Paul Auster (1947-2024): Narrator of a noirish New York

The American author observed the world through a sombre lens and leaves behind a legacy of literary brilliance.

Published : May 03, 2024 12:43 IST - 5 MINS READ

Writer Paul Auster poses at his home in the Brooklyn borough of New York, January 19, 2006. Paul Auster, a prolific, prize-winning man of letters and filmmaker known for such inventive narratives and meta-narratives as The New York Trilogy and 4 3 2 1, has died at 77.

Writer Paul Auster poses at his home in the Brooklyn borough of New York, January 19, 2006. Paul Auster, a prolific, prize-winning man of letters and filmmaker known for such inventive narratives and meta-narratives as The New York Trilogy and 4 3 2 1, has died at 77. | Photo Credit: BEBETO MATTHEWS/AP

American author Paul Auster who made his name with noirish, existentialist novels about lonely writers, outsiders, and down-and-outers that were a huge hit in Europe particularly, has died aged 77. He died on April 30 at his home in Brooklyn surrounded by family, including his wife Siri Hustvedt and daughter Sophie Auster, his friend and fellow author Jacki Lyden said in a statement.

The author with soulful, sunken eyes gained a cult status in the 1980s and 1990s with his New York Trilogy of metaphysical mysteries and his hip film, Smoke, about the lost souls who patronise a Brooklyn tobacco shop. In March 2023, his wife, fellow author Hustvedt, announced he had been diagnosed with cancer. American media said he died of complications from lung cancer.

Auster’s work straddles the divide between the middlebrow and the highbrow. He wrote more than 30 books—from memoirs to novels to poetry—each as likely to be found in airports as on university reading lists. They have been translated into more than 40 languages. His works explore existential themes and are marked by a unique introspective fervour, exploring vast themes such as identity, politics, art, language, and consciousness.

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In his most recent novel, Baumgartner, the title character is a widowed professor haunted by mortality, asking himself “where his mind will be taking him next”. An old-fashioned author, he refused to use typewriters, preferring to write his manuscripts by hand. Despite this, he has an unusually active film career compared to his other writer peers.

In later years his life was marred by tragedy, with his 10-month-old granddaughter dying after ingesting heroin and his son Daniel, the child’s father, dying of an overdose 10 months later.

Father-son stories

Auster grew up in Newark, New Jersey, the son of Jewish Polish immigrants. His family was torn between his father’s thrift, to the point of miserliness, and his mother’s urge to spend, to the point of recklessness. He moved to New York to study at Columbia University.

After graduating, Auster struggled for years before finding a publisher or earning money from his books. He wrote poetry, juggled odd jobs, translated French literature, and even thought of earning income by growing worms in his basement. “All along, my only ambition had been to write,” Auster wrote in his memoir Hand to Mouth (1995). 

He went through particularly dark times in the 1970s when he married, then four years later divorced, American short story writer Lydia Davis, with whom he had Daniel. “I had run into a wall with my work. I was blocked and miserable, my marriage was falling apart, I had no money. I was finished,” he told The New York Times in 1992.

The turning point came with the sudden death of his father, which spurred Auster to write The Invention of Solitude, a haunting reflection on father-son relationships, a recurring theme in Auster’s work. Published in 1982, it was a critical success and set Auster free with his writing. The same year he married Hustvedt, forming one of New York’s starriest intellectual couples.

New York Trilogy

His big breakthrough came with The New York Trilogy, a detective saga with a philosophical twist featuring a shady quartet of private investigators named Blue, Brown, Black, and White. Paul Auster inserts himself into the narrative as one of the protagonists named after himself.

That period also brought a downbeat dog tasked with getting his dead owner’s unpublished manuscript out of a bus station’s luggage locker in Timbuktu (1999) and a series of existential capers: Moon Palace (1989), The Music of Chance (1990), and Leviathan (1992).

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His gift for sharp dialogue—Auster mercilessly edited himself for sentence rhythm—was key to the success of Smoke, which he wrote and co-directed, about a Brooklyn smoke shop owner played by Harvey Keitel. He also co-directed the follow-up, Blue in the Face that featured Keitel again, alongside Jim Jarmusch, Michael J. Fox, Madonna and Lou Reed.

American pride

The author wrote prolifically of Brooklyn, painting noirish pictures of the city. In 2017, he broke with his concise style to deliver an 866-page tome, 4 3 2 1, charting American society after World War II through the life of an everyman, Archie Ferguson.

Auster presented it as his masterwork, and it went on to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. But while America’s National Public Radio found it “dazzling”, others were less positive. The Irish Times deemed it “the last fat novel of a collapsed American pride”.

Public and private tragedies

Bloodbath Nation—the book he brought out in January 2023 with his photographer son-in-law Spencer Ostrander about gun violence in America—took him into new terrain.

Auster penned the text to accompany Ostrander’s haunting black-and-white pictures from the sites of 30 mass shootings. Guns are “the central metaphor for everything that continues to divide us”, he wrote. In the book, he revealed how his own grandmother had shot dead his grandfather in Wisconsin in 1919 but had avoided jail and raised her five children after arguing temporary insanity.

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A century on, Auster faced his own private anguish. In 2021, his son Daniel was found guilty of negligent homicide in the death of his 10-month-old daughter Ruby from an overdose. The following year, Daniel died of an overdose at the age of 44.

Auster never publicly discussed their deaths, but he extensively talked about parenting in his book The Invention of Solitude. Reflecting on the “thousands of hours” he spent with Daniel till he was three, he wondered whether they mattered. “It is a lost world... It will be lost forever,” Auster wrote. “All these things will vanish from the boy’s memory forever.”

He and Hustvedt also had a daughter, singer Sophie Auster. “The long, rich, often funny, intimate dialogue we had for decades is over but Paul continues to speak,” Hustvedt said in a statement. “He continues to tell stories in books that have been translated into over forty languages and are very much alive in me and in the readers who have loved his tales all over the world.”

(with inputs from Srinidhi Madurai K., AFP, AP, and ANI)

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