Monday, January 15, 2007

Catching Up With Paul Auster


I came to Paul Auster late. In fact Brooklyn Follies, published not much more than a year ago, was the first of his books that I read. I quite enjoyed it but it was a much more conventional novel that I’d been led to expect from Auster so I was a bit disappointed all the same. I have since gone on to read some of his earlier books. On the one hand, this has confirmed my perception that Brooklyn Follies is something of an aberration in Auster’s oeuvre. On the other, it has set Brooklyn Follies in context for me such that I feel I might have seen more in it had I not read it first.

My most recent Auster read was The Red Notebook, a collection of ostensibly true stories about a series of coincidences. Are they really true stories? However improbable most of them are, only the last in the series seems forced. Does it matter? They felt true enough while I was reading that one or two of them had me on the edge of weeping. All in all, an odd and lovely little book.

What does this have to do with Brooklyn Follies? Paul Auster’s Red Notebook reminds me strongly of Brooklyn Follies protagonist Nathan Glass’s Book of Human Follies in which he seeks to document "in the simplest, clearest language possible an account of every blunder, every pratfall, every embarrassment, every idiocy, every foible" that he or anyone else has committed or been subjected to from the beginning of time to the present. Of course the subject matter of Glass’s book of follies is very different from that of the tales collected in The Red Notebook, but nevertheless they strike me as parallel endeavours undertaken in a similar spirit. Although Auster himself does not make one of his trademark appearances in Brooklyn Follies, I began to think perhaps he had slyly inserted himself into the narrative all the same. And then there is a more obvious connection in the fact that coincidence, of the same sort documented and celebrated in The Red Notebook, plays such a central role in Brooklyn Follies. These are small things, but they lead me to think that I might have discerned more layers and greater nuance in Brooklyn Follies had I been acquainted with Auster’s previous work when I read it.

I may or may not revisit Brooklyn Follies with this in mind, but I will continue to catch up on all of the books that preceded it. Auster’s next book, Travels in the Scriptorium, is due to be released this month. I’ve heard that a number of characters from his previous novels reappear in it and I want to be able to recognize them when I see them. I don’t intend to be caught without context again.

15 comments:

litlove said...

How very interesting, Kate. I really want to read some Auster this year as he's an author I've so far neglected. I have Oracle Night and The Book of Illusions on my shelves, so by default will probably start there, but it's very helpful to have a sense of his concerns and preoccupations before I begin.

kimbofo said...

Oracle Night was my first Auster. I found it quite an odd book and didn't think much of it. But weirdly it kind of burrowed inside my brain and weeks... months... later I was STILL thinking about it. It had kind of wormed its way into my brain without me even knowing.

I read New York Trilogy not long after -- and loved it. More than a year later I am STILL mulling it over.

I keep meaning to read more of his stuff, but you really need to be in the mood.

LK said...

You know, I've never read Auster, and he is one author I keep thinking I need to read. The Read Notebook sounds so interesting.

Julie said...

I read The Red Notebook not too long ago and found it absolutely fascinating. Are the stories true? Does it matter?

I also recently had the weird experience of coming across City of Glass in graphic novel form. I read the New York Trilogy many years ago and had all but forgotten it. The graphic novel brought it all back in a flood, and now Auster is high in my TBR stack.

Stefanie said...

I've not read Auster before and keep meaning to, but you know how that goes. Must make more effort.

patricia said...

I agree with kimbofo re: Oracle Night. It does kind of creep up on you later one. And the New York Trilogy is so far my favourite selection of Auster work. Augie Wren's Christmas Story is quite lovely, too.

I read Brooklyn Follies last year and was very disappointed in the book overall. It did not grab me at all. Hope that's not a sign of what his future work will be like...

acquisitionist said...

Thanks for the review of The Red Notebook . It sounds similar to his True Tales of American Life . I saw TRN awhile ago in a little independent but I think it's since disappeared. I'll keep an eye out. I loved Moon Palace by Auster.

lucette said...

In the Country of Last Things is one of my favorites--I just taught it last semester, and still like it, which is a great test. Also the NY trilogy, and Oracle Night.

Isabella said...

I don't think The Red Notebook is really representative of Auster. The ideas are neat, but feel rather tossed off — but fleshed out in his other books. There's a blue notebook in Oracle Night, and notebooks in the middle bit of NYT, none of them red that I recall tho. I haven't gotten round to Brooklyn Follies, cuz the reviews were rather lukewarm, but can't wait for the Scriptorium — I believe Anna of Last Things (a favourite) makes an appearance.

Razovsky said...

With the New York Trilogy, I thought Auster might turn out to be on a Becketty quest of writing virtually the same thing over and over again. I like such existential quests.

I read nothing of his again until The Book of Illusions, which I enjoyed, but it didn't have the kind of visceral effect of the much earlier books. But then, I find that so many novelists start small and good and weird, and then get lured by commercial possibilities: Stephen King, Campbell Black, Paul Quarrington. I think the capitalist marketplace takes a heavy toll on adventurous literature.

Stuart

Stuart

teabird17 said...

The only Auster I've read is Oracle Night - I thought it was an astonishing book at the time - *and* it burrowed inside my brain ! Now I'll be on the lookout for the Red Notebook.

Pour of Tor said...

I discovered Auster for the first time last year, when I read "Book of Illusions," which started absolutely luminously and then just ended well (too much plot and too little digression in the last third, oddly enough). Now I am in the midst of 'The New York Trilogy." I am glad to see so many others are enjoying him as much as I do!

w said...

I love the NY Trilogy (and the graphic novel!). Read it against Poe's stories---"William Wilson" or the ones with Auguste Dupin, themselves a comment on Sherlock Holmes and the detective genre.

To me, Oracle Night follows the NY Trilogy perfectly, but I haven't been able to get into his other writings. I might just pick up The Red Notebook now.

aisforanxiety said...

Yeah, Auster is a fantastic novelist. The latest thing I have read is The Art Of Hunger, which is a great piece of criticism. You can really see in that writing where he has got ideas for some of his original works- such as the meaninglessness of existence, yet the will to carry on writing. A Paradox if you like.

Zub said...

Interesting post, am a great fan of Paul Auster. His books are intensely felt and reasoned that's the thing. There's something of the magical and mysterious that he seems to capture. Other times he goes into that grey modernity that comes from over thinking, but he's a heart felt writer that's the paradox with Paul Auster.