Paul Auster Reading Week: A Life in Words

Paul Auster in conversation with I.B. Siegumfeldt.

IB (Inge Birgitte) Siegumfeldt is a Danish professor at the University of Copenhagen, which houses The Paul Auster Research Library – an international hub for his work and its translated versions. Auster was made an honorary fellow back in 2011, and Siegumfeldt has taught his work, especially the NYT in her classes for years. These conversations took place over three years, leading up to, but not including, the draft of 4-3-2-1. They mark the first time that Auster has talked in a sustained dialogue about his work, despite there being many books of lit crit about his work.

In Siegumfeldt’s Preface, she discusses the decision to split the book into two parts – firstly talking about his five volumes of autobiographical writings which inform much of his work, followed by his novels. She and Auster (together with Auster’s wife Siri Hustvedt) worked together to come up with a list of themes in his work to lead the dialogue. They were:

  • Language and the Body
  • The Word and the World
  • White Spaces
  • Ambiguity
  • Divestment
  • Abandoned Objects
  • Narrative Perspective
  • Male Pairs
  • America
  • Jewish Experience

An interesting list, and slightly different in emphasis to how others, including me, have cateogorised his work – eek! In this book, Auster talks more about ambiguity a lot, in reference to events and coincidence as well as identity and character, preferring to think about contradictions rather than being clear cut. He also dislikes being called ‘postmodern’ too.

‘White Spaces’ refers to both the void, but also specifically to the title of the short piece of prose he wrote after his father died and before he started on his first memoir, The Invention of Solitude. It convinced him that he could write prose as well as poetry. Luckily White Spaces is included in my volume of his collected poems, and like so many of his novels, has a cracking first line:

Something happens, and from the moment it begins to happen, nothing can ever be the same again.

After Siegumfeldt’s Preface, a first short discussion between her and Auster sets one thing clear:

PA: So I want to go on the record, once and for all, and declare that my novels are fiction and my autobiographical writings are nonfiction.

I know I’m guilty for calling books like Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl ‘semi-autobiographical’ when in the same way as Auster’s they’re not, often despite the fact that those books’ authors have asserted this – I apologise profoundly. In my defence, not all do authors do this though, so it can be tricky. Auster says that he may use people and events from his own chronology in his novels, but what he writes is strictly fiction. That said, what autobiographical things have you used in this novel is one of the questions Siegumfeldt asks each time, and Auster reinforces this when talking about putting a version of himself into The New York Trilogy.

My previous career was for an (American) multi-national company that believed that ‘All accidents are preventable,’ a laudable if perfectionist aim. In the discussion of his third slim book of autobiographical writings, The Red Notebook, IBS and PA discuss this, and naturally it stuck with me. In The Red Notebook, one of the chapters is called ‘Accident Report’.

PA: We have the word “accident.” which means “an unexpected thing that happens, usually with harmful results.” In another context, a philosophical context, “the accidental” refers to that which is not necessary. So every accident is something that doesn’t necessarily have to happen. It happens because of a confluence of circumstances. The slightest lapse of attention, the smallest distraction, and your life can be changed forever.

PA & IBS, Copenhagen University, 2017 discussing this book and 4-3-2-1.

Siegumfeldt is a super interviewer. She knows her stuff, and is not afraid to flatter Auster now and again during their conversations, drawing him out to speak candidly. She teases out all his influences, he is extremely well-read and having lived and worked in Paris for several years as a young man, was immersed in European literature as well as American. They discuss all the internal intertextuality in his works too, from those themes above, to characters he re-uses – such as Anna Blume, the protagonist of his dystopian early novel In the Country of Lost Things, who reoccurs as Mr Blank’s nurse in Travels in the Scriptorium, which having read years apart went unnoticed by me. They discuss the writer’s craft at length, the art of storytelling vs intellectual challenge, and truth in memoirs.

I could fill pages with interesting quotes and nuggets of information from this book, it fascinated me from start to finish, even reading about the few books I haven’t read – there are surely some spoilers, but with Auster it’s more about the intellectual challenge than the plot twist. To me, as a fan of Auster’s writing, this book was revelation that will allow me to enjoy his writing even more as I go on to complete reading his books for the first time, and to enjoy even more getting more from re-reading them. Anyone interested in writer’s lives and their craft would enjoy these conversations, but naturally, if you’ve read a few of his books, it will appeal even more. For me, it gets (10/10).


Source: Own copy. A Life in Words: Paul Auster in Conversation with IB Siegumfeldt (Seven Stories Press, 2017), flapped paperback, 320 pages, incl index, bibliography.

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