Paul Auster, Prolific Author and Brooklyn Literary Star, Dies at 77

Paul Auster, Prolific Author and Brooklyn Literary Star, Dies at 77

Paul Auster, the prolific novelist, memoirist and screenwriter who rose to fame in the 1980s with his postmodern reanimation of the noir novel and who endured to become one of the signature New York writers of his generation, died of complications from lung cancer at his home in Brooklyn on Tuesday evening. He was 77.

His death was confirmed by a friend, Jacki Lyden.

With his hooded eyes, soulful air and leading-man looks, Mr. Auster was often described as a “literary superstar” in news accounts. The Times Literary Supplement of Britain once called him “one of America’s most spectacularly inventive writers.”

Though a New Jersey native, he became indelibly linked with the rhythms of his adopted city, which was a character of sorts in much of his work — particularly Brooklyn, where he settled in 1980 amid the oak-lined streets of brownstones in the Park Slope neighborhood.

As his reputation grew, Mr. Auster came to be seen as a guardian of Brooklyn’s rich literary past, as well as an inspiration to a new generation of novelists who flocked to the borough in the 1990s and later.

“Paul Auster was the Brooklyn novelist back in the ’80s and ’90s, when I was growing up there, at a time when very few famous writers lived in the borough,” the author and poet Meghan O’Rourke, who was raised in nearby Prospect Heights, wrote in an email. “His books were on all my parents’ friends’ shelves. As teenagers, my friends and I read Auster’s work avidly for both its strangeness — that touch of European surrealism — and its closeness.

“Long before ‘Brooklyn’ became a place where every novelist seemed to live, from Colson Whitehead to Jhumpa Lahiri,” she added, “Auster made being a writer seem like something real, something a person actually did.”

His reputation was anything but local, however. He took home several literary prizes in France alone. Like Woody Allen and Mickey Rourke, Mr. Auster, who had lived in Paris as a young man, became one of those rare American imports to be embraced by the French as a native son.

“The first thing you hear as you approach an Auster reading, anywhere in the world, is French,” New York magazine observed in 2007. “Merely a best-selling author in these parts, Auster is a rock star in Paris.”

In Britain, his 2017 novel, “4321,” which examined four parallel versions of the early life of its protagonist — as Mr. Auster was, a Jewish boy born in Newark in 1947 — was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

His career began to take flight in 1982, with his memoir “The Invention of Solitude,” a haunting rumination on his distant relationship with his recently deceased father. His first novel, “City of Glass,” was rejected by 17 publishers before it was published by a small press in California in 1985.

The book became the first installment in his most celebrated work, “The New York Trilogy,” three novels later packaged in a single volume. It was listed as one of the 25 most significant New York City novels of the last 100 years in a roundup in T, the style magazine published by The New York Times.

“City of Glass” is the story of a mystery writer who is reeling from personal loss — an ever-present theme in Mr. Auster’s work — and who, through a wrong number, is mistaken for a private detective named, yes, Paul Auster. The writer begins to take on the detective’s identity, losing himself in a real-life sleuthing job of his own while descending into madness.

In some ways the book was a classic shamus tale. But Mr. Auster chafed at being limited by genre. “You could also say ‘Crime and Punishment’ is a detective story, I suppose,” he said in his 2017 book, “A Life in Words,” a self-analysis of his own work.

With its fractured narrative, unreliable narrator and deconstruction of identity, his approach at times seemed ready for analysis in college courses on literary theory.

“Auster played brilliantly throughout his career in the game of literary postmodernism, but with a simplicity of language that could have come out of a detective novel,” Will Blythe, the author and former literary editor of Esquire, said in an email. “He seemed to view life itself as fiction, in which one’s self evolves exactly the way a writer creates a character.”

As Mr. Auster put it in “A Life in Words,” “most writers are perfectly satisfied with traditional literary models and happy to produce works they feel are beautiful and true and good.”

He added: “I’ve always wanted to write what to me is beautiful, true, and good, but I’m also interested in inventing new ways to tell stories. I wanted to turn everything inside out.”

While to some critics such experimentalism brought to mind the deconstruction approach of Jacques Derrida, Mr. Auster often described himself as a throwback who preferred Emily Brontë over the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, as he said in a 2009 interview with the British newspaper The Independent.

He eschewed computers, often writing by fountain pen in his beloved notebooks.

“Keyboards have always intimidated me,” he told The Paris Review in 2003.

“A pen is a much more primitive instrument,” he said. “You feel that the words are coming out of your body, and then you dig the words into the page. Writing has always had that tactile quality for me. It’s a physical experience.”

He would then turn to his vintage Olympia typewriter to type his handwritten manuscripts. He immortalized the trusty machine in his 2002 book “The Story of My Typewriter,” with illustrations by the painter Sam Messer.

Such antiquarian methods did nothing to slow Mr. Auster’s breathless output. Writing six hours a day, often seven days a week, he pumped out a new book nearly annually for years. He ultimately published 34 books, accounting for shorter works that were later incorporated into larger books, including 18 novels and several acclaimed memoirs and assorted autobiographical works, along with plays, screenplays and collections of stories, essays and poems.

His novels include critically acclaimed works like “Moon Palace” (1989), about the odyssey of an orphan college student who receives a bequest of thousands of books; “Leviathan” (1992), about a writer investigating the death of a friend who blew himself up while building a bomb; and “The Book of Illusions” (2002), about a biographer exploring the mysterious disappearance of his subject, a silent-screen star.

Among his memoirs are “Hand to Mouth” (1997), about his early struggles as a writer, and “Winter Journal” (2012), which, while written in the second person, was an examination of the frailties of his aging body.

By the 1990s, Mr. Auster had set his sights on Hollywood. He wrote several screenplays, some of which he directed.

“Smoke” (1995), directed by Wayne Wang from a screenplay by Mr. Auster, was based on a Christmas story by the author published in The Times. It drew deeply from his life in Park Slope, where he shared a brick townhouse with his wife, the novelist Siri Hustvedt.

The film, heavy with philosophical musings, stars Harvey Keitel as Auggie, the proprietor of a Park Slope tobacco shop that is a locus for a colorful assortment of neighborhood dreamers and eccentrics. One is Paul Benjamin (Mr. Auster’s early pen name; Benjamin was his middle name), a cerebral, cigarette-puffing writer (William Hurt) whose life is saved when a young man (Harold Perrineau) pulls him from the path of a truck.

The same year, Mr. Auster, with Mr. Wang, directed a loose-limbed comedic follow-up, “Blue in the Face,” sprinkled with cameos by a host of stars, including Lou Reed musing on cigarettes, Long Island and the Brooklyn Dodgers and Madonna delivering a saucy singing telegram.

Mr. Auster would go on to write and direct “Lulu on the Bridge” (1998), about a jazz saxophonist (Mr. Keitel) whose life takes a turn when he’s hit by a stray bullet at a New York club; and “The Inner Life of Martin Frost” (2007), about an author (David Thewlis) who retreats to a friend’s country house for solitude, only to become entranced by a young woman there (Irène Jacob).

In some ways, his detour into film was the culmination of a dream he had as a youth. In his early 20s, Mr. Auster had considered going to film school in Paris, as he told the director Wim Wenders in 2017 in Interview magazine.

“The reason I didn’t pursue it was, fundamentally, that I was so grotesquely shy at that point in my life,” he said. “I had such difficulty speaking in front of a group of more than two or three people that I thought, “How can I direct a film if I can’t talk in front of others?”

Paul Benjamin Auster was born on Feb. 3, 1947, in Newark, the elder of two children of Samuel and Queenie (Bogat) Auster. His father was a landlord who owned buildings in Jersey City with his brothers.

Paul grew up in South Orange, N.J., and later nearby Maplewood, but his home was not a happy one, he wrote. His parents’ marriage was strained, and his relationship with his father remote. “It was not that I felt he disliked me,” Mr. Auster wrote in “The Invention of Solitude.” “It was just that he seemed distracted, unable to look in my direction.”

He took refuge in baseball, a lifelong passion, as well as books. “When I was 9 or 10,” he told The Times in 2017, “my grandmother gave me a six-volume collection of books by Robert Louis Stevenson, which inspired me to start writing stories that began with scintillating sentences like this one: ‘In the year of our Lord 1751, I found myself staggering around blindly in a raging snowstorm, trying to make my way back to my ancestral home.’”

After graduating from Columbia High School in Maplewood, he enrolled in Columbia University, where he participated in the student uprising of 1968 and met his first wife, the writer Lydia Davis, who was a student at Barnard.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature 1969, followed by a master’s in the same subject, he did a stint working on an oil tanker before moving to Paris. There he scraped together rent money by translating French literature while starting to publish his own work in literary journals.

He published his first book, a collection of translations called “A Little Anthology of Surrealist Poems,” in 1972. In 1974, he returned to New York City and married Ms. Davis. He was soon trying such ventures as marketing a baseball card game he invented before his writing career began to blossom in the 1980s.

Along with success over the years came critical barbs. James Wood of The New Yorker used a 2009 review of Mr. Auster’s book “Invisible” to parody the tough-guy talk, violent accidents and “B-movie atmosphere” that Mr. Wood perceived in Auster novels. “Although there are things to admire in Auster’s fiction,” Mr. Wood concluded, “the prose is never one of them.”

In 2017, Vulture published a tart appraisal of his work with the headline “What happened to Paul Auster? A decade ago he was a Nobel candidate.” Dismissing his novel as fodder for college-age neophytes, Christian Lorentzen, the article’s author, described Mr. Auster’s work as a “gateway drug to stronger stuff — Beckett, DeLillo, Auster’s own ex-wife Lydia Davis.”

By that point, Mr. Auster had largely stopped reading reviews, arguing that even the positive reviews often miss the point. “No good can come of it,” he said in the interview in The Independent. “I spare my fragile soul.”

For a writer whose work was filled with themes of pain and loss, far greater pain would come his way.

In the spring of 2022, his son Daniel Auster, 44, died following a drug overdose 11 days after being charged in the death of his 10-month-old daughter, Ruby. In a deposition, Daniel said he had shot heroin before taking a nap with his daughter and, upon waking up, found her dead from what was determined to be acute intoxication of heroin and fentanyl.

His father issued no comment on the death.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Auster is survived by his daughter, Sophie Auster; his sister, Janet Auster, and a grandson.

Mr. Auster remained prolific, publishing several books in recent years, including “Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane” (2021) and “Bloodbath Nation” (2023), a chilling meditation on American gun violence. His final novel, “Baumgartner,” came out last year.

Mr. Auster’s final novel, published in 2023. Credit…Atlantic Monthly Press

As the novelist Fiona Maazel noted in The New York Times Book Review, “Baumgartner” is replete with many classic Auster touches that bring to mind his earlier works: The earnest, bookish male protagonist, the narrative instabilities. But it is also a novel that reflects the inner struggles of an author in his later years dealing with age and grief.

“At its heart, ‘Baumgartner’ is about warring states of mind,” Ms. Maazel wrote. “Our hero is a philosophy professor (for clarity I’ll call him Sy, as his friends do) who lost his wife nearly 10 years ago in a freak accident and has been caught between hanging on and letting go — or even pushing away — ever since.”

Despite his long and productive career, Mr. Auster at times expressed irritation that much of his career had been assessed in relation to “The New York Trilogy,” his breakout work.

“There’s a tendency among journalists to regard the work that puts you in the public eye for the first time as your best work,” he said in “A Life in Words.” “Take Lou Reed. He can’t stand ‘Walk on the Wild Side.’ This song is so famous, it followed him around all his life.”

“Even so,” he added, “I don’t think in terms of ‘best’ or ‘worst.’ Making art isn’t like competing in the Olympics, after all.”

Orlando Mayorquín contributed reporting.

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