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Definition: Auster, Paul (Benjamin) from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

US writer. Making experimental use of detective story techniques, he has explored modern urban identity in his acclaimed New York Trilogy: City of Glass (1985), Ghosts (1986), and The Locked Room (1986). Later novels include Moon Palace (1989), The Music of Chance (1991; filmed 1993), Mr Vertigo (1994), Oracle Night (2003), and The Brooklyn Follies (2005).

He has also published works in a variety of other literary genres, for example the memoir The Invention of Solitude (1982), the poetry collections Unearth (1974) and Wall Writing (1976), the essay collections White Spaces (1980) and The Art of Hunger (1982), and the screenplays for the films Smoke and Blue in the Face (both 1995), which he co-directed with Wayne Wang.

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Summary Article: Auster, Paul from Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Literature: The Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Fiction

Paul Auster is a poet, essayist, filmmaker, and, above all, novelist whose philosophical and frequently metafictional works have won popular and critical acclaim for the restrained beauty of their storytelling. Auster was born February 3, 1947 in Newark, New Jersey, the grandson of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. After graduating from Columbia University, he lived in France for over three years, returning to New York in July 1974. Later that same year, he married Lydia Davis, also a writer, with whom he has a son, Daniel. Accounts of these times, and of the extreme financial difficulties which marked them, are given in autobiographical writings in the collections The Art of Hunger (1997a) and Hand to Mouth (1997b), while autobiographical allusions appear often in Auster's fiction as well.

Between 1974 and 1980, Auster wrote four one-act plays and published six collections of poetry. Influenced especially by the American objectivists, Paul Celan, and the French surrealists, Auster's poetry has received less critical attention than his prose. However, it establishes key themes around language and the self found in his novels too. Lines written in 1967, “The world is in my head. My body is in the world” (Auster 2004a), affirm that any experience of the world is defined by the words used to represent it, but that the material world exceeds the limits of that language. Auster has the body mediate between words and world, resulting in recurring motifs in his work of food and hunger (relating to the ideal transparency of the body), the room (where the body writes in solitude), and the city (where the body is alienated from society by the failure of language).

Auster describes the dance-inspired White Spaces (1979) as his bridge between writing poetry and writing prose. It also happened that he finished it on the night his father died, and it was in response to that loss that Auster wrote his first published prose work, a memoir, The Invention of Solitude (1982). Auster came to prominence with his next three novels, the remarkable City of Glass (1985), Ghosts (1986), and The Locked Room (1986), together published as The New York Trilogy (1987a). Termed postmodern detective stories, these novels play with their generic conventions even as In the Country of Last Things (1987b), where Anna Blume searches for her brother; Moon Palace (1989), about the orphan M. S. Fogg; and The Music of Chance (1990), about the final consequences of a lost card game, work as variations on dystopian fiction, the picaresque, and the road novel, respectively. Leviathan (1992), about an American terrorist; Mr Vertigo (1994), about a boy who can fly; and Timbuktu (1999), a dog's tale, reinforced his reputation as an original and clever writer.

Although Auster considers himself a realist, the reality of his novels, influenced by Samuel Beckett, Maurice Blanchot, Miguel de Cervantes, Knut Hamsun, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Franz Kafka, and Edgar Allan Poe, includes absurdity, grotesques, and uncanny doubles. As in The Book of Illusions (2002) and Oracle Night (2004b), characters are often removed from the everyday by an inheritance, illness, or loss before chance intervenes to re-engage them in a process of self-authoring. That these characters learn to live again might suggest that despair, nihilism, and hopelessness no longer motivate his work as Auster once maintained (Barone 1995), but even the life-sustaining happiness of Nathan Glass at the end of The Brooklyn Follies (2005) is not unqualified. Indeed, the pervasively intertextual Travels in the Scriptorium (2006) concerns a writer's guilt and enforced life sentence in a locked room.

Auster is the recipient of numerous awards. His work, sometimes accused by American critics of emptiness or repetitiveness, is applauded in Europe and widely translated. Auster is himself a translator; has edited The Random House Book of Twentieth Century French Poetry (1984), the NPR National Story Project anthology I Thought My Father Was God (2001), and Samuel Beckett: The Grove Centenary Edition (2006); and wrote, under the pseudonym Paul Benjamin, the crime thriller Squeeze Play (1982). He has worked as a director on four films, notably Smoke (1995) with Wayne Wang, and as a screenwriter on nine, including adaptations of The Music of Chance (1993) and In the Country of Last Things (2008). Artistic collaborations include City of Glass: The Graphic Novel (1994) with Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli, Double Game (1998) with Sophie Calle, The Story of My Typewriter (2002) with Sam Messer, and The Inner Life of Martin Frost (2006) with Glenn Thomas. His manuscripts have been acquired by the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library.

Auster lives and writes in Brooklyn with his second wife, the writer Siri Hustvedt, with whom he has a daughter, Sophie.

SEE ALSO: The City in Fiction (AF); DeLillo, Don (AF); Postmodernist Fiction (AF); The Road Novel (AF); Spiegelman, Art (AF); Utopian and Dystopian Fiction (AF)

REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READINGS
  • Auster, P. (1982). The Invention of Solitude. New York: Sun Press.
  • Auster, P. (1987a). The New York Trilogy. London: Faber and Faber.
  • Auster, P. (1987b). In the Country of Last Things. New York: Viking Penguin.
  • Auster, P. (1989). Moon Palace. New York: Viking Penguin.
  • Auster, P. (1990). The Music of Chance. New York: Viking Penguin.
  • Auster, P. (1992). Leviathan. New York: Viking Penguin.
  • Auster, P. (1994). Mr Vertigo. London: Faber and Faber.
  • Auster, P. (1997a). The Art of Hunger: Essays, Prefaces, Interviews and The Red Notebook. New York: Penguin.
  • Auster, P. (1997b). Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure. New York: Henry Holt.
  • Auster, P. (1999). Timbuktu. London: Faber and Faber.
  • Auster, P. (2002). The Book of Illusions. New York: Henry Holt.
  • Auster, P. (2004a). Collected Poems. Woodstock, NY: Overlook.
  • Auster, P. (2004b). Oracle Night. New York: Henry Holt.
  • Auster, P. (2005). The Brooklyn Follies. London: Faber and Faber.
  • Auster, P. (2006). Travels in the Scriptorium. London: Faber and Faber.
  • Auster, P. (2008). Man in the Dark. New York: Henry Holt.
  • Barone, D. (ed.) (1995). Beyond The Red Notebook: Essays on Paul Auster. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Bloom, H. (ed.) (2004). Paul Auster. Philadelphia: Chelsea House.
  • Brown, M. (2007). Paul Auster. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • Herzogenrath, B. (1999). An Art of Desire: Reading Paul Auster. Postmodern Studies 21. Amsterdam: Rodopi.
DAVID COUGHLAN
Wiley ©2011

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