Early in Paul Auster’s latest novel, Baumgartner, his eponymous lead character is speaking to a grief counsellor in the immediate aftermath of losing his wife in a freakishly violent swimming accident. “Anything can happen to us at any moment,” he tells her. “You know that, I know that, everyone knows that – and if they don’t, well, they haven’t been paying attention.”
When we meet Sy Baumgartner, it is 10 years after Anna’s death. Now 70 and a retired Princeton philosophy professor, we find him enduring a darkly comedic and somewhat lower stakes set of unexpectedly escalating domestic vicissitudes. In rapid succession he is frustrated in the simple task of calling his sister, scalds himself on a hot pan and tumbles down the stairs during an unnecessary visit to his basement.
“I’d wanted to try my hand at a short story,” explains Auster, 76, speaking from his home in Brooklyn, New York. “Something I have done almost none of in my career. I’d always written modestly sized books and then with 4321 and Burning Boy” – his 2017 Booker-shortlisted novel of close to 1,000 pages and his 2021 800-page biography of Stephen Crane – “I’d written two door-stoppers. It really wasn’t intentional. If you dropped those books you could break both feet, so I wanted something shorter and this older man came to me, sitting in his house and looking out the window at robins pulling up worms. I wrote a story called Worms, but then didn’t want to drop him. There was more there and so I started up again, knowing that underneath this almost Buster Keaton opening was something darker lurking.”
The bleak humour, if not the slapstick, persists through the book as Auster explores the darker material of Baumgartner’s decade-long relationship with loss and grief. Sy has an ultimately ridiculous relationship, complete with awkwardly botched marriage proposal, with a woman he imagines might be a replacement for Anna; he delves into Anna’s journals; he publishes and promotes her previously unpublished poetry and recalls incidents from his own childhood, life and family history, which, in a very Auster-ish way, imperfectly coincide with incidents in Auster’s own childhood, life and family history. But mostly Sy returns to that day on Cape Cod when Anna “encountered the fierce, monster wave that broke her back and killed her, and since that afternoon, since that afternoon – ”.
In the last two years, Auster has himself been subject to two traumatic events. Firstly, an appalling family tragedy, with widespread press coverage, saw the death of his baby granddaughter, while in the care of his son. His son, from his first marriage to the short story writer Lydia Davis, died subsequently from a drug overdose. Then in March this year Auster’s wife, the writer Siri Hustvedt, alerted the world on Instagram to the fact that Auster was being “bombed with chemotherapy and immunotherapy” and the couple were now living in what she dubbed “Cancerland”.
It was around the end of last year, when Auster was finishing Baumgartner, that he began to encounter “mysterious fevers which would hit me in the afternoon”. He was first diagnosed as having pneumonia before going down some “blind alleys’’ about long Covid and eventually receiving a cancer diagnosis. “And since then the treatment has been unrelenting and I really haven’t worked. I’ve been through the rigours that have produced miracles and also great difficulties.” As for Cancerland, he says there are no maps and no idea if your passport is valid to exit. “There is, however, a guide who gets in touch right at the beginning. He checks he’s got the name right and then says, ‘I’m from the cancer police. You’ve got to follow me.’ So what do you do? You say, ‘All right.’ You have no real choice in the matter, as he says if you refuse to follow he’ll kill you. I said, ‘I prefer to live. Take me where you will.’ And I’ve been following that road ever since.”
Auster says his fascination with the notion of a life-changing moment came from a childhood incident that provided the starting point for 4321. At a summer camp, a boy standing next to him was killed by a lightning strike. “It was the seminal experience of my life. At 14 everything you go through is deep. You are a work-in-progress. But being right next to a boy who was essentially murdered by the gods changed my whole view of the world. I had assumed that the little bourgeois comforts of my life in postwar suburban New Jersey had a kind of order. And then I realised that nothing had that sort of order. I’ve lived with that thought ever since. It’s chilling, but also liberating. It keeps you on your toes. And if you can learn that lesson then certain things in the world are more bearable than they would have been otherwise. I guess the impulse to write and tell stories is different for each writer. But I think this is the essence of what I’ve been up to all these many years.”
In a recent interview, Auster described the American obsession with “closure” as being “the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard of. When someone who is central to your life dies, a part of you dies as well. It’s not simple, you never get over it. You learn to live with it, I suppose. But something is ripped out of you and I wanted to explore all that.” In Baumgartner, Sy reflects for a long time on phantom limb syndrome, describing himself as “a human stump” and yet the “missing limbs are still there, and they still hurt, hurt so much that he sometimes feels his body is about to catch fire and consume him on the spot”.
“I nearly called the book Phantom Limb,” Auster says. “It’s such a powerful idea. That connection we have with other people and how vital they are to our lives. The importance of love. It can be hard for us to talk about it the way it deserves to be talked about. Long-term, ongoing, lifelong love and all the possible twists and turns it will take.” He believes “the brilliant Siri” puts it best when she says people make the mistake of using a machine model to think about love and attempting to maintain the machine in its original state. “You have to think of love as a kind of tree or a plant,” Auster says. “And that parts are going to wither and you might have to cut off a branch to sustain the overall growth of the organism. If you get fixated on keeping it exactly as it was, one day it will die in front of your eyes. For a love to be sustained it has to be organic. You have to keep developing as it goes along so everything is all intertwined, even the sheer strangeness of it all.” The fact is, he says, that we never really know our partners completely. “There are mysteries we will never be able to answer. But I think this applies also to ourselves. There are so many things about my own life that I don’t understand. My actions over the years. Why did I do that? Why that impulse? People spend years in analysis trying to figure out the answers. I’ve never done that so I’ve been more or less on my own, trying to figure things out, and I honestly have to report that I don’t think I’ve made a lot of progress.”
Baumgartner is Auster’s second book to be published this year. In January he tackled a national, as opposed to personal, trauma in the form of American gun control. Auster wrote the text for a photographic book by his son-in-law, Spencer Ostrander. Bloodbath Nation captures the locations of mass shootings in the US. “I took a year to write those 80 pages. I wanted to be as concise and precise as I could and for it to have the feel of an old-fashioned political pamphlet. No other so-called advanced country in the world is anywhere close to America in terms of numbers. But Americans, as time goes on, look less and less to countries abroad for inspiration about how to act. We are so smug. We have such feelings of superiority to the rest of the world. Even the stupidest things we do are considered good because they’re American, underlined six times.”
He says the book was well received but provoked little action. “Of course it’s depressing, as it’s one of the biggest failings in our culture and also one that is emblematic of the kinds of erroneous thinking that have been driving us in recent decades. But maybe people are just sick of the subject. The debate is just not happening. No one beyond a very few politicians dares to pick it up. And that will surely continue into an election year.”
Baumgartner is set between 2016 and 2018, and there is allusion to “the deranged Ubu in the White House”. “I didn’t want to wrestle with Trump directly but of course he was lurking in the background of American life, an everyday presence.” As for the next election, Auster says he understood many Democrats’ initial lack of enthusiasm for Joe Biden. “He was certainly not my first thought for 2020. But he has surprised me immensely. I think he’s been quite extraordinary. And maybe in these few years, he’s been one of the best presidents that I can remember in my lifetime. He understands that government has an important role to play in our mental, moral and economic health. That the programmes he has proposed are an advance over what we’ve been getting from the last 40 or 50 years.”
While the right wing attempts to paint Biden as a “kind of doddering old, incompetent man, it’s far from the truth”, says Auster. “He is perfectly capable and knows more about government than just about anybody in Washington. He’s made his blunders, we all know that, but he’s not a bad choice at the moment and I can’t think of anyone better than him today. So I’m praying that he manages to squeak through next year because this is going to be a very, very close and incomprehensibly weird election. And we can’t even begin to predict how the other side is going to be if they don’t get the votes.”
As for himself, Auster is not looking much beyond his treatment and recovery, but he has been gratified by the initial responses to Baumgartner. “I do things in a very old-fashioned way,” he says. “I write my novels on a typewriter and my assistant then has to put it on a computer to send to the publisher. She’s been with me for a good 15 years and has rarely said much about the manuscripts beyond something bland like ‘good job’. But this time she told me to ‘march on’ as she couldn’t wait to read the next chapter. Siri, for over 40 years my first reader, also had no comments beyond ‘keep going’. Even my agent of 40 years, who again rarely comments, was so encouraging.”
Auster says he still can’t quite explain where this book came from. “There was just this guy growing inside me who became more comprehensible as the book advanced. So in the face of these responses, I simply smile and offer thanks. I feel that my health is precarious enough that this might be the last thing I ever write. And if this is the end, then going out with this kind of human kindness surrounding me as a writer in my intimate circles of friends, well, it’s worth it already.”