Paul Auster wrote his first poem on a sunny spring day in 1956, when he was 9 years old. Happy to see the back of winter, he came up with a few verses while walking through a small park in his native South Orange, New Jersey. It was the worst poem ever written, the American writer says today, but it wasn’t the words on the paper that mattered.
“I remember feeling connected to everything around me,” he says, describing a feeling he still gets when putting words down on paper. “I feel connected to the world and other people. And things around me, just everything that is not me becomes part of me too. I’ve only just thought about it recently. I think that’s why writers do it. Because it creates a feeling you can’t get anywhere else,” says one of the greatest living American writers today.
We meet at his home, an 1892 brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York, where, all smiles, he ushers us into the sunlit kitchen dining area. This is where he reads the morning papers every day while having his tea, before going downstairs to his office to work.
“Every day it’s the same. It’s very boring to someone on the outside but inside you are full of thought and ideas. It’s very exciting for me. Writing is very hard, it’s very hard to write a good sentence. It doesn’t come easy. But the difficulty is part of the pleasure,” he comments. “So I wouldn’t say writing is fun, I don’t enjoy it the way I enjoy certain other things but I feel more alive when I’m doing it.”
This morning ritual is not the only one he likes to keep. As with his other novels, “4321” (which was recently published in Greece by Metaichmio in a translation by Maria Xilouri) was written with what he calls the “three-step” method: Every paragraph of the 1,200-plus-page novel was written by hand, edited and rewritten on a typewriter before going onto the computer.
Recounting four versions of his single protagonist’s life, from his birth through the turbulent 1960s, this is the biggest book Auster has every written.
“I never thought I would write such a long novel. I have no particular admiration for long novels,” he says, explaining that the length was ultimately dictated by the story. “If you break it down, each quarter is about 250 pages, the size of a normal novel. Even though the four stories are independent from one another, they do, I think, influence the reader as you go along.”
Why do we get four versions of Archibald Isaac Ferguson’s life, instead of two or five?
“When I first got the idea, I didn’t know how many there would be. I toyed with it in my mind. Nine, seven, five – those were the numbers I started with. Then four seemed to be just right. Four has some kind of perfect symmetry: It’s the square, the seasons, the elements, the cardinal points of the compass. Beyond that I can’t explain. Instinctively I knew that five would be too many, three would be too few and seven would be out of control; no one would be able to follow the book,” he answers.
Every version of Archie’s life starts the same way, with the same parents and with the same love for books and writing, but each takes a different direction along the way. “It’s the unexpected and the unexpected happens in all our lives, frequently,” he says.
“Every time you bang your head on the door, slip and break your leg, if you get in a car crash and die, it’s an accident and everyone understands this. All I’m proposing, and I’m proposing that in all my books, since the very beginning, is that unpredictable things happen to people and this is how reality works. Nobody’s life goes smoothly.”
Auster experienced one such unexpected event at the age of 14, during a hike while at summer camp, when a bolt of lighting struck and killed a boy just a few inches away from him. In his autobiography, “Winter Journal,” Auster describes how he tried to warm up the boy’s body in the soaking field, unaware that he was dead.
In “4321,” the writer addresses this traumatic event for the first time in a novel. “It changed how I viewed the world,” he says of the incident.
“Up until then I thought I was walking on a solid ground. There is no solid ground. Anything can happen to anybody at any time, just like that,” he adds, noting that a bolt of lighting is at the core of the novel.
“Archie shares my geography and chronology but his life is quite different from mine, except for that event, which is not told the way it really happened in life but it’s told twice in the novel,” says Auster. “That is the emotional core of the book and everything else comes out of that. And it’s the only thing that explains the ending of the book.”
Archie’s life intersects with the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War and the protests at Columbia University. No other period of American history has been as turbulent and as divisive as that one – and the present, says Auster.
“We haven’t solved anything, we haven’t really changed at all. It was a dark realization that we are stuck in ways that have to do with who we are and who we made ourselves into in the very beginning. At the very core of it, it’s slavery and racism that we never fully addressed,” he argues.
The writer has publicly voiced his opposition to the current American president and is concerned that erstwhile “granite” institutions, like the Constitution and justice, will melt like soap under Donald Trump. “That’s what they’ve been doing for the past year and a half,” Auster says. “They are taking apart the country and it’s a scary thing to look at.”
The publication of “4321” in the United States coincided with Auster’s 70th birthday. Far from thinking of it as his swan song after spending so many years on it, he is already busy writing another book on the life and work of 19th century American author Stephen Crane.
He would like to introduce him to the younger generations, he says. Reading, according to Auster, “is a dialogue between two strangers. But on very intimate terms. There’s no experience like reading a book. Nothing can duplicate that. It might be a moment that not many people read but maybe that will change again. I’m not that pessimistic about it.”
Now at 71, he describes the feeling of getting old by borrowing a quote from poet George Oppen: It’s “a strange thing to happen to a little boy.”
“I know time is running out but the fact is I think I feel happier now than I ever felt,” says Auster. “I worry much less about things, I feel freer. I have the great good luck to be married to an extraordinary woman and we have a long and good marriage that I hope will just go on until the end. I have nothing to complain about. I’m a lucky man. I feel lucky to be alive now.”
Τhe interview was first published in Kathimerini in May 2018.