October 24, 2009
Paul Auster explains how his work so often mixes the real and imagined
Ambiguity governs Auster’s latest novel — set in the Paris of 1967
When Auster and I speak, he tells me that he’d be surprised if my memory was right. He stayed in the place back in 1965, two years before the novel was set. “It was such a dump, I can’t imagine they would have keyrings,” he says in his deep and appealing voice — which still carries a hint of his native New Jersey. Later, after a fair bit of searching, I found the fob — and discovered that he was right. It’s from the Hotel Solferino, on the rue de Lille. But it’s little wonder I was drawn in: Austerland is a place of strange, rich coincidences, where objects assume talismanic significance.
The last time we spoke was just after September 11, 2001, when a collection of stories he had edited, True Tales of American Life, had just been published. The book (which appeared in the US under the rather more wonderful title I Thought my Father was God) was a collection of true stories solicited by Auster as part of a project for National Public Radio; in the aftermath of the attacks on the twin towers, these often moving, sometimes eerie tales had a special resonance, and seemed to prove Auster’s theory that a life moved by coincidence and serendipity was not his lot alone.
Not for nothing is the title of one his novels The Music of Chance. Since then Auster, now 62, has published six novels — The Book of Illusions, Oracle Night, The Brooklyn Follies, Travels in the Scriptorium, Man in the Dark and now Invisible — all of which feature individuals who find themselves at extremes. His characters lose their families, their health or any sense of their own identity: they are left to remake the world in words, and it’s up to the reader to follow their stories — to choose to believe them or not. “Invisible,” Auster says to me, “is a word for what can’t be known.”