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“Maria was an artist, but the work she did had nothing to do with creating objects commonly defined as art.” This is how Paul Auster introduces one of the most extraordinary fusions of art and literature of recent decades in his 1992 novel Leviathan.

The character of Maria was based on the French artist Sophie Calle, who Auster thanks, deliciously, in the front matter of the book: “The author extends special thanks to Sophie Calle for permission to mingle Fact [sic] with fiction.” The élan with which Auster did so was typical of him. On the one hand, it is clear he spent time observing the response to Calle and her work, and he makes apt contentions about her life and practice: “Some people called her a photographer, others referred to her as a conceptualist, still others considered her a writer, but none of these descriptions was accurate, and in the end I don’t think she can be pigeonholed in any way.” This could just as well appear in a catalogue essay on Calle. But, crucially, he also finds a way to weave Calle’s/Maria’s “nutty … idiosyncratic” work into his story about Ben Sachs, the book’s central character, whose fate we learn in the book’s typically magisterial Austerian first line: “Six days ago, a man blew himself up by the side of a road in northern Wisconsin.”

Ominous foreshadowings

Indeed, one of Calle’s/Maria’s projects provides a key narrative anchor to Leviathan. In 1983, Calle found an address book, photocopied its contents before returning it, and set about contacting all the people in the book to form a portrait of its unknowing owner. In Maria’s version, one of the people she contacts through this process is an old friend, and their association sets off a chain of events that leads to that fateful explosion. Picking up the address book “was the event that started the whole miserable story”, Auster writes, in an example of the ominous foreshadowing that permeates his novels. “Maria opened the book, and out flew the devil, out flew a scourge of violence, mayhem, and death.”

But it didn’t end there. Because Auster also invents Calle-esque ideas that Maria performed, and Calle was only too delighted to mingle fact and fiction again: “I decided to turn Paul Auster’s novel into a game,” she wrote. So, among other things, Calle followed “a chromatic regimen which consists in restricting herself to foods of a single colour on any given day”, as Maria does in the novel. She also asked Auster to devise a whole new project, Gotham Handbook. The complete Auster-Calle collaboration was compiled in a beautiful artist’s book, Double Game, first published in 1999.

For the loss of a pencil

The association with Calle was the most distinctive of the many ways in which art and literature were fused in Auster’s life and work. Born in 1947 in Newark, New Jersey, he attended Columbia High School in Maplewood, one of the New Jersey towns in which he grew up. Early experiences proved crucial to his chosen profession and some of his themes. Aged eight, in spring 1955, he met his idol, the baseball superstar Willie Mays, after a game and asked for his autograph, only to be devastated when neither he nor anyone else around him had a pencil handy.

From that moment, Auster resolved to carry a pencil wherever he went, and that, he says, is why he became a writer. That he was given a six-volume collection of books by Robert Louis Stevenson by his grandmother soon afterwards was also significant. And then, the horror of the summer camp in 1961 during which, on a hike, a boy right next to him was killed by a bolt of lightning. “This absolutely changed my life,” he told the BBC. “It was my first big lesson in the capriciousness of life, how unstable everything is, how quickly things can change; from one eyeblink to another, the world is entirely different.” Chance events are frequently the fulcrum for Auster’s novels; in one of his last great books, the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted 4321 (2017), which imagines four possible paths for a single character, Ferguson, one ends with a deadly falling branch from a lightning-struck tree.

An art-soaked life in Paris

Auster studied comparative literature at Columbia University, where he was present at the 1968 protests against the war in Vietnam. By 1971, he was in Paris, where he formed many important artistic associations. He had already been translating the work of the poet Jacques Dupin for some years before moving to the French capital, and Dupin, as director of publications at the Galerie Maeght—where many leading Modern artists, including Joan Miró, Alberto Giacometti and Alexander Calder, were shown—gave Auster a steady stream of art books to translate. It was through Dupin that Auster met the abstract painters Joan Mitchell and her partner Jean-Paul Riopelle—Mitchell’s 1971 painting La Ligne de la Rupture was named after Dupin’s poem of the same name, a connection about which Auster later wrote a short text. After a turbulent first meeting, which Auster described in the book Joan Mitchell: By Her Friends (2023) as a “trial of nerves, or will, or character”, Mitchell and Auster became close. Years before Auster published them, Mitchell would ask him for manuscripts of his poems, and she donated an etching for the cover of the first issue of a literary magazine he published with a friend—he owned the work thereafter. Importantly, Mitchell was the thread that linked Auster to one of his literary heroes, Samuel Beckett, who also became a friend. (Auster’s telling of their first meeting, in which Beckett was doubtful about his own work, is wonderful.)

The first book bearing Auster’s name, A Little Anthology of Surrealist Poems, was published in 1972. The surreal always had a presence in his work, in its thirst for absurd juxtapositions and attention to chance encounters. Amid the turbulence of the Columbia protests, the tumult of Vietnam and much else, “the Surrealists were a major discovery for me”, he wrote in the translator’s note: “poets fighting against the conventions of poetry, poets dreaming of revolution, of how to change the world.”

By the time he returned to New York in July 1974, Auster said, “the idea of not writing was inconceivable to me”. Still, while his quest was a literary one, art constantly crossed his path. He worked in a “rare book concern”, where he would write catalogue entries on artists’ books, magazines and editions, “a small shrine to the avant-garde”, as he called it in his memoir of his early life, Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Failure. In autumn 1975, Auster received a $5,000 grant from the Ingram Merrill Foundation that he argues was largely a result of the support of John Bernard Myers, the director of the Tibor de Nagy gallery, who sat on the grant-awarding committee. Auster published his own work first in the form of poetry including Fragments from Cold (1977), whose illustrations were provided by another Mitchell association, the painter Norman Bluhm.

Preoccupied by prose

Prose became his preoccupation from the 1980s, first in the form of non-fiction—with The Invention of Solitude, his 1982 memoir of his strained relationship with his father—and then fiction, with Squeeze Play, a story written under the pseudonym of Paul Benjamin in the same year, and, from the mid-1980s, with the books under his own name that made him one of the great novelists of his lifetime. Famously, City of Glass (1985)the story that eventually formed part of arguably his best known novel (actually a trio of novels repackaged into a single work), The New York Trilogy—was hawked around 17 publishers before it landed. City of Glass established many of the themes that dominated 40 years of novels from that point, including, among much else, writing about writers who have much in common with Auster: in this case Daniel Quinn, who has published poetry and translations but is now a writer of detective mysteries. Quinn receives calls to a wrong number in which he is assumed to be a private detective named Paul Auster. The novel also features “Paul Auster, the writer”, to add to its dizzying layering, who is writing on Don Quixote; Cervantes was one of Auster’s abiding touchstones.

Literary references are, of course, the most abundant of the myriad cultural associations that flow through Auster’s novels—they often contain lengthy sections where one almost feels Auster sharing an aside with us about his thoughts on a novelist or poet. But art is always there. It is notable that in describing his arrangement of his books in the Brooklyn home he shared with his second wife Siri Hustvedt (herself a great writer on the visual world) to The Guardian in 2021, Auster noted that art books occupied a wall of “the big room we call the library” alongside literature. His attention to art and its context could take the form of lengthy descriptions of paintings—a marvellous episode in Moon Palace (1989) reflects on the forms and meanings of Moonlight (1885-89), by Ralph Albert Blakelock, in the Brooklyn Museum, which he concludes with: “It was not a landscape, it was a memorial, a death song for a vanished world.” He could also insert playful moments of reality into fictional tales, for instance when one of the Fergusons in 4321 meets an avuncular Pierre Matisse, the gallerist son of Henri, in his New York gallery in the early 1960s. The same protagonist also has an earth-shattering encounter with the theories of John Cage, emphasising the most Austerian of Cage’s ideas: “The world is teeming: anything can happen.”

Art reflected characters’ inner worlds as well as the city of New York in which so many of Auster’s stories unfurled—indeed, his home city has often been described as a character in his writings. In Squeeze Play, Auster describes a scene in which, as a decorating solution, his protagonist Max Klein puts up nine copies of a print of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Tower of Babel in his apartment. “The painting never failed to make me think of New York, and it helped to remind me how our sweat and agony will always come to nothing in the end. It was my way of keeping things in perspective.”

Paul Benjamin Auster; born Newark, New Jersey, 3 February 1947; married 1974 Lydia Davis (one son deceased; marriage dissolved), 1982 Siri Hustvedt (one daughter); died New York City 30 April 2024

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