Review of “Baumgartner” by Paul Auster – a pleasant lack of direction.
Those who were captivated by the intellectual detective work in The New York Trilogy will always be willing to give a new Paul Auster novel a chance, despite some disappointment with his recent works. Auster has been attempting to bring his talents together for a while now, but even his well-received novel 4321 lacked the excitement of his earlier works.
I was initially drawn to Baumgartner, especially after learning about Auster’s battle with cancer this year. For about 40 pages, I was fully invested in the story. Set in 2018, the book follows the life of the title character, a writer in his seventies who has been a widower for almost ten years. We first see him at his desk in his New Jersey home, where he remembers he left the hob on from breakfast and needs to call his sister. However, he is interrupted by a UPS delivery and a phone call from his cleaner’s daughter who is in distress after her father injured himself at work. Just as he is about to open the door for someone reading the meter, Baumgartner falls down the stairs.
This opening is both amusing and fast-paced, setting the tone for the rest of the story. It is a comedic portrayal of constantly interrupted thoughts, utilizing a style reminiscent of German writer Heinrich von Kleist. Auster himself has praised Kleist as one of the best prose writers of the early 19th century. The syntax is continuously expanding, evoking both emotions of poignancy and madness. As the story slows down, with Baumgartner resting his injured knee, there is a shift in the narrative to a scene where he meticulously unfolds and refolds his deceased wife’s clothing.
However, even during the most engaging moments, there is a warning sign: Auster’s actual words and the events they detail hold less significance than the fact that they are accumulating – a storytelling technique that reveals its recklessness as we transition from Baumgartner’s present into his memories of college, university, marriage, and career as a philosophy professor at Princeton. As he delves into the unpublished writings of Anna, a poet he first met in the 1960s (including her memoir of a former lover named Frankie Boyle), there is a growing realization that the book may not have enough pages to tie together all of the many storylines it introduces. The focus is on texture rather than substance, but when Baumgartner ponders where his thoughts will take him next, the flaws in the narrative structure become apparent.
The most peculiar section occurs when the main character suddenly recalls his trip to Ukraine two years prior and the day he spent in his maternal grandfather’s hometown. This prompts Auster to include an old piece about his own visit to his family’s ancestral birthplace, shifting the focus to what Baumgartner refers to as “the lesser-known Auster side” of his heritage. While the frugality is acceptable, the well-established author’s move from behind the scenes may seem forced in this particular episode. Auster even acknowledges the segment as a “brief, perplexing text”, almost as if he is making excuses for its inclusion.
Upon learning of Anna’s passing and the subsequent description of her ex-husband’s behavior, particularly his pursuit of younger women, it may seem that the story will delve into the theme of later-life desire. However, with the introduction of a young female academic into Baumgartner’s life, the narrative takes a more aimless approach, disregarding common formulas and instead embracing a sense of charm. This is evident in the return of a minor character after a long absence and the satirical commentary on Baumgartner’s work as a “serio-comic, quasi-fictional discourse on the self.” While the book breaks down the fourth wall, it does so effortlessly, as if it was never there to begin with. Ultimately, Auster’s writing takes us on a journey without a clear destination, but who can blame him for such a captivating ride?
The book Baumgartner, written by Paul Auster, is available from Faber for £18.99. To help the Guardian and Observer, you can purchase your own copy at guardianbookshop.com. Additional fees may apply for delivery.