4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs

The Brooklyn Follies: A Novel

The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster. Henry Holt & Co., 2005; $24; 306 pages

FROM THE DUST JACKET:

Nathan Glass has come to Brooklyn to die. Divorced, estranged from his only daughter, the retired life insurance salesman seeks solitude and anonymity. Then Nathan finds his long-lost nephew, Tom Wood, working in a local bookstore -- a far cry from the brilliant academic career he'd begun when Nathan saw him last. Tom's boss is the charismatic Harry Brightman, whom fate has also brought to the "ancient kingdom of Brooklyn, New York." Through Tom and Harry, Nathan's world gradually broadens to include a new set of acquaintances -- not to mention a stray relative or two -- and leads him to a reckoning with his past.Among the many twists in the delicious plot are a scam involving a forgery of the first page of The Scarlet Letter , a disturbing revelation that takes place in a sperm bank, and an impossible, utopian dream of a rural refuge from the unbearable realities of modern life. Meanwhile, the wry and acerbic Glass has undertaken something he calls The Book of Human Folly , in which he proposes "to set down in the simplest, clearest language possible an account of every blunder, every pratfall, every embarrassment, every idiocy, every foible, and every inane act I had committed during my long and checkered career as a man." But life takes over instead, and Nathan's despair is swept away as he finds himself more and more implicated in the joys and sorrows of others.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

From Publishers Weekly: Nathan Glass, a retired life insurance salesman estranged from his family and facing an iffy cancer prognosis, is "looking for a quiet place to die. Someone recommended Brooklyn." What he finds, though, in this ebullient novel by Brooklyn bard Auster (Oracle Night), is a vital, bighearted borough brimming with great characters.... As Nathan recovers his soul through immersion in their lives, Auster meditates on the theme of sanctuary in American literature, from Hawthorne to Poe to Thoreau.... But the book's presiding spirit is Brooklyn's first bard, Walt Whitman, as Auster embraces the borough's multitudes -- neighborhood characters, drag queens, intellectuals manqué, greasy-spoon waitresses, urbane bourgeoisie -- while singing odes to moonrise over the Brooklyn Bridge.... The result is an affectionate portrait of the city as the ultimate refuge of the human spirit.

Booklist: Just when you think you've got Auster pegged, he shape-shifts. Not that his mesmerizing new novel isn't instantly recognizable as an Auster tale, what with its beautifully ruminative narration, obsessive charting of seemingly quotidian details, cleverly meandering and impressionistically noirish plot, and literary allusions, in this case, to Hawthorne, Kafka, and Gaddis. But this addition to his increasingly tender cycle of love songs to Brooklyn is his most down-to-earth, sensuous, and socially conscious novel to date.... Auster also takes subtle measure of a time that will live in infamy, the era of the 2000 election and September 11, 2001.

The New York Times Book Review : An incredibly loud finale, with lots of smoke.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Paul Auster, born in 1947 in Newark, New Jersey, is the bestselling author of Oracle Night, The Book of Illusions, and Timbuktu. I Thought My Father Was God , the NPR National Story Project anthology, which he edited, was also a national bestseller. His work has been translated into 30 languages. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, novelist Siri Hustvedt.

A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:

"Brooklyn is becoming the Big City for writers. Everyone who writes seems to have moved his or her laptop to a desk in a Brooklyn brownstone.""Well, enough of us are here now."

"Your book was not at all what I expected." I said, adding that I enjoyed it, and that I was interested in Mr. Auster's long-time fascination with Hawthorne.

"He's a kindred spirit. There's something about his mind, his storytelling, his life. It's almost a personal connection."

"You, like he, had a long exile in Europe."

"Well, that was probably the biggest mistake he ever made -- I think. There was that terrible business in Rome with his daughter who nearly died of the Roman fever -- malaria. I think it broke him. She, of course, never really recovered and died. His writing dried up after that. He lost contact with the United States."

"Plus," I said, "by the time Hawthorne and his family got home, Hawthorne was physically quite sick -- cancer."

"He wasn't yet 60 when he died," Auster said. "Not yet 60."

"His wife Sophia was so good to him and their children. Do you remember their honeymoon?"

"Yes, extraordinary. In Concord."

"The book -- Hawthorne in Concord by Philip McFarland -- is a lovely read. And Concord," I added, "with Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott and his daughters, and who knows else, all living close to one another, was rather a modern-day literary Brooklyn."

Auster agreed, an agreement that seemed to carry with it a smile. He asked, "Did you ever see the little book that I did? Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa ? It's pretty charming, isn't it?"

"Yes. How could it be otherwise?" Sophia Hawthorne and then-seven-year-old Una and two-month-old Rose left on a trip to visit her parents. Five-year-old Julian was alone with Hawthorne. The novelist-father took notes on the 20 days that he and his son lived alone together, with the help of a housekeeper who did the cooking and cleaning. Auster's introduction opens the book. The book, writes Booklist , "is a tiny classic of parental writing about children."

Auster didn't read Hawthorne seriously until he was in his 20s. "He just passed me by as an adolescent and then I must have been about 24 or 25 when I first read The Scarlet Letter and then started reading the stories. Ever since then, he's been an important figure for me."

After graduation in 1970 with an M.A. from Columbia University, Auster signed on to an oil tanker. Headed for France, Auster lived there for four years, writing and translating poetry.

"Translating as much as you did, and you translated a lot, do you think that helped you as a writer?"

"It was a very good thing to do. I would certainly recommend it to any young writer. The thing about translation is, if you're translating a good writer, I'm talking about working on someone who merits the effort, is that, when you're young you're burning to write, but you don't necessarily have anything to say yet. What translation does is allow you to work on putting sentences together, words together, the craft of writing; the pressure to be original is off, and you're thrown in the trenches, working with a text that you begin to understand so deeply.

"Reading a poem is one thing, even writing an essay about the poem is another, but trying to translate a poem is a much deeper experience. Because you've got to enter into the bloodstream of the thing and understand the whole skeletal structure and take it apart and put it back together again. It's a very good thing to do."

"When you translate an older poet, you're working with the work of a adult mind."

"That's true, that's true, and they become your teachers. Pound always recommended it as a good thing for young poets to do, to translate, and I completely agree."

About The Follies , I said, and its frequent references to Hawthorne, I mentioned that when the Follies crew arrives in Vermont, I thought, "Oh, Auster is going to have his characters build a Brook Farm."

"Well, they were thinking of it in the novel, but of course things don't work out that way in the story. Of course Brook Farm was a big failure. Hawthorne went really just to earn money. He needed money."

"He worked hard. This was during the period before his marriage, and he worked 12 to 16 hours a day at physical labor."

"But I don't think he really believed in it [the utopian hopes of the Brook Farmers]."

"His letters to his then-fiancée, Sophia," I said, "would indicate that he did not share the majority of the beliefs that were held by the Brook Farm population. Have you read her letters to him?"

"I've read a few, but not that many. She's a great writer. Where I do have letters of hers is in the book that Julian published later, Hawthorne and His Wife . It's a very interesting book. It's a biography of the two of them. And so he quotes liberally from her letters in it. It's long out of print, but you can get it in a used bookstore. It's worth it."

This book,

The Brooklyn Follies, said Mr. Auster, germinated for a long time. "I started writing it back in 1993. It had a different structure then. It was going to be told in the third person, all of the characters were there except Nathan. He was not part of the story. But there were two other characters, Willie G. Christmas and Mr. Bones, the homeless poet and his dog. I began the narrative with them, and I fell in love with those two characters and decided to write a little poetic novel about them. That became Timbuktu , and by doing that, the structure I had in mind for this book fell apart completely. It took me years of thinking and rethinking in order to pull it back together again. I never really let go of those characters. They were all there. For years. In my head."

"It's a heavily peopled book. You manage a large population of characters."

"Yes. More so than in most of my books. I've written another novel since

The Brooklyn Follies which I finished several months ago, and it's pretty spare, I have to say. So, different kinds of books for different moments."

"I would never have guessed you'd begun this in 1993 because, particularly in the beginning, it is an aging man's book."

"Well, as I say, Nathan wasn't part of it in the beginning, so it did change. When I found him, the tone became different, and I guess even in some sense the meaning of the book became different. And then years had gone by. We were in a new political and social era, and this book reflects that. It is happening in 2002, and people are talking about the upcoming election and so on -- so it's of that moment.

"I think of it as a comedy. I don't want to keep writing the same book again and again. I have to start from scratch each time. I have so many different sides, so many different aspects of a personality that want to get out. I felt that this was the time to write the comedy. Billy Wilder, the film director, said, 'When you're feeling on top of the world and life is going well for you, that's the moment to work on a tragedy, and when you're feeling down and depressed that's when you should do a comedy.' So I thought the moment had come to do the comedy."

I said that I could easily imagine Mr. Auster taking up Nathan Glass's projected manuscript -- The Book of Human Folly -- and finishing it.

"I could too. I hope the right person reads the book and is inspired to do that."

"Do you ever think about the obituaries of 'little people'?"

"Of course. The obituary is a fascinating literary form. If it's done well it can be extraordinary. I don't know if you read the New York Times, but there was a moment a few years ago when they really tried harder with the obituaries, and they did some very interesting ones. They would pick people who were unexpected. Not just statesmen and famous people, but, for example, the man who cut fish at Zabar's, the food store. There was a great, great piece about him after he died."

Mr. Auster told me something of his past. "My father was a businessman. He did various things. He started out right after high school, from which he graduated, if you can imagine, in June 1929. He was very gifted in electronics, and so he got a job in Thomas Edison's lab. Two weeks into the job, Edison discovered that my father was Jewish and fired him because Edison was a notorious anti-Semite. And so my father opened up a radio repair shop. In Newark. And that eventually led to an appliance store. He stopped that at some point and went into real estate with his brothers.

"I have one sibling. A sister, that's all. You've never read The Invention of Solitude , huh? My first prose book."

"I must not have, or if I have, it's just long lost in my mind."

"Well, the first part is all about my father. It was written immediately in the wake of his death, which was, gosh, early '79, it's almost 27 years."

"How did your mother manage?"

"My mother was already divorced and married by the mid '60s to somebody else at this point."

Apart from his four years in Europe, had Mr. Auster traveled much as a young man?

"I once spent about six months in Berkeley. It was 1976. A long time ago. I got a grant, and I thought, 'I'm going to leave New York for a while to see if I would enjoy living somewhere else. With my then-wife, we went across country and tested it. In the end I found it too boring. I missed New York. I felt I had given the experiment a legitimate shot, and New York was calling and back we went."

"Your books make you seem very old, august perhaps rather than old. Worldly. Experienced."

"I'm getting a little long in the tooth, true. But I'm still in my 50s, I'm not beyond that."

"Do you think a lot now, or have you begun to think for the first time, about your own death?"

"I've been thinking about it since I was conscious. So I continue to think about it, maybe a little more urgently now than before, but it's been a preoccupation from the beginning."

"Do you think about death in its particulars?"

"It's very difficult to, because no one knows how it's going to happen to them. So, no -- not particularly."

One of Mr. Auster's principal characters dies in this newest book.

"Well," said Mr. Auster, "the book is not autobiographical at all. I mean there's nothing in it that connects with my life except an incident that happens to Nathan in a Thai restaurant. I did have that happen to me about seven years ago. My esophagus was inflamed. That will imitate the symptoms of a heart attack."

"And eating Thai food."

"No, it wasn't Thai food. I was eating a tuna fish sandwich when it happened. It really, really was absolutely overpowering. I was taken to the hospital and I really did think I was dying. It was a strange moment in my life because I was lying on the floor in my wife's arms. I think I was just 50. I said to myself, 'Actually, amazingly, I'm not frightened. It's okay. If this is it, this is it. I have no regrets. I'm ready to go if I have to go.' Strange, huh? Usually you'd be in a state of panic. But you enter another zone. I tried to express that with Nathan too."

"Nathan is a wonderful character."

"He's a bit of a wise guy. But I do have a great fondness for him, I have to say. Harry is an amalgam of many of the different homosexual and bisexual men I've met over the years. I've known people similar to Harry, but they were never criminals."

We talked a bit about the book's settings, primarily in Brooklyn and Vermont.

"We used to go to Vermont every summer for about five or six years in a row," said Mr. Auster, "because before we bought the house we live in now, we lived in a pretty cramped apartment. It was an old farmhouse, which we rented for very little money, and we spent three months every summer there. So I know Vermont well. You add it all together -- it's at least a year and a half of my life on that hill. And it's a very dear place to me. I loved it."

"Any novel that's narrated in a New York summer makes a reader feel hot. Sometimes you want to throw such a book across the room. The Vermont section made me happy."

"Well, I don't know that I'm trying to make readers happy. I'm just trying to tell the story the best way I can."

"Well, you do hope they will not want to throw the book across the room."

"Yeah, that goes without saying," said Mr. Auster, before gracefully changing the subject. "One of the funniest things anyone ever said to me, this was about 15 or 16 years ago, I went to a book fair in Sweden and there was another American writer, Richard Ford, there. We are more or less contemporaries.

"The other American writer was Mickey Spillane. The three of us were sitting around talking, I think we did an interview together, and Mickey Spillane said, 'Nobody reads a book to get to the middle.' Which is a wonderful, wonderful statement. Spillane also said, 'Yeah, you guys are authors, I'm just a writer.'"

I said that I had read that Mr. Auster had been translated into 30 languages.

"Oh, it's more than 30. It's hard to keep count. But the most interesting new translations have been into Farsi. They're pirating my books in Iran, and it's really very moving to me that people are reading them there. I've actually done one long interview on the telephone about a year and a half ago with an Iranian journalist. We talked for three hours. He works for the paper that was shut down immediately after the elections -- this was two or three years ago. Two years ago, I think. But then the paper reopened and he did publish the article. The article contained not a single political question; it was all about literature -- passionate, passionate. I felt very good about that."

"How did writing this book change you?"

"I don't know. It's living inside you for so long and then you finally finish. I think what happens each time I finish a novel, I get very depressed. Well, I'm suddenly unemployed for one thing, and you're saying goodbye to these people you've been living with for so long, and something is sad about it."

"Hmmm. Goodbye, Nathan."

"Yeah, 'Goodbye, Nathan,' is right," sighed Mr. Auster. "So the characters in all my books are still in my head. I think about them often. But they're fixed at that point. Nothing more happens to them. You just give a book away. It's a present to other people, and if they enjoy it, how wonderful. That's what literature is."

Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all

Previous article

The Addams Family 2: new kooky characters gone wrong

Cousin Itt’s synthetic CG likeness owes more to Dawk than it does Feliz Silla’s hair suit.

The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster. Henry Holt & Co., 2005; $24; 306 pages

FROM THE DUST JACKET:

Nathan Glass has come to Brooklyn to die. Divorced, estranged from his only daughter, the retired life insurance salesman seeks solitude and anonymity. Then Nathan finds his long-lost nephew, Tom Wood, working in a local bookstore -- a far cry from the brilliant academic career he'd begun when Nathan saw him last. Tom's boss is the charismatic Harry Brightman, whom fate has also brought to the "ancient kingdom of Brooklyn, New York." Through Tom and Harry, Nathan's world gradually broadens to include a new set of acquaintances -- not to mention a stray relative or two -- and leads him to a reckoning with his past.Among the many twists in the delicious plot are a scam involving a forgery of the first page of The Scarlet Letter , a disturbing revelation that takes place in a sperm bank, and an impossible, utopian dream of a rural refuge from the unbearable realities of modern life. Meanwhile, the wry and acerbic Glass has undertaken something he calls The Book of Human Folly , in which he proposes "to set down in the simplest, clearest language possible an account of every blunder, every pratfall, every embarrassment, every idiocy, every foible, and every inane act I had committed during my long and checkered career as a man." But life takes over instead, and Nathan's despair is swept away as he finds himself more and more implicated in the joys and sorrows of others.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

From Publishers Weekly: Nathan Glass, a retired life insurance salesman estranged from his family and facing an iffy cancer prognosis, is "looking for a quiet place to die. Someone recommended Brooklyn." What he finds, though, in this ebullient novel by Brooklyn bard Auster (Oracle Night), is a vital, bighearted borough brimming with great characters.... As Nathan recovers his soul through immersion in their lives, Auster meditates on the theme of sanctuary in American literature, from Hawthorne to Poe to Thoreau.... But the book's presiding spirit is Brooklyn's first bard, Walt Whitman, as Auster embraces the borough's multitudes -- neighborhood characters, drag queens, intellectuals manqué, greasy-spoon waitresses, urbane bourgeoisie -- while singing odes to moonrise over the Brooklyn Bridge.... The result is an affectionate portrait of the city as the ultimate refuge of the human spirit.

Booklist: Just when you think you've got Auster pegged, he shape-shifts. Not that his mesmerizing new novel isn't instantly recognizable as an Auster tale, what with its beautifully ruminative narration, obsessive charting of seemingly quotidian details, cleverly meandering and impressionistically noirish plot, and literary allusions, in this case, to Hawthorne, Kafka, and Gaddis. But this addition to his increasingly tender cycle of love songs to Brooklyn is his most down-to-earth, sensuous, and socially conscious novel to date.... Auster also takes subtle measure of a time that will live in infamy, the era of the 2000 election and September 11, 2001.

The New York Times Book Review : An incredibly loud finale, with lots of smoke.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Paul Auster, born in 1947 in Newark, New Jersey, is the bestselling author of Oracle Night, The Book of Illusions, and Timbuktu. I Thought My Father Was God , the NPR National Story Project anthology, which he edited, was also a national bestseller. His work has been translated into 30 languages. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, novelist Siri Hustvedt.

A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:

"Brooklyn is becoming the Big City for writers. Everyone who writes seems to have moved his or her laptop to a desk in a Brooklyn brownstone.""Well, enough of us are here now."

"Your book was not at all what I expected." I said, adding that I enjoyed it, and that I was interested in Mr. Auster's long-time fascination with Hawthorne.

"He's a kindred spirit. There's something about his mind, his storytelling, his life. It's almost a personal connection."

"You, like he, had a long exile in Europe."

"Well, that was probably the biggest mistake he ever made -- I think. There was that terrible business in Rome with his daughter who nearly died of the Roman fever -- malaria. I think it broke him. She, of course, never really recovered and died. His writing dried up after that. He lost contact with the United States."

"Plus," I said, "by the time Hawthorne and his family got home, Hawthorne was physically quite sick -- cancer."

"He wasn't yet 60 when he died," Auster said. "Not yet 60."

"His wife Sophia was so good to him and their children. Do you remember their honeymoon?"

"Yes, extraordinary. In Concord."

"The book -- Hawthorne in Concord by Philip McFarland -- is a lovely read. And Concord," I added, "with Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott and his daughters, and who knows else, all living close to one another, was rather a modern-day literary Brooklyn."

Auster agreed, an agreement that seemed to carry with it a smile. He asked, "Did you ever see the little book that I did? Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa ? It's pretty charming, isn't it?"

"Yes. How could it be otherwise?" Sophia Hawthorne and then-seven-year-old Una and two-month-old Rose left on a trip to visit her parents. Five-year-old Julian was alone with Hawthorne. The novelist-father took notes on the 20 days that he and his son lived alone together, with the help of a housekeeper who did the cooking and cleaning. Auster's introduction opens the book. The book, writes Booklist , "is a tiny classic of parental writing about children."

Auster didn't read Hawthorne seriously until he was in his 20s. "He just passed me by as an adolescent and then I must have been about 24 or 25 when I first read The Scarlet Letter and then started reading the stories. Ever since then, he's been an important figure for me."

After graduation in 1970 with an M.A. from Columbia University, Auster signed on to an oil tanker. Headed for France, Auster lived there for four years, writing and translating poetry.

"Translating as much as you did, and you translated a lot, do you think that helped you as a writer?"

"It was a very good thing to do. I would certainly recommend it to any young writer. The thing about translation is, if you're translating a good writer, I'm talking about working on someone who merits the effort, is that, when you're young you're burning to write, but you don't necessarily have anything to say yet. What translation does is allow you to work on putting sentences together, words together, the craft of writing; the pressure to be original is off, and you're thrown in the trenches, working with a text that you begin to understand so deeply.

"Reading a poem is one thing, even writing an essay about the poem is another, but trying to translate a poem is a much deeper experience. Because you've got to enter into the bloodstream of the thing and understand the whole skeletal structure and take it apart and put it back together again. It's a very good thing to do."

"When you translate an older poet, you're working with the work of a adult mind."

"That's true, that's true, and they become your teachers. Pound always recommended it as a good thing for young poets to do, to translate, and I completely agree."

About The Follies , I said, and its frequent references to Hawthorne, I mentioned that when the Follies crew arrives in Vermont, I thought, "Oh, Auster is going to have his characters build a Brook Farm."

"Well, they were thinking of it in the novel, but of course things don't work out that way in the story. Of course Brook Farm was a big failure. Hawthorne went really just to earn money. He needed money."

"He worked hard. This was during the period before his marriage, and he worked 12 to 16 hours a day at physical labor."

"But I don't think he really believed in it [the utopian hopes of the Brook Farmers]."

"His letters to his then-fiancée, Sophia," I said, "would indicate that he did not share the majority of the beliefs that were held by the Brook Farm population. Have you read her letters to him?"

"I've read a few, but not that many. She's a great writer. Where I do have letters of hers is in the book that Julian published later, Hawthorne and His Wife . It's a very interesting book. It's a biography of the two of them. And so he quotes liberally from her letters in it. It's long out of print, but you can get it in a used bookstore. It's worth it."

This book,

The Brooklyn Follies, said Mr. Auster, germinated for a long time. "I started writing it back in 1993. It had a different structure then. It was going to be told in the third person, all of the characters were there except Nathan. He was not part of the story. But there were two other characters, Willie G. Christmas and Mr. Bones, the homeless poet and his dog. I began the narrative with them, and I fell in love with those two characters and decided to write a little poetic novel about them. That became Timbuktu , and by doing that, the structure I had in mind for this book fell apart completely. It took me years of thinking and rethinking in order to pull it back together again. I never really let go of those characters. They were all there. For years. In my head."

"It's a heavily peopled book. You manage a large population of characters."

"Yes. More so than in most of my books. I've written another novel since

The Brooklyn Follies which I finished several months ago, and it's pretty spare, I have to say. So, different kinds of books for different moments."

"I would never have guessed you'd begun this in 1993 because, particularly in the beginning, it is an aging man's book."

"Well, as I say, Nathan wasn't part of it in the beginning, so it did change. When I found him, the tone became different, and I guess even in some sense the meaning of the book became different. And then years had gone by. We were in a new political and social era, and this book reflects that. It is happening in 2002, and people are talking about the upcoming election and so on -- so it's of that moment.

"I think of it as a comedy. I don't want to keep writing the same book again and again. I have to start from scratch each time. I have so many different sides, so many different aspects of a personality that want to get out. I felt that this was the time to write the comedy. Billy Wilder, the film director, said, 'When you're feeling on top of the world and life is going well for you, that's the moment to work on a tragedy, and when you're feeling down and depressed that's when you should do a comedy.' So I thought the moment had come to do the comedy."

I said that I could easily imagine Mr. Auster taking up Nathan Glass's projected manuscript -- The Book of Human Folly -- and finishing it.

"I could too. I hope the right person reads the book and is inspired to do that."

"Do you ever think about the obituaries of 'little people'?"

"Of course. The obituary is a fascinating literary form. If it's done well it can be extraordinary. I don't know if you read the New York Times, but there was a moment a few years ago when they really tried harder with the obituaries, and they did some very interesting ones. They would pick people who were unexpected. Not just statesmen and famous people, but, for example, the man who cut fish at Zabar's, the food store. There was a great, great piece about him after he died."

Mr. Auster told me something of his past. "My father was a businessman. He did various things. He started out right after high school, from which he graduated, if you can imagine, in June 1929. He was very gifted in electronics, and so he got a job in Thomas Edison's lab. Two weeks into the job, Edison discovered that my father was Jewish and fired him because Edison was a notorious anti-Semite. And so my father opened up a radio repair shop. In Newark. And that eventually led to an appliance store. He stopped that at some point and went into real estate with his brothers.

"I have one sibling. A sister, that's all. You've never read The Invention of Solitude , huh? My first prose book."

"I must not have, or if I have, it's just long lost in my mind."

"Well, the first part is all about my father. It was written immediately in the wake of his death, which was, gosh, early '79, it's almost 27 years."

"How did your mother manage?"

"My mother was already divorced and married by the mid '60s to somebody else at this point."

Apart from his four years in Europe, had Mr. Auster traveled much as a young man?

"I once spent about six months in Berkeley. It was 1976. A long time ago. I got a grant, and I thought, 'I'm going to leave New York for a while to see if I would enjoy living somewhere else. With my then-wife, we went across country and tested it. In the end I found it too boring. I missed New York. I felt I had given the experiment a legitimate shot, and New York was calling and back we went."

"Your books make you seem very old, august perhaps rather than old. Worldly. Experienced."

"I'm getting a little long in the tooth, true. But I'm still in my 50s, I'm not beyond that."

"Do you think a lot now, or have you begun to think for the first time, about your own death?"

"I've been thinking about it since I was conscious. So I continue to think about it, maybe a little more urgently now than before, but it's been a preoccupation from the beginning."

"Do you think about death in its particulars?"

"It's very difficult to, because no one knows how it's going to happen to them. So, no -- not particularly."

One of Mr. Auster's principal characters dies in this newest book.

"Well," said Mr. Auster, "the book is not autobiographical at all. I mean there's nothing in it that connects with my life except an incident that happens to Nathan in a Thai restaurant. I did have that happen to me about seven years ago. My esophagus was inflamed. That will imitate the symptoms of a heart attack."

"And eating Thai food."

"No, it wasn't Thai food. I was eating a tuna fish sandwich when it happened. It really, really was absolutely overpowering. I was taken to the hospital and I really did think I was dying. It was a strange moment in my life because I was lying on the floor in my wife's arms. I think I was just 50. I said to myself, 'Actually, amazingly, I'm not frightened. It's okay. If this is it, this is it. I have no regrets. I'm ready to go if I have to go.' Strange, huh? Usually you'd be in a state of panic. But you enter another zone. I tried to express that with Nathan too."

"Nathan is a wonderful character."

"He's a bit of a wise guy. But I do have a great fondness for him, I have to say. Harry is an amalgam of many of the different homosexual and bisexual men I've met over the years. I've known people similar to Harry, but they were never criminals."

We talked a bit about the book's settings, primarily in Brooklyn and Vermont.

"We used to go to Vermont every summer for about five or six years in a row," said Mr. Auster, "because before we bought the house we live in now, we lived in a pretty cramped apartment. It was an old farmhouse, which we rented for very little money, and we spent three months every summer there. So I know Vermont well. You add it all together -- it's at least a year and a half of my life on that hill. And it's a very dear place to me. I loved it."

"Any novel that's narrated in a New York summer makes a reader feel hot. Sometimes you want to throw such a book across the room. The Vermont section made me happy."

"Well, I don't know that I'm trying to make readers happy. I'm just trying to tell the story the best way I can."

"Well, you do hope they will not want to throw the book across the room."

"Yeah, that goes without saying," said Mr. Auster, before gracefully changing the subject. "One of the funniest things anyone ever said to me, this was about 15 or 16 years ago, I went to a book fair in Sweden and there was another American writer, Richard Ford, there. We are more or less contemporaries.

"The other American writer was Mickey Spillane. The three of us were sitting around talking, I think we did an interview together, and Mickey Spillane said, 'Nobody reads a book to get to the middle.' Which is a wonderful, wonderful statement. Spillane also said, 'Yeah, you guys are authors, I'm just a writer.'"

I said that I had read that Mr. Auster had been translated into 30 languages.

"Oh, it's more than 30. It's hard to keep count. But the most interesting new translations have been into Farsi. They're pirating my books in Iran, and it's really very moving to me that people are reading them there. I've actually done one long interview on the telephone about a year and a half ago with an Iranian journalist. We talked for three hours. He works for the paper that was shut down immediately after the elections -- this was two or three years ago. Two years ago, I think. But then the paper reopened and he did publish the article. The article contained not a single political question; it was all about literature -- passionate, passionate. I felt very good about that."

"How did writing this book change you?"

"I don't know. It's living inside you for so long and then you finally finish. I think what happens each time I finish a novel, I get very depressed. Well, I'm suddenly unemployed for one thing, and you're saying goodbye to these people you've been living with for so long, and something is sad about it."

"Hmmm. Goodbye, Nathan."

"Yeah, 'Goodbye, Nathan,' is right," sighed Mr. Auster. "So the characters in all my books are still in my head. I think about them often. But they're fixed at that point. Nothing more happens to them. You just give a book away. It's a present to other people, and if they enjoy it, how wonderful. That's what literature is."

Sponsored
Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

#MeToo, from here to Africa

“So many girls out there are being molested by their own fathers, by their own cousins... It’s out of control.”
Next Article

Celebrate the 27th James Bond film with the 6th James Bond film

No Time to Die indeed
Comments
0

Be the first to leave a comment.

Sign in to comment

Sign in

Ask a Hipster — Advice you didn't know you needed Big Screen — Movie commentary Blurt — Music's inside track Booze News — San Diego spirits Classical Music — Immortal beauty Classifieds — Free and easy Cover Stories — Front-page features Drinks All Around — Bartenders' drink recipes Excerpts — Literary and spiritual excerpts Feast! — Food & drink reviews Feature Stories — Local news & stories From the Archives — Spotlight on the past Golden Dreams — Talk of the town Letters — Our inbox [email protected] — Local movie buffs share favorites Movie Reviews — Our critics' picks and pans Musician Interviews — Up close with local artists Neighborhood News from Stringers — Hyperlocal news News Ticker — News & politics Obermeyer — San Diego politics illustrated Outdoors — Weekly changes in flora and fauna Overheard in San Diego — Eavesdropping illustrated Poetry — The old and the new Reader Travel — Travel section built by travelers Reading — The hunt for intellectuals Roam-O-Rama — SoCal's best hiking/biking trails San Diego Beer — Inside San Diego suds SD on the QT — Almost factual news Sheep and Goats — Places of worship Special Issues — The best of Street Style — San Diego streets have style Surf Diego — Real stories from those braving the waves Tin Fork — Silver spoon alternative Under the Radar — Matt Potter's undercover work Unforgettable — Long-ago San Diego Unreal Estate — San Diego's priciest pads Your Week — Daily event picks
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
Close