Bringing You the Daily Dispatch


Review of “Baumgartner” by Paul Auster: Exploring Themes of Love, Aging, and Loss


When Sy Baumgartner’s spouse, Anna (formerly Blume), passes away ten years prior to the start of this playful, intelligent, and occasionally exasperating story, a part of him also perishes – although it takes him twenty-five percent of the book to realize it.

The couple had been married for almost four decades. Currently, Sy is 71 and getting ready to retire from his position as a philosophy professor at Princeton University. We are introduced to him one morning as he is engrossed in writing a monograph on Kierkegaard. However, his day is interrupted by a series of strange incidents: he accidentally burns his hand on a pan he left on the stove, receives a call from his cleaning lady’s daughter informing him that her father has lost two fingers in a buzz saw accident, and later falls down the stairs in his basement, injuring his knee. This serves as a reminder of Saul Bellow’s insight in Henderson the Rain King that “truth comes in blows”. As Sy lies on the ground, he recalls that the pan he burned his hand on was the same one he purchased when he first met Anna, 20 years ago in a hardware store, and experienced love at first sight. This is a pivotal moment in Sy’s journey towards facing himself and his past.

After two months, Sy’s knee has healed and he is now working on a new book that explores the complex mind-body issue known as phantom limb syndrome. This may be the breakthrough he has been searching for to overcome the inertia he has been feeling since Anna’s passing. Despite being able to physically walk again ten years ago, he is still emotionally struggling and unable to move forward. Anna, who was a talented translator and poet, is remembered through a clever poem titled “Lexicon” where she is depicted as a red flower on his lapel, shining like a lit match in the darkness. Sy is reminded that “Blume” is the German word for flower and takes this as a subtle message of desire. He decides to propose to Judith Feuer, a fellow academic he has been dating for several years, but she declines. The spark between them fades and Sy is left feeling alone once again.

Auster’s cleverly self-referential literature is filled with subtle linguistic tactics, and his 20th novel is no different. It serves as a cautionary tale about the consequences of constructing one’s identity through words. The main character, Sy, compares the work of a writer to a “life sentence”, as each sentence must be carefully crafted to continue building a cohesive piece. As Sy completes his latest book, Mysteries of the Wheel, which explores the concept of consciousness and duality through a humorous lens of “the person as car, the car as person”, he befriends a graduate student who is interested in studying Anna’s poetry. To meet him, she plans on driving all the way from Michigan. Will this new relationship lead Sy in the right direction, or should he be cautious about getting back behind the wheel?

I have expressed my frustration with Baumgartner. This is largely intentional, as the process of aging and losing control of one’s physical self, particularly for a proponent of mind-body identity theory like Sy, can be a difficult experience. The book establishes alluring connections between bodily sensations and the way we construct the story of our lives. Sy’s comical mishaps and struggles, and his attempts to find meaning in them, are skillfully portrayed. However, at times one may question the accuracy of his recollections.

During a crucial moment, Sy notices something amusing in the New York Review of Books. He forgets that his wife has passed away and calls out to her, wanting to share it with her. The book being reviewed is titled “Waters of the World” by Sarah Dry. Sy finds this to be hilarious and excitedly calls Anna to come and see. However, the humor in this situation is questionable, as the success of the relationship between Sy and Anna relies heavily on our belief in their connection. The reader hopes to catch a glimpse of what a true intellectual and spiritual companionship would look like, as Sy claims, but instead, all we get are subtle mentions of their intimate moments and weak jokes. It serves as a reminder of the bland reality of their relationship, similar to a Kierkegaardian reality check.

The author, Paul Auster, has previously featured a character named Anna Blume in his post-apocalyptic novel, In the Country of Last Things (1987). In this story, she was a citizen of the future, but in this new work, she is firmly rooted in the past. Auster suggests that Anna may represent an ideal version of herself. However, the character of Sy Baumgartner, who is a materialist, falls short of being a compelling alter ego for the talented Auster. Sy and Auster share similar European heritage, a love for clever wordplay, and a contemplative nature. Additionally, Sy’s mother’s maiden name happens to be Auster. It is unfortunate, though, that Sy often lacks substance and is overly self-important.

Ignore the advertisement for the newsletter.

Source: theguardian.com