There is no ornament in Paul Auster’s prose—no lyrical lines or fine phrases that stand out within his elegant sentences. There is just a voice, usually in the first person, guiding the reader effortlessly forward. Auster has called Samuel Beckett “the master of the comma,” a punctuation mark most writers take for granted. (Beckett begins Murphy: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”) If Beckett sees the comedy in the comma, then Auster hears its music, a percussive pause he sets to the beat of a unique narrative metronome. The typical Auster sentence—”A man lets out a little sigh, he slumps down in his chair, and it is death”—values clarity more than wordplay, yet there’s no denying its poetic grace.
Auster doesn’t play any instruments—”I’m totally incompetent as a musician,” he confesses in an interview with the Voice—so perhaps the hypnotic rhythms of his novels originate in his own speaking voice, a sound somewhere between a warm tenor and a round bass, and bearing the hard-boiled modulations of a man devoted to small Dutch cigars. In fact, faithful fans, including the author Peter Carey, recently trekked through the blinding snow of a Nor’easter to hear this particular voice recite his 11th novel, Oracle Night, in a marathon two-day reading inside an airy Chelsea gallery.
In recovery from a near fatal illness, Sidney Orr, Oracle‘s protagonist, takes a walk one morning through his Brooklyn neighborhood and enters a new stationery store, where he purchases an unusually attractive blue notebook. Sidney resumes his career as a novelist inside its quadrille-lined pages by reimagining “the Flitcraft episode” from The Maltese Falcon. In Sam Spade’s yarn, family man Flitcraft feels reborn after a falling construction beam fails to strike him, so he abruptly abandons his life and goes on the road—only to wind up married again, re-ensconced in middle-class predictability. “He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling,” Spade concludes in the Dashiell Hammett original.
“It’s very cute and ironic,” Auster says, “but it doesn’t really explore the depths of narrative that [Hammett] set in motion.” Sidney’s Flitcraft is unhappily married book editor Nick Bowen, nearly killed by a gargoyle head that breaks off from the facade of a West Village building. Convinced that he’s been given an opportunity for a new life, Bowen flees to Kansas City, carrying with him the unpublished manuscript of a legendary author, entitled Oracle Night.
As Sidney continues work on this novel, puzzling and possibly related events surround him. His beloved wife, Grace, usually so forthright, begins behaving secretively. The stationery store on Court Street closes down just two days later. And, strangest of all, Sidney seems literally to vanish when he writes inside the blue notebook. His friend, esteemed writer John Trause, who likes to draft his novels in the same tomes, warns that the blue notebooks “are very friendly, but they can also be cruel, and you have to watch that you don’t get lost in them.” Undeterred, Sidney pushes ahead, writing his way to a truth he may not wish to know.
Auster loyalists are familiar with the red notebooks in his novels and essays, but “there’s blue all over my work” too, the author points out. “Of all colors, blue and green have the greatest emotional range,” argues William Gass in On Being Blue. In a 1979 poem, “Facing the Music,” Auster, who admires Gass’s book, begins with: “Blue. And within that blue a feeling/of green.”
The dialectic of blue and green—a theme that preoccupies the paintings of Matisse, Hopper, and Diebenkorn—is inspired by landscape and the relationship of earth to sky. So although blue may be, as Gass believes, “most suitable as the color of interior life,” Collected Poems—which brings together for the first time all of Auster’s poetry and his expert translations of modern French verse—fittingly looks outward onto a gloomy landscape, where “Roots writhe with the worm.” Published before the novels that made him famous, these poems are enviable feats of coiled compression, even as they record the failures of human consciousness to understand our “bit-open earth.”
Auster ceased writing poetry in 1979, but he has recently penned songs for a Brooklyn band, One Ring Zero, and admits to dabbling privately in light verse. “Every once in a while,” he says, “for family functions, I write these funny poems, these funny rhyming poems.”
The narrator of “White Spaces,” the prose poem that turned out to be Auster’s last, announces the ambition, “To say the simplest thing possible.” The infinitive case here implies an imperative not yet fulfilled, a burden Auster will bring with him in his move to prose. Late in Oracle Night, when Sidney begins to make sense of the confusion around him, he invokes Beckett’s dictum that “to be an artist is to fail.” Auster, like Beckett, has mastered the comma but mistrusts le mot juste, preferring the chance music in the blue notes found between the proper chords.