Credit: Lotte Hansen
7 p.m., Wednesday, September 10
Barnes & Noble Union Square
33 East 17th Street
Man in the Dark
Henry Holt & Company
180 pp., $23
A man who settled and wrote in Brooklyn long before all the hot young literary things were jostling to do the same, Paul Auster has fourteen novels to his name (including The New York Trilogy and The Brooklyn Follies), plus a large body of non-fiction work that includes poetry, translations, screenplays, memoirs, essays, etc. Auster’s most recent novel, Man in the Dark, finds 72-year-old book critic August Brill wiling away his insomniac nights by telling himself stories about an America in which Bush is still in the Oval Office, but the Twin Towers remain standing. In the waking world, the Iraq war is in full swing, and Brill is justifiably depressed—especially since he’s largely lost the use of his legs. (Is it any accident that Auster makes his book critic legless?)
In advance of his reading at Barnes & Noble tomorrow, Paul Auster spoke to the Voice from his home in Brooklyn (which he shares with his wife, the writer Siri Hustvedt), about his new novel, Iraq, and how he feels when reviewers call his work “lazy.” —Ruth McCann
Man in the Dark is understandably gloomy about Iraq. After the Democratic and Republican conventions, how are you feeling about the war?
Things have quieted down a bit, but we’re still there, and it’s still a mess. I’m praying that we can start pulling out soon.
Are you feeling better than August Brill?
Not particularly, no.
Did you read the review of Man in the Dark in the San Francisco Chronicle?
I looked at it—I just glanced.
The writer, Stephen Elliott, said your earlier work is “lazy, in the best sense of the word,” and then said that “Man in the Dark is so unlike anything Auster has ever written that it doesn’t make sense to compare it with his earlier work.” What are your thoughts on that?
Reading that, I was rather thrown back. I mean, if anything has ever been said about me consistently, it’s how tightly constructed and tightly written all my books are, so I don’t understand this “lazy” term. I was completely flummoxed.
You’ve spent a lot of time translating various pieces of French writing. Do you think that process changed the way you write in English?
I think the one thing translation helped me with was making economical sentences in my own language. I did two kinds of translation: one was for money, and those were all prose books, some of them not very interesting at all, some quite good. And then I translated poems out of love, and I think the exercise of translating poems, especially for young poets, is irreplaceable. It’s better than going to a poetry workshop. If you tackle a truly good poem, even a great poem, you have to inhabit it—you have to get inside it in a way that a mere reading of the poem doesn’t allow you to do. And then you have to break it down and then put it all back together again.
Do you still write poetry?
I only write poems for family occasions now, weddings and birthdays. And they’re all comical, rhyming poems. I like to keep the family laughing.
In the acceptance speech you gave when you received the Prince of Asturias Prize for Letters, you said that children’s stories give children the opportunity to confront their own “fears and inner torments in a perfectly safe and protected environment.” What do you think about the theory that Coetzee talks about briefly in Elizabeth Costello that reading and writing about evil is somehow bad for us?
I’m a very big fan of Coetzee’s work, and he’s in fact a friend of mine. But I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think, first of all, that no subject is taboo. A writer has to be able to feel open enough to address anything in the universe. And tackling evil head-on is something that falls within the realm of the possible for writers. I don’t think turning away from things is the way to deal with them.
In Man in the Dark, Brill’s daughter is writing a biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s daughter, Rose. How did you come across her?
I’m a Hawthorne fanatic. He’s probably my favorite American writer, and I’ve read so much about him and his family, so I know all about Rose. [In Man in the Dark,] there’s such a glancing reference to her, but the full story is really very interesting. When she started treating cancer patients right here in New York on the Lower East Side (the house still exists, by the way, it’s called Rosary House), cancer was considered a communicable disease, and cancer patients were generally isolated like lepers. But she lived among the patients and took care of them, and it was a brave thing to do, and a remarkable thing to do. And she wrote that book about her father in order to make money to support her work with the cancer patients.
The passage you quote is extraordinary.
Auster: It’s beautiful—it’s the end of the book. And it’s so moving, isn’t it?
Paul Auster reads tomorrow night, Wednesday, September 10, 7pm, at the Barnes & Noble Union Square, 33 East 17th Street, 212-253-0810.