The Wise Man of Brooklyn

Paul Auster

Interview

  • TEXT HARALD BRAUN
  • PHOTOS DUSTIN AKSLAND

Paul Auster will be 70 years old this month; the author and film director’s new novel 4321 has just been published. We meet him in New York, talk about Donald Trump, fear, happiness and the power of coincidence.

Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York. This is where New York’s well-to-do middle class live, where Paul Auster lives with his wife Siri Hustvedt, likewise a prize-winning author and internationally successful. The brownstone house where they live on four floors is attractive but not pretentious. A plain golden bell button on the door, no name. Even authors may sometimes find fans suddenly on their front doorstep, wanting to chat about their latest book. That they’ve had their share of “visitors” is confirmed by our host when he opens the door. Dressed all in black, he’s in a cheerful mood. Auster has just recently finished his novel 4321, over 1,000 pages long, on which he worked for three years. It tells the story of Archibald Ferguson, the son of Jewish immigrants, who grows up in the metropolitan area of New York. But Auster doesn’t tell the story in a purely linear way, rather he tells it four times, each time following a different fictional path. Auster groans as he sits down on a narrow leather armchair, his face contorted with pain. He’s got backache. Is the general political situation to blame? As a student at Columbia University, he protested against the Vietnam War and since then, has always taken a clear political position, usually on the left. And now Donald Trump is President, an election result that has still not been fully digested in the Auster/Hustvedt household.

Paul Auster’s house in Brooklyn

Intellectual fortress: Paul Auster’s house in Brooklyn

© Dustin Aksland
Young Paul Auster

Young Paul Auster

© Dustin Aksland
Paul Auster’s typewriter, bought in 1974 for 40 dollars

Faithful companion: Paul Auster’s typewriter, bought in 1974 for 40 dollars

© Dustin Aksland

Mr. Auster, you don’t seem to be so keen on the new US President …

I am angry, confused, horrified by what we have done. There are difficult years ahead, not just for America, but for the whole world. I can only hope that he will very soon do something so dreadful that he will be removed from office.

There’s a slim hope in Europe that he might in future behave more like a president …

Trump? No way. He is unscrupulous and ruthless. I remember this one little incident that says a lot about his character: As patron of a golf tournament, this loudmouth once promised a million dollars to the first player who managed to hit the ball into the hole at his first attempt. And someone actually succeeded in doing just that. There were big celebrations for Trump and the man, but a few days later the winner received a letter from Trump’s lawyer, stating that the money could unfortunately not be paid because the ball had not been far enough away from the hole. That’s Trump, disgusting.

Are you likely to be more militant in future? Will your topics change?

I don’t know yet. But I’m certain that this will change my life. The whole social climate of this country will change. Trump really scares me personally. I don’t exactly know what I will do, but I do know that I’ll have to do something. I’m still in a kind of state of shock, I need more time. We don’t know what will happen, but let me put it this way: I’m prepared for the worst.

© Dustin Aksland

The photographer is ready and interrupts us. Auster sighs, but complies. He has told us that 15 minutes ought to be enough. He sits down in the corner in front of some shelves. The photographer wants him to stand, but Auster refuses with a friendly shake of the head. Too tired. His back. With an ironic smile he comments on the photographer’s attempts to get him to take up different positions. He just continues to sit there with a mysterious expression and a slightly melancholy air. The photographs take some time while he willingly shows us the rest of the house. In one room there are piles of books and DVDs, while a large pile with various annual editions of “Who’s Who in Baseball” has a place of honor on the sideboard. Photos of him, his wife and his daughter Sophie hang on the few available spaces on the walls. Before we can take shots of the dark, windowless den that is his study, situated in the basement, Siri Hustvedt gives us a friendly welcome. She is a tall, willowy blonde with a pale complexion. She exchanges a quick look with her husband, questioning and slightly amused, as if to say: “Will this take much longer, you poor dear?” Sophie Auster, a successful musician, recently said that she admires her parents for having been able to keep their thirty-year marriage alive and loving, and that she is a little fearful of never finding such a lifelong love herself.


 

Portrait of Paul Auster

The author just published his novel “4321“

© Dustin Aksland

 

In your new novel you describe the existential consequences that coincidence and supposedly minor decisions can have on a person’s life …

I simply developed the question of “What would happen, if” further. That’s the question that every novelist is interested in. It’s at the center of his dramatic output. In my book I describe four parallel paths that this person could have taken if he had made certain decisions. That was fascinating.

An ambitious project. Were you aware of that from the beginning?

True, the book is an elephant. Hopefully, a sprinting elephant … However, I did restrain myself. Otherwise it would have ended up 3,000 pages.

I never feel good about a book I’ve just finished

One would hardly write a book like that without thinking about the important turning points in one’s own life. What would your life have been like if you had, for example, become a baseball player, or if you had decided not to go to that fateful reading …

… at which I met my wife, the love of my life. That’s a scary thought! It demonstrates how arbitrary everything is. I go to this reading not expecting anything, and there I meet the woman with whom I have now been living for over 30 years. That’s quite amazing. Of course my experiences have influenced the book in one way or another. I remember that at summer camp a friend of mine was struck by lightning and died. He was standing very close to me. Naturally, it makes you think that you could have been struck too. That was one of the most important experiences of my life.


 

Book cover: Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy

THE NEW YORK TRILOGY

(1985-1987)

Experimental crime stories focusing on Auster’s central themes: identity and fallacy, texts and illusion.

Book cover: Paul Auster's novel Leviathan

Leviathan

(1992)

The struggles of the writer, miracles, corpses and questions of identity: Auster’s bittersweet hymn to the American Dream.

Book cover: Paul Auster's novel 4321

4321

(2017)

Four variations on one life: a virtuoso mind game about risks and the side effects of missed opportunities.


 

You have stated that you agree with Samuel Beckett’s view that writing means failing. An author will always fail, he can only try to fail better next time …

True. I never feel good about a book I’ve just finished. I’m never satisfied. Not with 4321 either. But I did my best.

Do you read reviews?

Over the years I have learnt that it is better to take no notice of them. When I was younger, I read them all, every scrap. What I discovered was that when I was praised I felt good for one or two minutes, but it didn’t mean anything to me. But when someone tore me to shreds, it really upset me. I have been praised far more often than criticized, but the few nasty reviews were especially hurtful.

Ten years ago you directed your last film, The Inner Life of Martin Frost. Any chance of your next project being a film rather than a book?

If I were younger and if the film industry were not so dreadful, then I would consider it. I really loved making films. Everything about the work interests me, truly everything. Writing scripts, working with the actors, even cutting. But all the other stuff associated with the movie industry is horrible. I can do without all of that.

Do you still go to the movies to watch new films?

Films rarely, TV series occasionally – but, to be quite honest, I don’t usually have the energy to keep up with those series. You know what? Siri and I like old detective films and that BBC series “Foyle’s War.” That was really good. Every episode was as long as a movie, the story was set in the Second World War in Great Britain – powerful stuff. I watch baseball on TV. I’ve been fanatical about baseball ever since I was a little kid. I watch it as often as possible.

Do you ever watch it live in the stadium?

Twice, maybe three times a year. My team is the New York Mets, traditionally a terrible and unsuccessful team, but in the last two years they’ve improved. Baseball is very complex; you have to know a lot about the game in order to appreciate it. But what’s the use of telling you that? I have so often tried to explain the magic of the game to Europeans, but it’s hopeless. You don’t understand it.

What if the situation were reversed? Do you understand anything about football?

Soccer? Deadly boring!


This story first appeared in Lufthansa Exclusive, the frequent traveller magazine.
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Cover Lufthansa Magazine N°2 | 2017

Harald Braun was in bondage to various publishing houses for nearly 20 years, most recently as deputy editor of Allegra and copy editor of Park Avenue. Today, he is a freelance contributer to magazines and newspapers, and writes fiction and non-fiction. Harald lives in Horst, northern Germany for most of the year except when he escapes to Sydney for a few months in the winters.

haraldbraun.com