and significant. It made him realize that his comfortable life in suburban New Jersey was not as orderly as he had believed. The incident left a lasting impact on Auster, serving as a reminder to always stay alert and adaptable. He believes that this lesson has made certain things in life more manageable. Every writer has a different motivation for storytelling, and for Auster, this experience has played a crucial role in his writing journey thus far.
During a recent interview, Auster expressed his opinion on the American fixation with “closure,” deeming it “the most foolish concept I’ve ever encountered.” When a significant person in your life passes away, a part of you also dies. It is not a simple process and you never truly move on. You learn to coexist with the loss. Auster wanted to delve into this idea and explore its complexities. In the novel Baumgartner, the character Sy spends a considerable amount of time contemplating phantom limb syndrome. He describes himself as a “human stump,” but acknowledges that the missing limbs still cause him immense pain. At times, he even feels like his body is on the verge of bursting into flames.
Author Paul Auster considered naming his book “Phantom Limb” due to the powerful concept it represents – our connection with others and the significance of love in our lives. He acknowledges that it can be difficult to articulate the depth of long-term, lifelong love and the various challenges it may face. Auster explains that, according to “the brilliant Siri,” many people make the mistake of viewing love as a machine that needs to be maintained in its original state. Instead, he suggests thinking of love as a living organism, where some parts may wither and need to be pruned for overall growth. Trying to keep love stagnant will ultimately lead to its demise. In order for love to thrive, it must evolve and adapt over time. Auster believes that we can never fully know our partners or even ourselves, as there will always be mysteries and unanswered questions. Despite his personal journey of trying to understand his own actions and impulses without seeking therapy, Auster feels he has not made much progress in figuring everything out.
Auster’s second publication of the year is Baumgartner. In January, he addressed a national issue, rather than a personal one, regarding American gun control. Auster collaborated with his son-in-law, Spencer Ostrander, on a photographic book called Bloodbath Nation. This book documents the locations of mass shootings in the United States. Auster spent a year writing the book’s 80 pages, striving for conciseness and precision to give it the tone of a traditional political pamphlet. Among all developed countries, the US has the highest number of mass shootings. However, as time passes, Americans seem to rely less on other countries for guidance on how to behave. There is a sense of self-satisfaction and superiority among Americans, even in the most foolish actions that are deemed acceptable simply because they are American.
According to him, the book was well received but did not lead to much action. He believes that this issue is a major flaw in our society and is representative of the flawed thinking that has influenced us in recent years. However, he acknowledges that perhaps people are tired of talking about it. The topic is not being discussed and only a small number of politicians are willing to address it. This trend is likely to continue into the upcoming election.
The book “Baumgartner” takes place between 2016 and 2018. There is a reference to “the crazy Ubu in the White House.” The author did not want to directly address Trump, but acknowledges his presence in American society. Auster admits that he initially did not support Joe Biden for the 2020 election, but has been pleasantly surprised by his performance as president. He believes that Biden has been one of the best presidents in recent years and recognizes the importance of government in mental, moral, and economic well-being. Auster also praises Biden’s proposed programs as an improvement over previous administrations.
According to Auster, the right wing is trying to portray Biden as an incompetent old man, but this is far from the truth. In reality, Biden is highly capable and has extensive knowledge about government, making him one of the most knowledgeable individuals in Washington. While he has made mistakes in the past, he is still a strong choice for the current moment and it’s hard to think of anyone better suited for the job. Auster hopes that Biden will be able to win the election next year, as it is expected to be a close and unpredictable race. It’s impossible to predict how the other side will react if they don’t win the votes.
Auster is primarily focused on his treatment and recovery, but he is pleased with the initial feedback on Baumgartner. He has a traditional approach to writing, using a typewriter and having his assistant convert it to a computer for submission to the publisher. His assistant, who has worked with him for 15 years, usually gives vague comments like “good job” on his manuscripts. However, this time she urged him to continue on as she was eager to read the next chapter. Auster’s longtime first reader, Siri, also offered no critiques and simply encouraged him to keep writing. Even his agent of 40 years, who rarely gives feedback, was highly supportive.
Auster admits that he struggles to understand the origin of this book. He felt like there was a character within him that became more clear as the book progressed. Despite the mixed reactions, he remains grateful and chooses to smile in response. Given his delicate health, he acknowledges that this may be his final written work. However, he finds comfort in the thought of being surrounded by human kindness from his close friends and loved ones as a writer. He believes that even if this is the end, it would all be worth it.