Close Encounters of the Literary Kind, Part III

I came late to Paul Auster’s work. I did not begin reading him until four or five years ago when he published “Travels in the Scriptorium,” a very Beckettian survey of the mind of the artist. From there I began to read quite a lot of Auster’s work. I admire his sense of style and his ability to mix realism with other less reader friendly forms like existentialism and absurdism. Moreover, I find his voice to be very Brooklyn, by which I mean, gritty and masculine.

On November 9th I drove down in the rain to Cambridge, MA to hear him read from his latest novel, “Sunset Park.” Although the reading wasn’t sold out, the theater was near capacity. We were told that this was Auster’s only public reading for this novel outside New York City. I almost didn’t go on account of the rain, but after hearing this I was glad that I did.

It quickly becomes obvious that some authors, when we hear them read publically, are not meant for the public stage. They sort of draw into themselves and the spectator can tell right away that the author would rather be anywhere than the stage at that time. This is not true with Auster. He is, to say the least, a commanding presence in person. More like a movie star than an author, he handles himself with a confidence that, at least to my eyes, never falls into arrogance. I had the opportunity to catch a glimpse of him backstage as he was waiting to take the stage. His head was down, a copy of “Sunset Park” tucked under his right arm, and he continually shuffled his feet back and forth. This was an interesting moment for me in that I had a rare glimpse of an author who did not know he was being watched.

Auster is a very tall man with movie star good looks. His dark hair turning now mostly to gray and receding gives him an air of authority and respect where younger, good looking men might find it more difficult to be taken seriously precisely on account of their looks. He was dressed in his trademark jeans and sweater; the same outfit he is wearing on the author photo on the back inside flap of his book jacket. Auster’s eyes are striking. Their orb-like shape suggests a pressure from inside that is fighting to explode. It’s almost as if the thoughts in his head are ever expanding—which may be the reason why he publishes novels with the frequency that he does. While reading he has his glasses sitting down toward the end of his nose. When he occasionally looks up his eyes are above the glasses; this is a look that suggests both professor-like seriousness and late middle age.

The most striking aspect about attending a reading by Paul Auster is his voice. Auster has a magnificent voice. It’s exactly the kind of voice I would wish for myself given the opportunity. It was a pleasure to hear him read from several sections of the novel. I’ve heard interviews with Auster before, so I was prepared for the gravity of his voice, but there is something about hearing it in person and up close (I was in the second row) that is particularly appealing. It’s the type of voice that should be doing voice-overs for commercials. While Auster does not have the projection of an Orson Welles or a James Earl Jones, his voice is perfectly suited to the type of fiction he writes. It’s a New York voice without the regional accent that marks so many speakers who live in that city. If you buy “Sunset Park” on tape or CD, you can hear for yourself what Auster sounds like. He reads the book.

The opening paragraph of “Sunset Park” may be the best description of the current economic meltdown I have ever read. It’s realistic and romantic at the same time, without the pretentiousness that sometimes accompanies high art. If the first paragraph of a novel is the most important in getting the reader hooked into reading more, “Sunset Park” hits it out of the park. One cannot help inserting the odd baseball reference when talking about Auster since he is such a baseball fan.

The only disappointment of the night was the fact that after the reading Auster left the stage without taking any questions. This was the first author event I have attended where there wasn’t a question and answer session. Even V. S. Naipaul took questions (yet those questions were submitted beforehand and Naipaul chose the questions he would answer). Nevertheless, the reading was a magnificent way to spend an evening. He read for about 50 minutes, and then came down to sign books.

When I spoke with Auster after I mentioned that I taught “City of Glass” over the summer for a seminar in American literature. He asked me why I didn’t teach the whole trilogy? “It’s not that long,” he said. I told him next time I would and left with my signed book.

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