The Green Notebook: Paul Auster in Buenos Aires

A taxi races down the avenue. It pulls up in front of the MALBA, the Museum of Latin American art; a girl jumps out. She’s in a hurry, though she maintains her cool. She’s wearing black, which she’s thought through; this is surely the elegant option, though it also makes her anxious she won’t be noticed. In her hand is a green notebook, in her purse a tape recorder. Batteries and memory space have been checked. Everything has been checked. The only glitch is that her bus never arrives. Certain things remain unforeseeable; this she remembers reading in the novelist’s books.

A few seconds after she slides into the back row, the novelist walks onstage. His name is Paul Auster; he’s in the city for the Feria del Libro, along with his friend J.M. Coetzee. On Sunday they’ll give a talk together. Now it’s just Auster taking questions. He wears a grey sweater, light-blue collared shirt, black pants, beige shoes. His hair is perfectly sculpted, his eyes striking. He speaks in English, with a slight lisp and nasal tone, which might just be his New York accent. Most of the audience wears headphones which simultaneously translate what he says. Strange echoes and scratchy noises fill the hall, the Spanish versions faintly audible.

The girl takes out a pen to write down what the novelist says in her green notebook. A tweed-suited viejo in front of her swears at his headphones. He takes them off, holds them upside-down next to one ear. For the next hour the voice of the Argentine Auster booms out simultaneously with the voice of the novelist onstage.

* * *

You think of what you know about Auster. Biography: Born in 1947 in New Jersey, education at Columbia University, three years in France, now living in New York, married first to Lydia Davis, then to Siri Hustvedt, both also novelists. Keywords: postmodernism / existentialism / poststructuralism / identity / space / language / anonymity / dissolution. Key works: ‘The New York Trilogy’, ‘Moon Palace’, ‘The Book of Illusions’, ‘The Red Notebook’, ‘The Invention of Solitude’.

You think of his ‘New York Trilogy’, which you read at 17, when black eyeliner and the nouveau roman and Gauloise cigarettes and detective novels all held a special mystique. You thought Auster embodied this mystique. In blue ballpoint pen you underlined a passage from his story ‘City of Glass’: “In the good mystery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant. And even if it is not significant, it has the potential to be so—which amounts to the same thing. The world of the book comes to life, seething with possibilities, with secrets and contradictions. Since everything seen or said, even the slightest, most trivial thing, can bear a connection to the outcome of the story, nothing must be overlooked.”

You think of a widely-read 2009 New Yorker essay on Auster’s work by James Wood, called ‘Shallow Graves’. At one point Wood describes Auster as overly earnest, un-ironic, unaware of the comedy in the situations he creates. At another point he describes him as overly banal linguistically; in a text by Beckett or Blanchot, “Texts stutter and fragment, shred themselves around a void”, while Auster’s is the limpid grave chattiness of noir B-movies.

You think of Auster’s popularity here. It was one of the things that surprised you when you arrived two years ago, and on buses and in cafés found yourself involved in discussions of North American literature.

“Which contemporary authors do you recommend?”

You’d mumble some names, swathed in disclaimers.

“And what about Patricia Highsmith? Or Paul Auster?”

You think of what might make Auster so internationally readable. His work is unpinned from the specificity of place or time; anonymous male writer types think and write and ruminate in vague cosmopolitan cities that could be New York or Paris or London, where there are literate people, criminals, books, telephones. More recent work has moved into memoir—or rather, stories which are in some way about his own experiences, though not autobiographies in any traditional sense. Anyway, stories about him are stories about everyone, he has said repeatedly.

You think of Christopher Tayler’s summing-up in a London Review of Books blog post: “The English-speaking world’s rough consensus on Auster is, I suppose, that he’s an entertaining and skilful but not altogether non-bogus writer with a damaging weakness for pre-fabricated language and a 1980s take on Franco-American 1960s cool, appealing and preposterous in more or less equal measure.”

You think how few people – how very few – are attempting metaphysical narrative projects like Paul Auster is. You think this ambition is perhaps in itself something interesting and valuable.

* * *

Select quotes from the Green Notebook (also registered on Sony ICD-PX333 Digital Voice Recorder)

Poetry and prose: “My first great ambition was to be a novelist, but I started with poetry. It had smaller forms more possible to work in. From age 22, for eight or nine years I just wrote poetry. It taught me the cadences and rhythms of words. I wrote every day, and it inculcated in me a certain approach to language.”

His wife Siri: “Siri is my reader, the one I trust, and if she has any negative comments she’ll tell me. It’s the same in reverse. You need somebody to bounce things off of, a policy of absolute honesty while being ‘for’ the other person. To me Siri is one of the great literary intelligences, and it’s been quite an adventure the last 33 years.”

Uncertainty: “You’re walking along the road to become a doctor, which is what you’ve always wanted to be. A tree falls. You have to go into the woods to go around it, and there you might fall into a hole. Or you might meet someone else, and go off somewhere together. I’m interested in those moments when the tree falls, when certainty is broken. How do you figure things out when you’re thrown off course and confused? During these moments of chance, we are not ourselves. We are in zones of danger and possibility, as in Kafka’s ‘Description of a Struggle’.”

Intuition and reason: “The sources of my novels and poems are inaccessible to me. Reason comes during revision.”

Political education: “I went to Columbia in New York in the 1960s, which was a particularly volatile and exciting moment. You had the Vietnam War, you had protests and riots for two years. What I witnessed was actually a phenomenology of revolution in a petri dish. I watched left-wing students manipulate the situation, eliminate the middle. They would occupy buildings so the police would come, and that would polarise people. It was a political education.”

Literary education: “At Columbia I took literary classes, including a first year world literature class in translation, from the Greeks to Dostoevsky. It was a delirium. I probably read more books in those four years than ever since. But I never took a writing class; I wanted to struggle on alone, without interference. I was a combination of arrogance and timidity, a mess like most 18 or 20 year olds, but a mess with great enthusiasm.”

Writing and forgetting: “If you want to forget, you don’t write. Talking about things perpetuates the story. By forgetting you alter reality, you alter your life. Everyone has moments they’re ashamed of, and they get pushed out of the narrative. To write is to take a stand.”

US politics: “We’re living through strange times. The election was stolen; I thought it would be the biggest story of the century that Bush didn’t actually win, but nobody talks about that now. There was the glorious, inspiring moment when Obama was elected, then the backlash and festering racism. It’s a country at odds with itself, not a good place right now.”

Recommended US authors: “You have to go back. Poe, Whitman, Dickinson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Emerson. All of them are from the mid-19th century, and they’re a good place to start.”

* * *

The interviewer asks questions – the interpreter translates – the novelist answers. Meanings shift subtly. Auster’s interviewer, the current rector of the Universidad Nacional de San Martín, is a specialist on the work of Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), a German mystic who thought God resided in the individual soul, in the “boiling over” or “abundance” of his Being, ideas later revived by the 19th-century Romantics.

Perhaps the types of questions Carlos Ruta asks emerge from his theologico-philosophical training, a certain intellectualized conception of what an interview with Paul Auster might be. Perhaps he hopes that the norms of the interview will dissolve, and that something else, unpredictable, will occur: a flowing-over of significance. Perhaps he wants a kind of permeability between himself and his subject, between book and person, between fiction and reality.

Auster – clinging at least during this hour to a narrower vision – prefers to keep boundaries sharp. “I recognise where you got that quote,” he says. “It’s from the third volume of the ‘New York Trilogy’. You have to be careful to differentiate between the thoughts of the narrator and mine. They’re not always the same.”

* * *

Novelist: “I organised a story project for National Public Radio. We published a selection; it’s impossible to read it through without laughing once, crying once. Now that’s a good book. Over 4,000 stories came in, and I read every one.”

Viejo: [loudly] “¡La puta madre!

* * *

Tomorrow the girl will enter a bookstore and ask about ‘Winter Journal’ and ‘Report from the Interior’, the novelist’s impressionistic memoirs-that-are-not-quite-memoirs. She will look for the volume of correspondence exchanged between Auster and Coetzee, published last year as ‘Here and Now’ (or Aquí y ahora); all the novelist’s books have all been translated into Spanish by Editorial Anagrama. She will make plans with a friend to attend the Sunday event at the Feria del Libro, starting at 6pm in La Rural.

Tomorrow she will think about the broad lines Auster has laid out. He has said that “human beings are hungry for stories”, discussed humanity, art, and other large concepts, and referred to himself as a member of the “small tribe of serious novelists”. He has prioritized the novel as a “maturation” of his poetry, and made it clear that his individual work is a way of talking about all people. Is he angling for a Nobel, that glittering golden prize already won by his colleague Coetzee? Does it matter if he is?

For now the girl remains in the back of the auditorium, watching the queue begin to form for the book signing. “I love you Paul,” people repeatedly say, planting kisses on his cheeks, touching his shoulders as if he is some sacred relic. Coetzee also remains outside the queue; lean, scowling, he stalks past on his way to some other place. Eventually the girl gets up to join the worshippers, her individual self merging with that of the others. She anticipates the moment when she will be back outside, wandering the gray city, to perhaps receive a strange phone call from a mysterious stranger.