Blog : Paul Auster

Author, Auster: My Love for the Novelist Paul Auster – by Paul A.

I’m currently on page 676 of Paul Auster’s latest novel, the 866-page opus 4 3 2 1. And I have to say – each page is bliss. I find myself smiling a lot, occasionally chuckling gleefully, and even a couple of times on the edge of tears. I come back to the book each night like an old friend I am delighted to see again. Which makes sense – because Paul Auster is my favourite modern novelist by a country mile, and one I always return to with anticipation.

I was first introduced to him by my mum. One day at the library, she handed me a copy of Moon Palace, and said, “I think you might like this.” (She never does that with books. With shirts yes, but this was unusual.) I still don’t know quite why she thought I would like it, but I tried it. And fell immediately in love, with Auster’s mysterious, affectionate, spell-binding tale of Marco Stanley Fogg’s journey through the American twentieth century. That was the last Auster book I read from the library. After that, it was straight to the bookshop to read more. I gobbled them up – starting with his acknowledged classic trio of short dream-like detective novellas, The New York Trilogy. I burned through his novels – it would be impossible to pick favourites, but some I just loved: The Book of Illusions, his tale of a grieving professor who finds meaning in rediscovering a lost silent comedian; Timbuktu, his delightful novel narrated by Mr. Bones, a dog; The Music of Chance, his twisting, tragic tale of the dangers of gambling with your life (which was made into a splendid little movie with Mandy Patinkin and James Spader); and Mr. Vertigo, his wonderful story of a young orphan who learns to fly … and the dark dangers of the world of entertainment.

When I’d read all his novels heretofore published, and was awaiting his new one, I found myself trying his prose … and finding it equally human and absorbing. His tales of growing up in New Jersey, of near starvation poverty in Paris translating poems and attempting to be a writer, and his lessons in life becoming a father, trying out being a film-maker, aging and learning, in books like Hand to Mouth, The Red Notebook, and more recently Winter Journal. His published letters, with fellow writer, J. M. Coetzee, comparing life in South Africa and Brooklyn are a joy; the collection of stories of coincidence collected by the public radio station NPR from its listeners that he edits, True Tales of American Life, reads like a myriad of one-page Auster adventures; and even his screenplays, a form normally sluggish and cold to read, burst with imagination and playfulness.

Did the fact that with my middle name being Andrew, he and I were both Paul A., impact my interest in him? No doubt it did, and it’s the kind of play on words and names that he loves. I initially mis-pronounced his surname as “austere”, which I think he’d quite like. Since he’s both that and not that. His writing is clean and clear, uncluttered, never trying to bewilder us with clever language (unlike Joyce, one of his heroes). But his writing is also warm, funny, silly, intrigued, flawed, meandering and humane – never cold. Some people have told me he is a postmodern novelist, but I find myself arguing with them, because he’s not cynical and clinical – yes, he’s playful, in ways I’ll talk about below, but it’s never about form, it’s never cruel, desolate, giving up on us. It’s always sincere and compassionate – often whimsical. It’s full of love of life – I’ve personally always found Auster’s writing to be much more like Dickens than like Beckett.

I’ve been in the same room as him three times, all in New York, and I can say, in person he comes across as brave, curious, generous and humble, yet with a robust self belief. Though I’ve never spoken to him. The first time, he was reading from his new novel, Invisible, at the 92nd Street Y. He started to read, and I was surprised. Based on his author photo (Auster the author, mysterious dark eyes in a black polo neck) and his sensitive writing, I expected a gentle, light, bohemian voice. Instead, Auster had the pleasing smoky deep tones of a New Jersey truck driver. Then I went from surprised to astonished – he chose to read, in front of hundreds of people, a passage from the book that was essentially a long graphic sex scene, indeed an incestuous one, and I remember thinking, even as an actor who thought he was decently courageous, I would have struggled to do it. But it wasn’t to shock – he read with great brave calm, and it facilitated a powerful discussion afterwards about a key idea in the book – how much of this was fantasy, and how much we mangle memory in our lives. I was wowed – this man’s skill was only matched by his bravery.

The second time, I saw him speak at the Strand Bookstore, along with Edward Albee, about the influence of Samuel Beckett on their work. Kind of a dream come true for this actor! It was joyous to see how much he loved plays, even though he doesn’t write them – at times, he seemed to like them more than Albee! But what I was struck by was his humility – and his feeling of debt and awe to other writers, from Shakespeare onwards.

Finally, I went to see an on-stage adaptation of City of Glass, one of The New York Trilogy, at a tiny theatre in Greenwich Village. It was quite good – a little avant-garde artsy for my taste, but it captured theatrically a lot of the mystery about identity in the book. Then suddenly my evening became like a chapter … in a Paul Auster book. I heard a man laugh heartily, in a lovely warm guffaw, at many of the comic moments in the play. It sounded vaguely familiar … could it be … nah. Then, as I was leaving the theatre after the show, there walking in the lobby right in front of me … is Paul Auster. And I think, “Gosh, I should go up and talk to him. He’d love the coincidence of this, he just happens to be here the night I come, his huge fan, Paul A., Paul an Actor with Paul the Author …” when I noticed the writer-director of the play joining him, and starting to talk about the show, and Auster was warmly, generously congratulating him on the piece, and I realized – this was his moment and I didn’t want to disturb it. Maybe I should have held on, found a way to say hello, but this felt like the right thing in that Paul Auster moment too, as I walked off into the New York night, marvelling at life’s incredible capacity for meaningful chance.

But back to the books. What do I find so special about his writing? Well, besides his ability to create intriguing narratives, to develop and reveal character, and to examine big themes in his stories, there are a few special things that are particularly Paul Auster that I love:

I love how he makes lists.

I love his enchantment with games, both the intricacies and joys of sports, particularly baseball, but also games he makes up that his characters play, like Screwdriver Darts. (I recently was cleaning out some old boxes of papers, and found I had written down the complete rules to Playing Card Baseball that Auster created in one of his books.)

I love his fascination with chance and coincidence. Life is always full of strange twists of fate in Auster’s world, the gods are at play, the world is small and ingenious and deeply mysterious. And bets are always dangerous in a Paul Auster novel.

I love how he’s intrigued by names, and the power of names. Of the name Paul. Of getting nicknames. Of how names are changed, like immigrant surnames anglicized at Ellis Island. Of anagrams. Of matching names. Of friends with similar sounding names. Of choosing pen names and aliases. Of initials. And of the titles of books and movies and stories.

I love his affection for the very poetry of words – not just in their arrangement but in individual words alone – what they sound like, where they come from, what they look like. He plays with words.

I love his adoration of books, and of stories, and of stories within stories. His regard for the masters like Cervantes, Kafka and Dickens, and his fascination with the very act of writing, including the choice of pencils and notebooks used, of what desk to sit at and where, and of typewriters as heavy hearty old friends and great gifts. His awe at the very process of publishing and how bookshops are magical sanctums of quiet possibility.

I love his delight in movies and movie-going, of old black-and-white Hollywood from spinning noir to Laurel and Hardy screwball slapstick, and of slow-moving French movies. And of the different qualities of cinemas and being in them, from the Thalia in Manhattan to the Cinematheque in Paris. And of the mischievous truancy of a matinee on your own.

I love how his women are smart, adventurous, fierce and challenging, often mysterious, but with a delicate heartbreak (and romance-stopping heart-brake) to them. How he never underestimates the capacity of older people to still have strivings, dreams unfulfilled and to make major mistakes. And how he brings together little gangs of aspiring kooks, wanderers and lost souls.

I love how he nails the essence of places, especially New York and Paris. Both cities’ capacity to be foreboding from the outside and sweetly delicious from the inside. The quality of walking straight blocks in Manhattan and winding cobbles in Paris. Reliable diners in Brooklyn and bustling restaurants in Saint Germain. The French capacity for disdain and generosity, of New Yorkers’ grinding determination and secret flights of fancy.

I love how fascinated he is by the structure of a day. I find myself jealous of his characters and the routines they build. And how he sees the value in repetition, and in repetitive work and of deep delving, whether writing a book or building a wall.

I love his bad jokes. His love of lame puns and punchlines. Of catchphrases. Of the joy in people’s dumb attempts at humour.

And I love how much he loves people. That is clear in every word, every line, every page, every punch of his typewriter keys, his huge heart for all kinds of people amid the incomprehensible totality of life, and the worthwhile effort of writing to understand … bits of it.

Most of all, he is so paulfyl. I mean playful. I think that’s a pretty great quality – in art and life.

Thanks, Paul. From Paul.



10 Hypnotising Novels

10 Hypnotising Novels

One of the truly great joys I think you can have is reading a novel, whose story is so well told, you can’t bear to put it down, you’re excited to think you’ll be back reading it later, and when you’re in the midst of it, you are almost in a trance state, so deeply are you engaged in the narrative. Of course, this doesn’t happen often, and I guess that’s part of what makes it special. Here are a gang of novels, in no particular order, that have left me spellbound and I think are pretty darn special:


The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt is just an exceptional writer, sentence by sentence, page by page, which I found again when I read her latest book The Goldfinch, which was also utterly absorbing. But The Secret History remains one of my favourite novels – I remember being utterly captured by the first-person story of a young man who falls completely into the seductive world of a gang of charismatic, eccentric misfits at a fancy New England university, where mystery and adventure is key and the rules of normal society are cast aside for a superior world of ideas and experiences … until ultimately facing the dangers of crossing the boundaries of morals and laws. I remember its crisply formed ideas and gorgeous sentences blowing my mind, and whipping through the pages of its darkly thrilling story. Even now, when I see its simple black cover in a bookshop, I get a tingle of joy.


The Brothers K by David James Duncan

In what is surely one of the greatly underrated Great American Novels, the saga of a family is gorgeously captured. Compassionate, uplifting and deeply humane, it follows decades in the lives of the four boys in the Chance family, absorbing us in capturing key aspects of American life, of sport and big dreams, of religion and regret, of political upheaval and finding your own way in that huge country. Truly beautiful, its 600 pages will blaze by, and leave you with only a feeling of good soul afterwards. I still sometimes dream of setting up a baseball pitching practice area in a back yard, complete with target and a bag of stained old baseballs, like the dethumbed father of the tale.


The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar by Roald Dahl

More of a novella, I adore this Roald Dahl story, and can remember being plain gobsmacked as a young lad following its incredible but so believably told story of a rich layabout who learns to count cards from a yogi master’s teachings, and then goes on to use various disguises to cheat casinos and give the money to the poor. Its intricate playing out of the learning process of magically seeing through the cards, and the sweaty drama of our protagonist’s first attempts at a card table, are all brilliantly captured in Dahl’s unmatched clear and caustic storytelling. 95% chance you will read this in one sitting.


Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis

I have clear memories of being introduced to Bret Easton Ellis while at drama school, and devouring his books in the only reading time I had amidst long days and crashed-out nights – my rumbling bus journeys to and from Dublin’s city centre. I remember being aghast and utterly fascinated by his American Psycho, but in reading his Glamorama, I was genuinely hypnotised. I recall reading a 3-way sex scene that went on and on and on for pages and pages, and having to put the book down, not from arousal but just being dizzy with its imagery. And getting off the bus one day, I realized I was noting the brand labels worn by each passer-by, and rating them based on it, just like the protagonist in the story, and having to shake it off! Almost every Ellis book is like stepping into a dangerous dream – dark and absorbing and fearless and scary. But in particular, Glamorama just got into my head. Brilliant book.


The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Klay by Michael Chabon

Oh, how I love this wonderful book. The just joyous, joyous story of two scruffy New Yorkers, one a brand-new immigrant, a lucky and resourceful escapee from fascist Europe, the other a feisty Jewish boy battling his true nature, both of whom find creative bliss and magnificent purpose creating superhero comic books, in the Golden Age of Marvel and DC. This is a heart-tendering story of friendship and liberation, and of doing good in the world with the gifts you have, of simple heroism, against a background of the rattling radiators and bright lights of 40’s Manhattan, and the horrors of World War II. And if like me, you grew up on Spider-Man comics, you’ll just love how it delves into the world of classic comics bullpens. Excelsior.


Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Ah, Dickens. Though some may mock him as mawkish and obvious, when he is read, I dare you not to be deeply absorbed. The story of Pip and his rise through hidden benefactors to the stately London life, and how his life comes crashing down around him amidst memories of foggy moors and cobwebbed ballrooms, stays with me like a vivid dream. And I still choke up thinking of the scene where Joe comes for a visit in his patched-up Sunday best, and can’t work out where to put his hat. Magic.


The Princess Bride by William Goldman

I saw the film first, which I adore. But in many ways, the book is even better – even Goldman’s intro, which creates the colourful tale of how the book was “discovered” is utterly delightful. This fairy tale packed with hilarious humour, marvelous imagination and of course true love, is unputdownable, with all of its much-loved scenes even more vivid in print, with even more of a Grimm-tale dangerous darkness to fight against for our heroes (and heroine). Perfect to read to your ailing grandson.


East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck’s mighty tome is a spirit-lifting elegy for lost dreams, for surprising loyalty, for family longing, for tarnished relationships, for awful pettiness, for stubborn passion. It is full of characters in the Trask and Hamilton families that you will cry over, and its muscular storytelling is packed with wisdom, bravery and healing. Delve into it deeply, and you will come out thrilled with your journey.



Mr. Vertigo by Paul Auster

I am a huge fan of Paul Auster, adoring his cleanly-written stories of chance and synchronicity, of the power of names and numbers and addresses, of movies seen in cinemas and books written in notebooks, of fallible memory, of stories within stories, of promises made and contracts entered into, of New York in all its impossibility, and of baseball games, both real and conjured. And this may well be my favourite, his tale of a twelve year old boy who learns to fly from a mysterious magician. Even when I think of it now, its last page, I get a shiver.


The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Aged 21, on my first ever visit to the US, on my J-1 visa summer in Cleveland, Ohio, I can remember writing in my journal, and being asked by my room-mates and fellow travelers, sweatily bored out of their minds in our AC-less, TV-less 1-bedroom apartment, on a weeknight of hot dead air and empty pockets, what I had written. To read it aloud. (I guess I should have known I was an actor then.) I did, and I remember very clearly what I read out. How even when surrounded by the grotty urban neighbourhood we were in, of biker bars with broken windows, of snarling cars shuddering our windowframes, of screaming and shouting in the night, how in reading The English Patient, it carried me away to a world of grace and desert light and dignity and sun-sparkled beauty. And it truly did, in Ondaatje’s spellbinding tale of characters smashed by the War, filled with profundity and heat and astonishing poetry, capturing fragile human life amidst the crash of mighty metal forces. Such is the power of a truly compelling novel.