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Parallel Worlds: PAUL AUSTER (Unabridged)

SS: What about form? Does the possibility of working within a particular formal framework motivate you?

PA: No. For me, if you want to use the old dichotomy, content always determines the form. The thing that you want to say is going to establish the form in which you’re going to say it. It’s not the other way around. I’m not writing sonnets.

SS: Do forms or structures from other disciplines ever influence you?

PA: Music very much does, though I’m hard pressed to say exactly how. I’m very interested in the rhythms, the cadences, the sounds of the sentences. Even if they look simple, they’re not, because I believe that a reader — an attentive reader — reads as much with his body as with his brain. I also believe that, at least subliminally, these rhythms are effecting the way you’re perceiving the story. So I pay a lot of attention to that. I’m very interested in varying rhythms and tempos. For example, you can have a 10-page passage that can talk about something that happens over the course of one or two minutes, and then you can jump ahead to ten years later. Those shifts can be very exhilarating.

SS: You’ve written about the events connected to your move from poetry to novels. At this point in your life, could you ever imagine another such shift?

PA: I don’t know if it will happen, but I can certainly imagine it. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me from one day to the next. I’m working on another novel now, going very slowly, pushing my way through. It’s a very difficult book to write. I’m treading on very dangerous ground, I think. It’s already longer than Man in the Dark, and I still have a ways to go. And after this I don’t have any burning ideas, so who knows?

SS: One of the most pleasurable parts of Man in the Dark for me was August and Katya’s little studies of films, especially the focus on objects. Like in Book of Illusions, I felt you did some marvelous things by simply describing cinematic sequences, whether real of fictional, in your own prose style. I know you’ve written book reviews but have you ever written about film?

PA: A little, never professionally. When I was in college I wrote for the Columbia Spectator, the undergraduate newspaper, and I reviewed films for them occasionally. The first prose I ever published, interestingly enough, was a long piece on Godard’s Weekend for the Spectator. That must have been 1968. I remember my argument because I thought about it so long and hard. I was very interested in Surrealism then, and when I looked at Godard’s film I thought he’d invented a new form, a sort of public Surrealism. The old Surrealism of the 20s and 30s was about the individual, about dreams, tapping the unconscious as a source of beauty. What I thought Godard did that was very interesting was he expanded it all. The weekend, if you look at it as a unit of time, from Friday afternoon to Sunday night, is approximately one third of the week, which is about the same percentage of our lives we spend sleeping. So I proposed that the weekend is the dreamtime of our post-industrial society, and then I just spun it out from there. It was a great deal of fun.

SS: While books like The Invention of Solitude and Hand to Mouth function as explicit memoir, characters with whom you share many distinctive traits or who seem like overt stand-ins pop up frequently in your work.

PA: I tend not to think of this as true. Because I have written autobiographical work, I don’t feel much of a desire to sneak biographical material into my novels. Though it does happen, as it did with the Newark riots. In the case of Leviathan, it’s a wink, but that wink is really to Siri and her first novel. I made a trans-fictional marriage between my character Peter Aaron and Iris, the protagonist of The Blindfold. And, of course, Siri actually appears in City of Glass — as do I, for that matter. And then there are things that I’ve used now and again for reasons that always had to do with the story I was writing, and not because I particularly wanted to tell that autobiographical incident. In The Locked Room, for example, the story about the census-taking job was something I really did. And Fanshawe’s experiences on the ship are similar to mine. And, of course, the story about the old Russian composer in The Locked Room was taken directly from real life. So, yes, I have done these sorts of things, but not as often as you’d think.

SS: I can’t help but wonder if you see the varied levels of autobiographical content as being a way of trying to get closer to some sort of self-knowledge.

PA: I know that I do learn more about myself in the act of writing, of digging. There are times when it’s very painful, writing about things that make you depressed or angry, that make you scared. But you have to keep going down there. It can be exhausting, emotionally, but I think that’s why you do it. My only justification for doing what I do in this world of many books is that writing is a job that demands everything from you — something not true of most jobs. And every day after I’ve finished work, even if I’ve accomplished nothing, even if I’ve crossed out every sentence I’ve written, I can stand up from my desk and say that I gave everything I had today, poured my whole self into trying to unearth the truth about whatever it is I’m trying to talk about.

SS: How do you feel about the experiences life gives you to draw upon now that you’re in your 60s? You seem like a pretty healthy guy, but you’ve got an awful lot of ailing older men in your work over the last several years.

PA: [Laughs] Well, I’m of a certain age already. Things start to break down. It’s surprising how suddenly it happens. Wait until you turn 50. It’s not shocking, just simply curious how you just can’t do the things you used to do. I don’t know. Maybe I’m preparing myself for old age. Or the end. I can’t really say.

SS: Do you ever give any thought to your legacy? The literati of late have been a bit hostile to ome of the best — certainly some of the most adventurous — established writers in this country. Are you at a point in your life where you concern yourself with how your body of work has been received?

PA: I don’t have any complaints, I have to tell you, none whatsoever. No one asked me to do this. I did it because I chose to, so I don’t really expect anything. All I can say is that all my books are in print in the United States, and that’s a lot of books now. They put me into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, whatever that means. It’s some acknowledgement that I’ve been around for a while and what I’ve done is not so terrible. I’m able to earn a living from what I do. And I still want to do it. So why should I complain?

SS: Are you personally happy with the body of work, with whatever thread you see running through it, when you take a step back and look at it?

PA: Strangely enough, I don’t step back. I’m just concerned with what I’m trying to do now. Another novelist friend of mine, one older than I am and who’s written many books, he and I were talking about just this question not so long ago. He told me, “I tend to think of the books I’ve written as bundles I’ve left behind on the road, and I’m just walking forward, I’m not going back to pick them up.” I thought that was a very good answer.

SS: It’s interesting to examine the way certain artists, of whatever discipline, will be able to speak articulately about their work in spite of themselves and the ineffable nature of their process. On one hand they might declare the work to be the product of pure instinct, yet some artists can comment on their work with such insight. Though I suppose that’s largely an act of hindsight.

PA: Yes, exactly. You don’t really know why you’re doing it and you don’t know what it means. Siri right now has just finished writing a piece on Gerhardt Richter, the German painter, for a show that’s coming up. And just the other day she quoted Richter’s comments to Rob Storr, the curator of the retrospective at MoMA. He said essentially that: “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what any of it means. And if you want to discuss it with me now, it’s as if I’m going into a psychiatrist’s office and trying to figure out my past and my motives for doing what I did, and I’m not really very interested in doing that.” I feel the same way.

SS: By his own account, many years ago David Lynch attended his first and only psychotherapy session, and he asked the therapist, “Do you think that our discussions here could have any damaging effect on my creativity?” And the therapist said, “Sure, that’s possible.” And Lynch immediately stood up, shook the therapist’s hand and left.

[Both laugh]







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