Paul Auster (1947-2024) wrote about the many ‘what-ifs’ of existence

Paul Auster (1947-2024) wrote about the many ‘what-ifs’ of existence

One of the formative experiences for the writing of Paul Auster, the famous New York writer who died of cancer on Tuesday at the age of 77, was an incident in his teenage years. He was at summer camp, taking a walk in the woods and the group of boys was hit by a heavy thunderstorm. “We were looking for an open space and to do so we had to crawl under a barbed wire fence. I was standing right behind a boy who was crawling under the fence when lightning struck the fence. Dead,” he said in an interview with this newspaper seven years ago. “I was so far away from him. Then I understood: anything can happen, at any time, to anyone.”

It is an anecdote that Paul Auster (1947) also used in his work – in the memoir Winter logbook (2012) and the novel 4321 (2017) – to underline the role of chance in human life. That is one of the most important recurring themes in Auster’s literary oeuvre, which spans about thirty books: novels, poetry, autobiography and some non-fiction works. Although ‘coincidence’ doesn’t quite cover it, he said in the same interview: “I don’t use that word anymore, because people keep repeating it. I have a new word: the unexpected. That’s what matters. The unexpected happens with some regularity in life. And things don’t have to happen the way they happen.”


That is the paradox that pervades his oeuvre: things turned out this way, but they did not have to turn out that way. That principle is close to the ideas behind his postmodern literature, a literary movement in which he was one of the few to reach a large audience. The idea that reality itself is not a story but that we make it one, that memory is unreliable and therefore also the one who tells the story, that identities are not fixed – Auster translated all this into novels full of quests, doubles and meta-layers that point to unknowability and alienation. Not infrequently, an alter ego of the writer himself made an appearance in fiction.

The New York trilogy (1987) is his best-known work: with that series Auster made his breakthrough in the 1980s, also to a larger audience. The beginning of the first part, City of Glass (Brittle city, 1985), was a phone call: one day in 1980, someone called Auster asking for the Pinkerton private detective agency, and Auster said the man had dialed the wrong number. But the next day the man called again, with the same question. Auster corrected him again, but also fantasized about what might have happened if he had said yes.

The elaboration of that fantasy is in the novel, a surreal detective story in which the main character pretends to be a private detective, until he gradually becomes one – or is a writer named Paul Auster controlling him? In this way he loses control over his life and identity, but also gains a new identity in return. All thanks to that strange, spooky phone call.

As a writer, Auster was as much a philosopher as a storyteller, writing in a clear style, with a great sense of tasty stories. This is how the New York trilogy became known as one of the most accessible and fun works of postmodern fiction, and Auster as someone who built according to the architecture of the traditional storyteller, but with a contemporary interior, like fellow writer Don DeLillo once described it.

‘Kafka on rubber soles’

In this, Auster was more in line with the European literature of his time, the French surrealists and existentialists, than with the realistic American tradition. His work bridged those cultures: it was “Kafka on rubber soles,” as his first editor described it. Born and raised in Newark, the young Auster studied comparative literature at Columbia, was captivated by French literature and moved from New York to Paris, where he made a living working on translations for four years. Back in New York, he continued to struggle as a poet and translator: difficult years that were later reflected in his wandering, lonely characters. They are swallowed up by alienation and detachment in the impersonal, big city.

But fate could also suddenly change – as Auster also knew and emphasized, not averse to a certain penchant for self-mythologization. By chance he met his second wife, writer Siri Hustvedt (after a previous marriage to Lydia Davis, also a writer) and it was love at first sight – an encounter that is also depicted in the novel Leviathan (1992) ended up. And the marginal poet Auster was still able to grow into a writer with fans and recognition from literary criticism. That rags to richesstory of self-development and reinvention was typically American about Auster’s story. There was an echo of his Jewish grandparents, who immigrated from Eastern Europe: they could support themselves, completely according to the American dreamalso reinvent.

“I personally believe that chance is just one of the many things that determine our lives – just like ambition, intelligence, love or fear,” Auster said in this newspaper twenty years ago. He elaborated in the magnum opus that world history also influences your fate 4321, his thickest book, which is emphatically set against the background of half a century of American history. That novel, in Auster’s own words about “the what-ifs of existence,” describes the same life four times, if it were not for the fact that chance or the unexpected makes those lives turn out differently each time, alternately fortunate and fateful.

Stupid coincidence

Fate also struck Auster. In recent years, his then several-month-old granddaughter died first, after neglect by her father, Auster’s son, who himself died shortly afterwards. And then came his own lung cancer diagnosis at the end of 2022. In his latest books, the non-fiction book Bloodbath nation (2022) about gun violence and the novel Baumgartner (2023), about a professor of philosophy in his twilight years, Auster plowed through his own history for the last time, about which he also wrote in his prose debut The Invention of Solitude (The fabric of loneliness, 1982). The decisive factor was and remained the trauma of the death of his grandfather: he was murdered, shot dead, by Auster’s grandmother, who was not convicted. That history was covered up and denied to the children for years, but the story of the grandfather scratched out in photos nevertheless festered and festered. Until Auster’s cousin met someone who did know about it on board a plane and thus revealed the family secret – by pure coincidence.