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‘I remember Paul Auster’: a tribute by Jonathan Lethem to his friend
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‘I remember Paul Auster’: a tribute by Jonathan Lethem to his friend

I remember the first time I approached Paul Auster. This would have been in 1987. I was an aspiring writer working at a bookstore in Berkeley and Paul appeared at another bookstore nearby, to read from In the Country of Last Things. It seems likely to me now that this was the first time a “major” publisher had sent him on a US book tour. The New York Trilogy was published in hardcover by a small publisher called Sun & Moon Press; up to that point he’d been a poet and translator. Paul signed a book for me. I never told him about this.

I remember that, when Music of Chance was published a few years later, I had the feeling I’d read something by a writer exercising an absolute freedom to do whatever interested him, and that at that moment he was the US novelist I most wished to be.

I remember how, when more than a decade later I had returned to Brooklyn and published books that were set in Brooklyn, I was almost inescapably introduced to Paul. He welcomed me into his company with courtly grace and kindness. I was soon invited to his house to meet Siri and their daughter, and to drink wine and to answer Paul’s gently insistent queries into my reading and writing life. When I look into my copies of his books I find I have kept notes from this time tucked inside their endpapers; I was always so thrilled to get one of his handwritten cards. Paul never switched to email.

Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt at their home in Brooklyn.View image in fullscreen

I remember that in one fell swoop, at a Christmas party, Paul effortlessly introduced me to his roster of famous friends – DeLillo and Rushdie, yes, but also Richard Price and Art Spiegelman, two New York writers whose work I’d revered when younger and who that night told me they’d read my Brooklyn books and made me feel I’d made an impression on them in return. Those moments in Paul and Siri’s house might have been a kind of graduation day for me.

I remember that I felt I was returning the favour when I managed to provide Paul with a couple of experiences he seemed, at that time, too shy or apprehensive to provide for himself. The first was when he told me he’d always heard it was impossible to get a reservation at Peter Luger steak house in Williamsburg, and had never gone. I brought him there for a lunch table, which was easy – he was as delighted as if I’d performed a piece of stage magic for him. The second was when the New York Mets moved from Shea stadium to Citi Field. Paul seemed at a loss, as though his team had journeyed to another planet. I got tickets and took him to a day game and we sat together and watched the Mets lose, as was the tradition.

I remember that Paul agreed to be interviewed by me for a book of younger writers encountering older writers, but only warily. Our talk that day, while my tape recorder ran, was incongruous. Paul was shrouded, and reliant on generalities. He had begun by that time to take some hits, as writers sometimes do in the middle of a long career. He’d written two books in succession – one about a dog, one about a little girl – that weren’t embraced. I wondered, too, whether the disparity between his exalted status in Europe (France and Germany above all) and the scepticism he sometimes encountered in English-language reviewers was exhausting to him. After the tape recorder was off, Paul told me that the torments in his family life had made it completely impossible for him to go to the place he needed to produce anything but the book about the dog and the book about the girl.

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I remember reading The Book of Illusions and Oracle Night and Invisible and being so thrilled that Paul had entered a new period of discovery and energy in those tough-minded books. I remember the poet William Corbett saying that, in Invisible, Paul had for the very first time confronted the seductive quality of his own youthful beauty and being struck that this might be one of the essential problems of having been Paul Auster, one I’d missed because I met him only after it had been buffered in alcohol and smoke.

I remember thinking last night about the array of the books I felt were Paul’s best and how, contrary to the tendency to think of writers as if they are athletes with one early flare who then are destined to disappoint, Paul’s lasting accomplishments are scattered early, middle and late. I remember then being certain again of something I already knew: that when a writer enters the past, their lesser efforts become instantly unimportant and we are able to see the masterworks as a constellation, glinting together, and nothing else matters.

  • After I Remember, the 1970 cult classic by Joe Brainard, which Paul revered.

Source: theguardian.com