15 June, 2004Issue 3.3FictionInterviewsLiteratureWriters

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The Tyrannies and Epiphanies of Chance

Andrew van der Vlies

Paul Auster
Oracle Night
Faber & Faber, 2004
304 pages

Paul Auster was born in New Jersey in 1947 and educated at Columbia. He is the author of numerous novels, including The New York Trilogy (1987), Moon Palace (1989), The Music of Chance (1990), Leviathan (1992), Mr Vertigo (1994), and The Book of Illusions (2002), and of screenplays for Smoke (1995) and Lulu on the Bridge (1998). He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, the author Siri Hustvedt.

The disappearing, deconstructing characters in each of Paul Auster’s novels, from The New York Trilogy (1987) to Oracle Night (2004), repeatedly experience the dangers or suffer the consequences of ignoring or misinterpreting an imperative to negotiate a suitable relationship with otherness. The punitive severity of many of their fates belies the redemptive possibilities glimpsed in Auster’s work, which offers a profoundly ethical conception of the possibilities and responsibilities of selfhood in a world structured by the tyrannies and epiphanies of the contingent. Extremely popular as a novelist in France (where he lived and worked as a translator from 1970 to 1974), and an elder-statesman of sorts among New York writers, Auster has an enthusiastic (even cult) following in Britain; the reading he gave on 5 May in the Institute of Education, off Russell Square, was packed.

Oracle Night, published in February, is another meditation on writing and chance. Sidney Orr is in his mid-30s, and struggling to find inspiration. After buying a new notebook from a mysterious Chinese stationer, he works on an idea suggested by John Trause, an older writer-mentor and family friend, to rewrite the story of Flitcraft in Hammett’s Maltese Falcon – a man who simply walks away from his life. Orr reinvents him as a New York editor, Nick Bowen, who absconds to the Midwest (also visited as a symbolic “magical-middle-of-nowhere” in Mr Vertigo) and ends up cataloguing telephone directories in a windowless bunker, where Orr leaves him, his narrative literally coming to a dead end. But this is only one in a series of narratives that circle around one another, and all, ultimately, stall. Blake Morrison calls Oracle Night “a claustrophobic and involuted book”, the product of “a writer spinning endlessly round his own head”.1 All the familiar themes, motifs, and character-traits are here. Like so much of Auster’s work, it is haltingly profound, and entrancingly ephemeral – a story about stories and the difficulty of telling them.

*

Andrew van der Vlies: I have long been fascinated by resonances in your work with secularised Jewish ideas and images. In The Invention of Solitude [Auster’s 1982 meditation on the death of his father, on his own fatherhood, and on his Jewish ancestry], you use the metaphor of Jonah in the whale’s stomach. It struck me while reading Oracle Night that when you put Nick Bowen in the subterranean Bureau of Historical Records, this is a reworking of that idea. Is this reworking of ideas something you do consciously?

Paul Auster: No, no, all the fiction I write is generated by the unconscious; I don’t know what it means, I don’t know where it’s coming from. Something like The Invention of Solitude, which is non-fiction, is a much more conscious, carefully elaborated exercise in thought.

AV: Another thing that’s long interested me is the closeness of some of the concerns in your work with the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, and I wondered if you’d ever read him, or whether it had fed through your interest in Edmond Jabès.2

PA: I’ve read a few pieces by Levinas, but not much. Many people have thought I’ve been a great student of Derrida, too, and I’ve never read him.

AV: The other thing which rang bells for me in Oracle Night was the Flitcraft episode, which is very reminiscent of Hawthorne’s story, “ Wakefield”, which was the model for Ghosts, in TheNew York Trilogy.

PA: The story about Flitcraft is practical. Several years ago the filmmaker Wim Wenders contacted me. He wrote me a lovely letter saying how much he enjoyed my work. He said ‘One day I would like to work on a film with you’. We met, and liked each other, and he had a backer, who was going to put up the money for the film. He said ‘Why don’t we do the Flitcraft story from Hammett’s Maltese Falcon’, and so I sat down and wrote a treatment, not highly elaborated, maybe about ten or fifteen pages. And then the backer backed away, and the money flew away, and the treatment went into a drawer and sat there for years, but I was thinking about this story throughout this time, always wanting to return to it. So it became part of this new novel.

AV: Does that happen often with your work? Sitting around for years, and then reappearing?

PA: Yes, yes, there are many fragmentary things that I’ve worked on, and found a use for later, in most of the books I’ve written. In fact, every novel I’ve written has gestated for years. This is no exception; nearly every element in Oracle Night has gestated.

AV: Returning to Jonah (to leave it again)… your work seems to speak to a Jewish tradition, but also to a vernacular American tradition, and to the “American classics”: Melville’s Moby Dick substitutes for the biblical whale. To what extent do you see yourself as an American writer in the tradition of Hawthorne and Melville?

PA: I do feel that they are my kinsmen, those 19th century writers. I’ve learnt more from them than from anybody else, much more than twentieth-century writers. Although I must say that my favourite twentieth-century novel is The Great Gatsby, not an unusual choice… but the narrative approach is something that I find very, very compelling. In The Locked Room, for example, I almost borrow that idea of the friend telling the story; Nick Carraway and Gatsby’s relationship is very interesting.

AV: To go back to what you’ve read and what’s been influential… it’s a bit of a game, I suppose… but thinking about Mr Vertigo and its protagonist Walt Rawley reminded me of Walter Raleigh, and you’ve written something on Sir Walter Raleigh.3

PA: Yes, an homage to the other Walter Raleigh…

AV: But I wondered if you’d read William Carlos Williams’ In the American Grain [which has a section on Raleigh]?

PA: Yes! To me, it’s one of the great non-fiction books written in the period. It’s a fantastic piece of work, some of Williams’ best writing.

AV: You are a devoted New Yorker. Can I ask you whether your feeling as a writer is different towards 9/11 from your feeling as a New Yorker?

PA: No, my feeling as a writer is the same. I’ve always known that there is catastrophe in the world; I’ve lived in the shadow of it in my mind all my life. But as a New Yorker, and as a flesh-and-blood human being, 9/11 has had an enormous effect. I’m not over it yet, and I don’t think I ever will be. It was the worst day in the history of the city.

AV: Perhaps I could ask you a few questions about Oracle Night? Trause is an anagram of Auster, and Sidney Orr’s surname sounds like “Auster”; to what extent do you play games like that with protagonists’ names?

PA: Well, Trause is an anagram of my name simply because he’s my age – 56, in the book. But his biography in no way resembles mine. He’s from a different generation, and has a different life story altogether. Nor is Sidney Orr in any way me. But, I think, in some sense, you can look at these two writers and say they are two versions of my inner self at different moments of my life. The younger writer and the older writer, but beyond that I wouldn’t want to go too far, because the facts of both their lives have nothing to do with mine.4

AV: The use of phone books struck me as books of memory, in the sense that you’ve used them before – it’s something you’ve come back to. “The Book of Memory” is one of the sections in The Invention of Solitude. Why is the phone book here?

PA: The telephone book which you see the picture of in the book is something I own. It was given to my by my Polish publisher several years ago when I was in Warsaw, and he was scouring the city for me for a present, for something special. Well, in the phonebook, there’s an Auster, and this book became impregnated with meaning for me, and I wanted to use it in the novel. It has personal resonances for me.

AV: The quote from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities5 – why?

PA: Why? Well, it’s just something that’s very beautiful, and something that is all about contradiction. All about having two opposite ideas in the mind at the same time, and I think sometimes the book embodies that idea.

Andrew van der Vlies is completing a DPhil at Lincoln College, Oxford, on the publication and reception histories of South African literatures in Britain. He has published on late nineteenth- and twentieth-century British and South African publishing cultures, and on several South African writers. He teaches twentieth-century British, American, and Colonial/Postcolonial literatures in English.

    Notes

  1. Blake Morrison, “Things that go bump in the light”, The Guardian Review 7 February 2004: 26.
  2. Edmond Jabès (1912-1991), born into a wealthy Jewish family in Egypt and expelled after the Suez crisis in 1956, became a major figure in French letters, the author of 15 texts of indeterminate genre about exile, the Jewish diaspora, and the Holocaust, including, most famously, The Book of Questions (1 963). Auster’s review of this text, “Story of a Scream”, was published in T he New York Review of Books 24.7 (28 April 1977), 38-40, and reprinted as “Book of the Dead” in his Ground Work: Selected Poems and Essays, 1970-1979 (London: Faber & Faber, 1990), 183-210; and The Art of Hunger: Essays, Prefaces, Interviews and The Red Notebook (New York: Penguin, 1993), 107-14.
  3. “The Death of Sir Walter Raleigh”, Parenthèse 4 (1975), 223-27, reprinted as “The Death of Sir Walter Raleigh”, Ground Work, 164-69.
  4. Auster sounds like he’s giving a practised answer. Erica Wagner asked him the same question during the short onstage discussion he had with her after his reading in Russell Square, and he gave the same response. Sean O’Hagan’s review of Oracle Night in the Observer raises the question, however, of another similarity between Trause and Auster, who both have sons who have had brushes with the law over drugs-related crime. See Sean O’Hagan, “Abstract expressionist”, The Observer 8 February 2004: http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/generalfiction/story/0,6000,1142856,00.html
  5. Most of the famous opening sentence of Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” etc.) is quoted on pp. 203-4 of Oracle Night.
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