I'm on sabbatical. Here's an exclusive interview with Paul Auster by guest contributor Nick Obourn.
Paul Auster has been called "one of America's greatest living novelists" by The Observer of London. His latest novel, Invisible, opens in New York City in 1967, when 20-year-old Adam Walker, an aspiring poet and Columbia University student, meets the Frenchman Rudolf Born, a veteran of French conflicts in Algeria. The ensuing relationship carries Walker from Morningside Heights to Paris, where he meets Cecile, an ambitious burgeoning scholar, to California where he lives out his days writing down the stories of his life. Written in four parts, Invisible--Auster's 15th novel--plumbs the meaning of narrative, of authorship and truth, and it penetrates the complex relationship between memory and identity. Auster and I recently discussed his new novel and his approach to writing. Auster will be speaking at the 92nd Street Y in New York City in November.
TS: Why choose the Vietnam era to open this book?
Auster: I can never say 'why' about anything I do. I suppose I can say 'how' and 'when' and 'what.' But 'why' is impenetrable to me. Stories surge up out of nowhere, and if they feel compelling, you follow them. You let them unfold inside you and see where they are going to lead. This one fascinated me. I think I was interested in exploring youth again. The previous three books had all been about older people. I thought maybe I had explored that enough for a while. There were anniversaries coming up too--many 40th anniversaries looming as I finished the book in '08. '07 had been the 40th anniversary of the Newark riots, which I had seen. Many pivotal things from my youth are being reexamined now. I was thinking a lot about them as well, and maybe the book maybe came out of that--40 years later.
TS: A lot of Invisible is based on memory. I'd like to know a little bit about how memory relates to narrative and fiction for you.
PA: Let me give you a memory story. It's not connected to the book, but it's connected to that time, so it is relevant. One of my teachers at Columbia was Edward Said, who died a few years ago. He was the advisor for my Masters thesis, which was the last step in my education. I didn't go any further than that. Edward has published posthumously a book called On Late Style. It was put together by another old professor of mine from Columbia, Michael Wood, who is now at Princeton and remains a good friend. In fact, Michael is the person who interviewed me for the Paris Review about five or six years ago. So it's a friendship that's continued. In the book, there is an essay about Jean Genet. I can't remember what year it was, it might have been '69, but Genet came to the Columbia campus in support of the Black Panthers. He gave a talk at the sundial, right in the middle of the campus. Since I knew French, some people who knew about this event asked me if I would be his interpreter for the day, which I gladly agreed to do. I remember walking around with him, and he was in very good spirits. He had a little flower behind his ear, soft spoken, smiling, and it was a beautiful spring day.
Edward writes in his essay that he recalls Genet's visit to the Columbia campus. He wrote that he ran into one of his students, who said 'Genet is indeed coming, and in fact, I'm interpreting for him.' I don't remember running into Said and saying this. Then he said Genet got up and spoke, and his remarks were very simple and very much in support of the Black Panthers and against racism in the United States, but that the student interpreter elaborated all his comments and made all kinds of accusations against America imperialism and capitalism. I have no memory of whether or not I was the one interpreting for him when he gave his speech. I was very shy then, and I probably didn't want to do it. I do know for a fact, however, that if I had been that person doing it, I never would have elaborated on the speech. It's simply not something I would have been capable of doing or wanted to do.
When I saw Michael Wood recently, we talked about this. He said 'you know, it's quite possible that Edward misremembered everything.' And so we have this giant memory hole: I can't remember if I did it or not, and he couldn't remember what actually happened. I've been puzzling over this now for the past several weeks. I can't get a hold on it. Invisible functions a little like this episode.
TS: The book is very much about the idea of the narrative, and the various shapes that it can take. For you, what were some of the most important parts of the narrative in this book?
PA: It's hard to say, everything is important.
TS: Were there certain parts that came to you right away and certain parts that took a little work to get out?
PA: The central motivating force that drove me into the book was the Born/Walker relation. That was the thing that came first. The book becomes more than that, of course. But it is a constant drum beat in the book as well. I think it had to do with the way young people, even very bright young people, and Walker is nothing if not very bright, are too naive and have too little experience to understand certain kinds of people they run into. Most people that age have similar kinds of experiences, maybe not as dramatic, but the general idea is: falling in with people and being out of your depth. It's a fascinating moment in life, I think, because at 30 you don't make those mistakes. You can read people more quickly. You can sniff out danger, but at 20, everything is an adventure and everything is new and happening for the first time. You don't want to block yourself off from experiences. So Walker is open enough to allow Born to befriend him but also stupid enough to think that strangers just walk around giving you money to start a magazine.
TS: That's one of the things that I liked about their relationship in that first section.
PA: All young poets wanted to have magazines then. And many of them were doing it. Some were very cheaply produced--printed by mimeograph machines. Before the explosion of off-set printing, mimeo magazines were all over the place.
TS: Do you remember any from that era that you particularly liked?
PA: Adventures in Poetry, edited by Lewis Warsh and Anne Waldman on the Lower East Side. There was also a small publisher with the bizarre name of Siamese Banana Press--which published my first book, A Little Anthology of Surrealist Poems, Translations--run by a prose writer named Johnny Stanton. Mimeo books, with covers by Joe Brainard and George Schneeman. Then of course there were prettier magazines, just as Walker describes. Evergreen Review was very important then. New Directions Annual and The Paris Review were some of the most important poetry magazines. Along with some beautiful magazines like Art and Literature, which was short-lived. It was a very fertile period for poetry and little magazines. So Walker jumps--because it's just too irresistible.
TS: Your last book had a lot to do with war. And war plays a part in this book too.
TS: How does war end up being part of your writing process?
PA: We're surrounded by it now, aren't we? We're so immersed in it that it's hard to think about anything else. We've been in Iraq longer than we fought in World War II, and it's been the same kind of disaster on a much smaller scale than Vietnam was. Now there is Afghanistan, which never goes away. Everybody seems to be trying to blow everybody up all over the world. Everyday I open the paper and somebody is shooting at somebody else or bombing somebody else, or threatening to do it. In this book, I'm talking about Vietnam. It would be difficult to explain to you what that war did to American society, how it just tore us to pieces. I don't think we've ever recovered. The fact that we could have gone into Iraq for no earthly reason seems to me doubly tragic because we didn't learn our lessons. There's no end to such a war except humiliation, defeat, and the deaths of untold numbers of innocent people.
I've been banging my head against the wall out of frustration. Born is French and is someone that has experienced the French debacles: namely Algeria and Indochina, which became our Vietnam. Those two things ruined France also. France has never been the same. The violence of imperial wars erodes the fabric of the society waging the war. Both of my recent books explore that. As for Born, the curious thing is that I did not name him after the Provençal poet, Bertran de Born. Born was Born and then I remembered the poet. For some reason all my characters come to me with their names attached to them. I never have to search for the names.
TS: So they come to you rather finished?
PA: Yes, for one reason or another, they're just there. So Born was born, so to speak, and then I began delving into his namesake poet, whose work I had not read since I was a student--since I was Walker's age. Brutal, brilliant, utterly shocking poetry. And yes, he is indeed in Dante's Inferno--walking around the 28th Canto with a severed head in his hands.The poem in the book I translated is a real Bertran de Born poem from around 1185 or so. I don't know Provençal, but I used a literal French translation to produce my English translation.
TS: Is it the translation that appears in the book?
PA: Yes. Bertran is the poet of war. Born, the 20th century character in my book, is someone who has been ruined by war and also, in some sense, is an advocate of war.
TS: Do you think that there is no end to the ways that you can explore, in your writing, the ideas of war or the idea of what happens to people who are involved in war?
PA: It's interesting that you should mention this because I recently finished another book--a new novel that is about the same length as Invisible. It takes place now, 2008 and 2009, with quite a few characters. Most of the people in the book are in their late 20s, and one of these people is a graduate student writing her dissertation on the immediate aftermath of World War II and the effect that it had on American society ('45-'47) as reflected in books, crime novels, films, and other pop culture manifestations. One of the things she writes about is The Best Years of Our Lives, a film I like very much.
Part of the novel then, explores the young generation of that period, which is to say, my parents' generation. My mother was born in 1925, which means she was 16 when America entered the war. In other words, her late adolescence and early adulthood were lived in the shadow of the war. Everyone from that generation is completely marked by World War II. The effect of war on soldiers is sometimes swept under the rug. People were ruined. Lives were absolutely destroyed. My wife's father was a 19 year old draftee in World War II. He became a 1st Sgt. in the Pacific. He never got rid of it. Siri used the moving things he wrote about that time in her most recent novel, The Sorrows of an American. I am talking about the extracts from her father's memoir, which he wrote for the family. He served in the occupation army in Japan and was discharged in '46. That's when he was finally demobilized and sent home. He was the most sane, rational, earnest, moral person I've ever known. A good, good man, but he came home crazy. He went back to the farm in Minnesota--the poor, broken-down farm that had been mostly lost during the Depression--and spent the whole summer chopping down trees. One after the other after the other. This was a young man out of his mind with trauma. Again, in the new book, I do touch on war. It is only one sliver of the novel, which is mostly about other things, but I can't stop thinking about it.
TS: A couple of reviews of Invisible in the trades (Kirkus and Publishers Weekly), draw a comparison to Heart of Darkness, the ending specifically. When you are writing a book, how aware are you of other works of literature?
PA: I'm not thinking about it. I can see why people would say that, although it's really quite different. I certainly wasn't thinking of Conrad when I was writing.
TS: But in general, when you write are you thinking of other authors?
PA: Most of the time, I barely understand what I am doing. For example, back in the early 90s when I was writing Mr. Vertigo, I started the book and I thought it would be a short story. It got to be a 300 page novel. When I began, there was no character Mrs. Witherspoon in my mind. She entered when I was about 20 or 30 pages along with the first part. She becomes a very significant character in the book. Later on when I was finished and some time had gone by, I realized that what I had written was a kind of version of the Pinocchio story. Master Yehudi was a little like Geppetto, and Mrs. Witherspoon was the blue fairy. So she had to be there, but I didn't know it. In unconsciously bringing her out, I was somehow understanding without being aware of it that I was writing a version of the Pinocchio story.
TS: Along those lines of discovering what you're doing as you move through it, this book is written in several defining parts. When you got to the end of a part, did you know that was the end of that part?
PA: Yes. It's funny because the book is written in the first person, the second person, and the third person. It's written in the past tense and the present tense. In terms of the narrative, the Walker story ends after Part 3. Part 4 is a kind of coda, but without Part 4, the book wouldn't have the effect it does.
TS: Right. We learn what happens to Born.
PA: Yes. It's a funny thing, structure in a narrative. This book does not have a traditional 'arc.' Little of my work does. I remember when I was making the film Smoke with Wayne Wang. That was back in the 90s as well. The story jumps among a number of characters. I think the film is divided into five parts, each one with a name of a character. Again, the whole gist of the story is told in the first four parts. Then there is a fifth part in which someone tells someone else a story. That part is ostensibly unrelated to everything that has happened before, and yet, deeply connected, but only in the most oblique, subterranean ways. The whole emotional payoff of the film is in that final part, even though it doesn't serve the so-called plot in any obvious way. It helps finish the story off and give it some kind of conclusion. In Invisible, Cecile's diary functions more or less in this way. It's disconnected from the rest of the story so far, and yet it is important to have it there.
TS: So there is always a story standing next to a story, standing next to a story. It could go on like that for infinity?
PA: I think that in the previous book, Man in the Dark, I took what is probably the greatest risk I have ever taken in terms of narrative structure. For the first two thirds of the book, Brill is alone in his room thinking up his story. Then he comes to an end with and starts thinking of other things. Suddenly there's a knock on the door, and his granddaughter enters. At that point, we make a complete sharp, right turn into something else. It turns into the story of Brill's marriage and the story of young Katya's grandmother. It felt right to me. I can't justify it in any way, but there it is. Another unorthodox approach.
TS: You write from several different points of view in Invisible. Did you connect more with any specific characters while you were writing?
PA: The funny thing is that I feel close to all my characters. Deep, deep inside them all. I can't describe how deeply I love them all, even monsters like Born. I felt very close to him as well. In a funny way, I feel the most tenderness towards Margot--the lost and confused Margot.
TS: Margot's is a sad story.
PA: Terribly sad. But there's also Cecile--the brilliant, gawky girl who turns into a rather formidable scholar.
TS: These are the women in Adam's life, aside from his sister Gwen, who the reader is really introduced to in the second part. This is the section in which the reader encounters an event that Adam and his sister are involved in that is hard for a lot of people to understand -- and hard to read in some ways. How did you make sure that sympathy was the thing people felt?
PA: It's just something that happened. Adam doesn't feel guilty. Gwen doesn't feel guilty either, and therefore neither one is traumatized by what they do. In giving interviews lately, not just for America but for other countries as well, I've found that no one wants to talk about that section. Everyone passes over it in silence.
TS: Writing about your work in the New York Review of Books last December, Michael Dirda said that your characters have a habit of escaping into stories. What is it about escaping that is so fascinating to you, and to your characters?
PA: I've written several novels that are just linear stories that go from A to B to C all the way to Z, quite a few actually. Other books are more complex. I think it has to do with the mood I'm in, the kind of story I want to write or that seems to be asked to be written. I really do feel at the mercy of the material. I don't try to manipulate what I have been given. I listen, and I follow. At times. I do feel that there can be interesting effects in what I call 'collage.' When you have two or three or four things in the frame or canvas with spaces in between them, there can be a kind of energy that's created in those spaces between the different elements of the collage. If any one of those objects is put alone on the wall, it wouldn't have the same effect that the grouping does. So I guess I'm interested in the energy created between stories. I can't justify this philosophically. It's just simply an emotional position.
TS: This is your 15th novel, and you said you just completed another one. Over the span of your writing these novels, has your approach changed?
PA: Things have changed in the last few years. For a long time I had a backlog of ideas, and so I pretty much knew when I was writing a novel what the next one would be or I hoped what the next one would be. I would often think about the next book as I was writing a book. I had a little pact with myself. It's very hard to explain how obsessive writing a novel can be, how it takes over all your waking thoughts. I'm a great believer in the unconscious. When I stop working for the day, I try to push the book out of my head. It's not easy to do. The danger zone, the most risky moment is lying in bed about to go to sleep. For years I would say 'push the book out of your head, think about the next one.' I would think about the next story or the next book. Up until The Brooklyn Follies, that's how I functioned. I knew, more or less, what the next thing was that I wanted to do. Then suddenly, the drawers were empty. I've written four books since then, two short ones and two longer ones, with great gaps in between the finishing of one and the starting of another. I think after Invisible I went six or seven months before I started writing the new book. Each of these four books has been written in a fury. In a matter of months, whereas in the past it would take me two or three years to write a book. Invisible was written in about six months. This new forthcoming book was written in six months. They're both around 300 pages. I don't understand it. My daily output seems to have increased, but my times of inactivity have increased as well. These stretches of unemployment are not very happy ones. I'm trying to relax, but you don't want it to go on too long.
TS: What do you do with the time?
PA: You begin to feel useless. I've been doing a lot of little things in the past two months or so, just to keep myself busy.
TS: One last question about Invisible. Where did the title come from?
PA: I think I used the word invisible several times in the book, always very consciously. The first time is when I describe Born's face. He said "it was the kind of face that would become invisible in any crowd." He talks about the downtrodden in America, particularly poor black people as being invisible. When Freeman is flying back home in the dark from California to New York, he says "there's an invisible America lying beneath me." In the very last pages of the book, as Cecile is walking down the hill, she hears something but can't see it. And because she can't see it, she has no idea of what she's hearing. I think, in a sense, that that's the way the book functions. We hear things, but we can't always see them, or, even if we do see them, we're not sure that we're seeing correctly. Hence: Invisible.