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Paul Auster, American author of The New York Trilogy, dies aged 77
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Paul Auster, American author of The New York Trilogy, dies aged 77

Paul Auster, the author of 34 books including the acclaimed New York Trilogy, has died aged 77.

The author died on Tuesday due to complications from lung cancer, his friend and fellow author Jacki Lyden confirmed to the Guardian.

Auster became known for his “highly stylised, quirkily riddlesome postmodernist fiction in which narrators are rarely other than unreliable and the bedrock of plot is continually shifting,” the novelist Joyce Carol Oates wrote in 2010.

His stories often play with themes of coincidence, chance and fate. Many of his protagonists are writers themselves, and his body of work is self-referential, with characters from early novels appearing again in later ones.

“Auster has established one of the most distinctive niches in contemporary literature,” wrote critic Michael Dirda in 2008. “His narrative voice is as hypnotic as that of the Ancient Mariner. Start one of his books and by page two you cannot choose but hear.”

The author was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. According to Auster, his writing life began at the age of eight when he missed out on getting an autograph from his baseball hero, Willie Mays, because neither he nor his parents had carried a pencil to the game. From then on, he took a pencil everywhere. “If there’s a pencil in your pocket, there’s a good chance that one day you’ll feel tempted to start using it,” he wrote in a 1995 essay.

While hiking during a summer camp aged 14, Auster witnessed a boy inches away from him getting struck by lightning and dying instantly – an event that he said “absolutely changed” his life and that he thought about “every day”. Chance, “understandably, became a recurring theme in his fiction,” wrote the critic Laura Miller in 2017. A similar incident occurs in Auster’s 2017 Booker-shortlisted novel 4 3 2 1: one of the book’s four versions of protagonist Archie Ferguson runs under a tree at a summer camp and is killed by a falling branch when lightning strikes.

Auster studied at Columbia University before moving to Paris in the early 1970s, where he worked a variety of jobs, including translation, and lived with his “on-again off-again” girlfriend, the writer Lydia Davis, whom he had met while at college. In 1974, they returned to the US and married. In 1977, the couple had a son, Daniel, but separated shortly afterwards.

Auster and Siri Hustvedt at home in Brooklyn in 2020.View image in fullscreen

In January 1979, Auster’s father, Samuel, died, and the event became the seed for the writer’s first memoir, The Invention of Solitude, published in 1982. In it, Auster revealed that his paternal grandfather was shot and killed by his grandmother, who was acquitted on grounds of insanity. “A boy cannot live through this kind of thing without being affected by it as a man,” Auster wrote in reference to his father, with whom he described himself having an “un-movable relationship, cut off from each other on opposite sides of a wall”.

Auster’s breakthrough came with the 1985 publication of City of Glass, the first novel in his New York trilogy. While the books are ostensibly mystery stories, Auster wielded the form to ask existential questions about identity. “The more [Auster’s detectives] stalk their eccentric quarry, the more they seem actually to be stalking the Big Questions – the implications of authorship, the enigmas of epistemology, the veils and masks of language,” wrote the critic and screenwriter Stephen Schiff in 1987.

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Auster published regularly throughout the 80s, 90s and 00s, writing more than a dozen novels including Moon Palace (1989), The Music of Chance (1990), The Book of Illusions (2002) and Oracle Night (2003). He also became involved in film, writing the screenplay for Smoke, directed by Wayne Wang, for which he won the Independent Spirit award for best first screenplay in 1995.

In 1981, Auster met the writer Siri Hustvedt and they married the following year. In 1987 they had a daughter, Sophie, who became a singer and actor. Auster’s 1992 novel Leviathan, about a man who accidentally blows himself up, features a character called Iris Vegan, who is the heroine of Hustvedt’s first novel, The Blindfold.

Auster was better known in Europe than in his native United States: “Merely a bestselling author in these parts,” read a 2007 New York magazine article, “Auster is a rock star in Paris.” In 2006, he was awarded Spain’s Prince of Asturias prize for literature, and in 1993 he was given the Prix Médicis Étranger for Leviathan. He was also a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

In April 2022, Auster and Davis’s son, Daniel, died from a drug overdose. In March 2023, Hustvedt revealed that Auster was being treated for cancer after having been diagnosed the previous December. His final novel, Baumgartner, about a widowed septuagenarian writer, was published in October.

Auster is survived by Hustvedt, their daughter Sophie Auster, his sister Janet Auster, and a grandson.

Source: theguardian.com