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Man In The Light: Paul Auster profile

With a new film and book out this year, writer Paul Auster is anything but a quiet American in the year of election.

“I’m feeling nervous,” Paul Auster’s voice burrs down the phoneline from Brooklyn. “I desperately want the Democrats to win. I think it’s just absolutely crucial to the future of the country that we get the Republicans out.”
Like many Americans, the New York writer is watching the election anxiously to see who will be the next leader of the free world. He campaigned actively at the last election against Bush alongside Dave Eggers, Salman Rushdie and a packed bookshelf of contemporary literati. As well as writing an anti-Bush song, he leant his succinct prose to The Future Dictionary of America, a lexicon imagining Stateside language 30 years from now. His entry: “Bush (bush) n. a poisonous family of shrubs, now extinct.”
Auster’s pre-election definition didn’t come true with America’s political weeds thriving into a second term. Preparing for his Australian visit this month, Auster has been looking enviously across the Pacific. “I think you [Australia] have a much better leader now and I just read in the New York Times today about his apology to the Aboriginal people. It’s extraordinary, y’know?... It seemed to have some real rhetorical power. ‘Sorry… Sorry… Sorry…’ at the end of every sentence. That’s rather impressive I think.” Bush oratory isn’t similarly admired, but Auster’s political ideals have endured the march of the neo-cons into Iraq.
Auster’s thirteenth novel, Man In The Dark, is heralded as his most political. Pounded out on his old typewriter (he doesn’t use email and didn’t know his My Space page even existed), the novel follows a widower in his 70s living in the country with his daughter and granddaughter “each one suffering for different reasons”. Over a single sleepless night, the old man reflects and refracts his past. “He makes up stories to pass the time and to ward off memories he doesn’t want to revisit. The larger story that he tells himself during the course of the night is a rather fantastical tale of a civil war in the United States. So yes there is politics and the Iraq war is certainly an element in the book, but it’s more than just that.”
Stories within stories are an Auster hallmark. His film Smoke saw Harvey Keitel performing an Auster short story, “Augie Wren’s Christmas”, which originally appeared in the New York Times. In the film the story is written by Jeff Bridges’ character, Paul Benjamin (Auster’s first and second names), a writer suffering from severe block. Auster is keen to point out that it’s not autobiographical. “He is a writer, but that’s the only thing he shares with me. None of the things that he experienced are things that I have experienced.”
With Auster’s latest film, The Inner Life of Martin Frost, another writer (played by David Thewlis) is centre stage. The eponymous novelist works in a peaceful country house which is invaded by a beautiful woman who is more than she first confesses. Thewlis went beyond method acting for the role. “Unbeknown to me for five years prior to me calling David and asking him to play the role, he himself had been writing a novel… So he isn’t just an actor playing a novelist, he’s a novelist playing a novelist,” Auster laughs dryly. As well as his daughter Sophie (a rising actor and songstress in her own right) appearing, Auster himself narrates the film.
Auster hardly needs to expand his CV, coming to writing late in his thirties via puzzle-making, translating and working as merchant seamen. “I’m glad of the different kinds of things I did when I was young and the different people I ran across in my travels. I always found that blue collar jobs were more interesting than white collar jobs – the work itself might have been drudgery but the environment you’re living in is more stimulating.”
At 60 Auster is frequently tagged a literary lion or grand old man of American letters, but every novel is still a struggle even the one he’s just begun. “I started a few months ago and it’s going very very slowly… I’m inching along as if I’m crawling on my hands and knees everyday. I’m all bloody from all the gravel that’s been ripping my skin apart. Whereas Man In The Dark just came pouring out of me. It was as if the book was already sitting inside me and I was taking dictation.”
Man In The Dark will be released this month in Danish as Mand i mørke, half a year before the English language edition hits the shelves because of Auster’s friendship with his Danish publisher. Auster first pre-released his Oracle Night in 2003 to help publisher Per Kofod out of financial trouble. Danes (who usually buy English editions from foreign publishers) bought the book in droves and sales “increased by tenfold”. For Auster it was a personal decision, “I really care about this man – he’s a wonderful, dedicated old-fashioned, committed publisher and there aren’t so many of those left.” American compassion, it seems, isn’t an endangered species.

Man in the Dark will be released in Australia in October.
The Inner Life of Martin Frost is released in March.

An edited version of this article appeared originally in The Big Issue, No 299.

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