Obit Paul Auster

Paul Auster was a poet before becoming one of the rising stars of New York’s literary scene in the 1980s. One of the most recurring themes of his work – how a single, chance moment can change everything – came from an incident at summer camp when he was 14. Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press file

His death, of complications from lung cancer, was announced by his family.

Auster began as a poet and retained his affinity for evocative language and mood as one of the emerging stars of the New York literary scene in the 1980s. Other writers looked to the bacchanal of Manhattan during a boom time of fast money and Wall Street excesses. Auster found his voice within darker corners of the city and the soul, most notably with his “The New York Trilogy,” three novels from the 1980s later combined into a single volume.

Reviewers often portrayed Auster as a transatlantic hybrid during a career that included more than 30 books as well as essays, poetry and screenplays. He was fully American in his sense of place and dialogue. To many, though, his books were also infused with French literary traditions, including existential musings and surrender to fate, from his years living in Paris as an aspiring author.

Auster acknowledged an intellectual debt to France. Yet one of the most recurring themes of his work – how a single, chance moment can change everything – came from an incident at summer camp when he was 14.

A lightning bolt killed one of the boys in his group as they scrambled to find an open field during a sudden storm. “I’ve always been haunted by what happened, the utter randomness of it,” Auster recalled. “I think it was the most important day of my life.”

More than two decades later, the vagaries of chance led him to his first novel, “City of Glass” in 1985. He was at home in Brooklyn, dabbling with story ideas and worrying about his growing debts, when the phone rang. The caller asked if he had reached the number for the storied Pinkerton detective agency. Auster said no. The same man, still looking for Pinkerton, misdialed Auster’s number the next day, too.

Auster then imagined: What if he had pretended to be a Pinkerton private eye and took a case. In the novel, a writer named Quinn poses as a detective. The story unfolds in classic noir style of hard-boiled dialogue and deepening intrigue, but the case also uncovers clues that lead to meditations on language and the lines between reality, illusion and madness.

“Kafka goes gumshoe” was how one of Auster’s editors described “City of Glass” and the following books in the trilogy, published the next year, “Ghosts” and “The Locked Room.”

The critical success of the trilogy led Auster to often being called a writer of detective fiction. He complained that such a label was too narrow, saying that he sought to convey life’s Jenga tower of memory, events and decisions. “You could also say ‘Crime and Punishment’ is a detective story, I suppose,” he wrote in a 2017 examination of his work, “A Life in Words.”

His novels that followed the trilogy delved more into the archaeology of the mind, often layered with autobiographical, literary and historical references. “Moon Palace” (1989) unspools the odyssey of a college student at Columbia (Auster’s alma mater) who inherits 1,492 books (think Columbus voyage) from an uncle and then gradually sinks into misery as he reads, and then sells off, the collection.

In 1992’s “Leviathan,” a novelist named Benjamin Sachs is blown to bits by a bomb he was assembling. Another writer, Peter Aaron, digs into Sachs’s life. (Aaron’s wife is Iris, a backward rendering of the name of Auster’s second wife, novelist Siri Hustvedt.)

The novel takes its name from a treatise on the obligations of power by the 17th-century social philosopher Thomas Hobbes and also is an allusion to Ahab’s ill-fated obsession with the white whale in “Moby Dick,” which Auster called one of the greatest works in American literature.

“Sachs,” Auster told the New York Times, “is somebody torn between his gift – which is literary – and something in him that is constantly pushing him out into the world to make a real difference in a concrete way.” But Sachs is neither a hardcore revolutionary nor a sociopath. It’s unclear what Sachs really wants.

‘Exposing the plumbing’

Auster reveled in such ambiguities. His characters are often unreliable narrators, leaving readers to grapple with what is truth and what is not. “I’ve always been interested in turning the process inside out, exposing the plumbing so to speak, not covering up the walls,” he said.

Auster’s narratives were mostly rooted in the here and now. His writing style was not. He wrote his first drafts in notebooks, often using a fountain pen, in a minimalist apartment near his brownstone in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. “You feel that the words are coming out of your body,” he once said of physical act of writing in longhand, “and then you dig the words into the page.”

He then typed the pages on his Olympia typewriter, a machine that was the star of his 2002 book, “The Story of My Typewriter,” with illustrations by Sam Messer. For decades, Auster puffed away at Davidoff cigarillos, whose gray-blue smoke became as much a part of his public image as his heavy-lidded eyes and thick dark hair.

With his literary fame on the rise, Hollywood took interest. One of his first screenplays, “Smoke” (1995), was something of a love letter to his Brooklyn neighborhood. In the film, directed by Wayne Wang, a tobacco shop owner (played by Harvey Keitel) is the anchor for a group of local strivers and strugglers, including a chain-smoking writer (William Hurt) whose name is Paul Benjamin, Auster’s first and middle names.

The tobacco proprietor takes a photo of the shop every day at 8 a.m. from the same angle. He explains that each photo is subtly different depending on the weather or the angle of the seasonal light. This daily photo mission was Auster explaining his own creative method, needing to write every day even if the words are not flowing.

“[The] excitement, the struggle, is emboldening and vivifying,” he said in a 2017 interview. “I just feel more alive writing.”

New Jersey to Brooklyn

Paul Benjamin Auster was born in Newark on Feb. 3, 1947, and was raised in suburban New Jersey towns including Maplewood. His father was part of a family-run business that owned buildings in Jersey City. His mother was a homemaker.

Auster’s first memoir, “The Invention of Solitude” (1982), looked back at the emotional gulf he felt with his father. “Instead of healing me as I thought it would,” he wrote, “the act of writing has kept this wound open. … Instead of burying my father for me, these words have kept him alive.”

Two very different publications – Mad magazine and a six-volume collection of Robert Louis Stevenson – shaped his early life, Auster said. Stevenson inspired him to craft his own adventure stories. Mad’s adolescent irreverence, he wrote in his 2013 memoir, “Report from the Interior,” showed him “you don’t have to swallow the dogma they were trying to sell you.”

He graduated from Columbia in 1969 with a degree in comparative literature – and also took part in antiwar demonstrations and sit-ins. He was nearly expelled when he abandoned an exchange program in Paris, upset over rules that demanded French language study instead of literature classes. (He stayed at Columbia for a master’s degree in 1970.)

He found a spot briefly on an oil tanker in the Gulf of Mexico before moving to Paris in 1971, working on poetry and finding translation jobs. He returned to New York in 1974 and hunted for any way to make money from writing, including once agreeing to try to write a pornographic novel under the pen name Paul Quinn. He gave up after “about 20 or 30 pages,” he wrote.

He also tried his hand at theater, writing plays that included an exploration of futility called “Laurel and Hardy Go to Heaven.” It was, he said, “a flop.”

A volume of original poetry, “Unearth,” was published in 1974. For nearly the next five decades, Auster produced a new book every several years, including “The Book of Illusions” (2002), about a biographer looking into the disappearance of a star from the silent-movie era; “Oracle Night” (2003), about a man who learns how much of his life was governed by chance; and “Winter Journal” (2012), an examination of aging.

He wrote and directed movies such as the comedy “Blue in the Face” (1995) and “The Inner Life of Martin Frost” (2007), about an author (David Thewlis) who becomes infatuated with a young woman at a friend’s country house.

Auster turned to nonfiction in recent years with “Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane” (2021) and “Bloodbath Nation” (2023) about American gun violence. His final novel, “Baumgartner,” came out last year.

The book follows the eponymous lead character – in his 70s like Auster – as he deals with failing health, loneliness and looming mortality. “Anything can happen to us at any moment,” Baumgartner says in the novel. “You know that, I know that, everyone knows that – and if they don’t, well, they haven’t been paying attention.”

In April 2022, while Auster was finishing the book, his 44-year-old son Daniel Auster died following a drug overdose after being charged in the drug-related death of his 10-month-old daughter, Ruby. According to court records, the girl consumed a lethal amount of heroin and fentanyl while Daniel Auster was sleeping after taking drugs. Auster declined to publicly speak about incident.

Auster’s first marriage, to the writer Lydia Davis, ended in divorce. He married Hustvedt in 1981. In addition to his wife, other survivors include their daughter; a sister; and a grandson.

Auster received several French literary awards. In 2017, he was shortlisted for Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize for the novel “4321,” which has a thunderstorm scene eerily similar to Auster’s childhood experience. In the book, a 13-year-old boy, excited by discovering books and girls and happy with life in general, is killed by a falling tree branch after a lightning strike.

“As his inert body lay on the water-soaked ground … thunder continued to crack, and from one end of the earth to the other,” he wrote, “the gods were silent.”

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