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New Avenues in Paul Auster’s Twenty-First Century Work

Voies/voix d’aujourd’hui dans l’œuvre de Paul Auster
I. B. Siegumfeldt et François Hugonnier

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  • 1 The Inner Life of Martin Frost (2007) came later.

1Paul Auster has been a prolific writer of poetry, memoir, essays and novels since the 1970s. The Invention of Solitude (1982) bears traits of all four modes of writing and marks the transition to a composite universe of narrative prose which has mesmerized and challenged ever increasing numbers of readers across the world. In 1985, he made his mark on the international literary scene with The New York Trilogy, an innovative work of art drawing on familiar genres of detective story, mystery novel and high realism, yet belonging to neither category. It was to be regarded as one of the first truly successful manifestations of literary postmodernism. Then followed a series of novels that explored themes of chance, solitude, ambiguity, language, the moral and political state of America and writing itself as they probed the limits of representation: Moon Palace (1989), The Music of Chance (1990), Leviathan (1992) and Mr. Vertigo (1994). From 1994 to 1998, Auster worked predominantly on the films Smoke (1995), Blue in the Face (1995), and Lulu on the Bridge (1998).1 In 1999, came the first novel in five years, Timbuktu, which adopts a canine perspective on unconditional love and contemplates the fine line between madness and vision. The new millennium saw a string of novels on very different topics though still bearing the distinctly Austerian mark of captivating story-telling embedded in modes of writing molded to match every voice, every emotion, every perspective thus, more often than not, yielding self-reflexive, heterogeneous texts: The Book of Illusions (2002), a study of human loss and recovery set in a film-making environment, Oracle Night (2003), the first of a handful of novels staging ageing or ailing male protagonists on recovery both from illness and writer’s block, The Brooklyn Follies (2005) offering a comic perspective on everyday trials and tribulations up until the tragedy of 9/11, and the somewhat dystopian diptych, Travels in the Scriptorium (2006) and Man in the Dark (2008), each narrative unfolding respectively in the course of a single day and a single night. In 2009, Auster began to play more freely with form and rhythm in Invisible and continued to do so in the kaleidoscopic novel, Sunset Park (2010) where characters are portrayed with supreme empathy. Then, over the next seven years, Auster did not publish a single work of fiction. He continued to be prolific, however, with two memoirs, Winter Journal (2012) and Report from the Interior (2013), his correspondence with J. M. Coetzee, Here and Now (2013), and a book of conversations with I. B. Siegumfeldt, A Life in Words (2017). But there were no new novels. Critics and readers began to enquire about this apparent rupture in what had been an otherwise fairly steady output of stories for three decades.

2In January 2017, the reason for this chasm became clear to everyone: Auster had produced a Bildungsroman entitled 4 3 2 1, nearly three times the size of any of his other books. It was a massive achievement. Not just because of the scale of the work, nearly a thousand pages weighing well over three pounds, but also because a most unusual and somewhat intricate narrative structure had been tailor-made to consolidate the tendencies in perspective, style, and rhythm with which Auster had begun to experiment in the new millennium. Particularly in the second decade, his sentences have tended to be considerably longer, thus marking a decisive shift from the short, clear lines which marked his early prose. At the same time, the point-of-view in Auster’s recent novels has become progressively more complex with multiple speakers, alternations between inner and outer perspectives and a series of new convolutions. These developments are no doubt prompted by Auster’s perpetual pursuit of a mode of writing that matches his material. As he invents new characters, new ways of making them come alive on the page must be forged. This has always been true of Auster’s work. In recent years, however, his narrative universes seem to have expanded and become more inclusive. The familiar introspection and solitude of male protagonists have given way to larger casts of characters engaging with each other and with the world in new ways.

  • 2 Dennis Barone’s Beyond the Red Notebook: Essays on Paul Auster (Philadelphia: U of Pensylvania P, 1 (...)

3The essays in this issue of LISA e-journal dive into this most recent phase and look at New Avenues in Paul Auster’s Twenty-First Century Work. Each contributor relates their study, in one way or another, to 4 3 2 1, for Auster’s latest book harbors the majority of the new trends. Picking up from Ciocia and Gonzáles’s The Invention of Illusions (2011) and other fine studies on Auster’s work,2 they offer new perspectives, provided by established Auster critics as well as junior scholars, on key relationships that propel Auster’s work, that is, the synthesis of content and form, rhythm, tone and emotion, the interconnection between literature and politics, the parity between true and false.

4The present volume opens with a section specifically on 4 3 2 1 in which I. B. Siegumfeldt situates the novel outside established literary paradigms with special focus on the extended run-on sentences and the constitutive element of heterogeneity in the novel. Ilana Shiloh discusses alternativity in terms of Auster’s counterfactual thinking and the bifurcation of reality in 4 3 2 1. Priyanka Deshmukh analyses the acoustic dimension of the text and draws attention to a particular interplay between music, silence and word which, she argues, sets 4 3 2 1 apart from much of Auster’s other work.

5Then follows a section on language, history and politics. François Hugonnier’s analysis of the representation of 9/11 examines Auster’s fiction and nonfiction responses to the terrorist attacks in order to highlight detour, spectral iteration and narrative reshuffling in Oracle Night, The Brooklyn Follies, Man in the Dark, Sunset Park and Winter Journal. Antoine Dechêne also focuses on Oracle Night, this time from the perspective of metanarrative and storyworlds, displaying the complex structure of this multi-layered tale. Aliki Varvogli discusses monetary and linguistic transactions from The Music of Chance to Sunset Park, underlining a fundamental fixture of Auster’s writing. Finally, Jesper Præst Nielsen’s socio-political study of 1968 in Moon Palace, Report form the Interior and 4 3 2 1 shows the influence of these early historical upheavals on Auster’s career.

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AUSTER Paul, The Invention of Solitude [1982], London: Faber, 1988.

AUSTER Paul, The New York Trilogy (City of Glass, Ghosts, The Locked Room), London: Faber, 1987.

AUSTER Paul, Smoke & Blue in the Face, New York: Hyperion, 1995.

AUSTER Paul, Lulu on the Bridge, New York: Henry Holt, 1998.

AUSTER Paul, Timbuktu, New York: Henry Holt, 1999.

AUSTER Paul, The Book of Illusions, New York: Henry Holt, 2002.

AUSTER Paul, Oracle Night, New York: Henry Holt, 2003.

AUSTER Paul, The Brooklyn Follies, New York: Henry Holt, 2005.

AUSTER Paul, Travels in the Scriptorium, New York: Henry Holt, 2006.

AUSTER Paul, The Inner Life of Martin Frost, New York: Picador, 2007.

AUSTER Paul, Man in the Dark, New York: Henry Holt, 2008.

AUSTER Paul, Invisible, New York: Henry Holt, 2009.

AUSTER Paul, Sunset Park, New York: Henry Holt, 2010.

AUSTER Paul, Winter Journal, New York: Henry Holt, 2012.

AUSTER Paul, Report from the Interior, New York: Henry Holt, 2013.

AUSTER Paul, 4 3 2 1, New York: Henry Holt, 2017.

AUSTER Paul and J. M. COETZEE, Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011, New York: Viking, 2013.

AUSTER Paul and I. B. SIEGUMFELDT, A Life in Words. Paul Auster in Conversation with I. B. Siegumfeldt, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2017.

AUSTER Paul and I. B. SIEGUMFELDT, Une vie dans les mots, trans. Céline Curiol, Arles: Actes Sud, 2020.

BARONE Dennis, ed., Beyond the Red Notebook: Essays on Paul Auster, Philadelphia: U of Pensylvania P, 1995.

BROWN Mark, Paul Auster, Manchester: Manchester UP, 2007.

CIOCIA Stefania and Jesús A. GONZÁLEZ, eds., The Invention of Illusions: International Perspectives on Paul Auster, Newcastle: Cambridge SP, 2011.

HERZOGENRATH Bernd, An Art of Desire: Reading Paul Auster, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999.

PEACOCK James, Understanding Paul Auster, Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2010.

SHILOH Ilana, Paul Auster and Postmodern Quest: On the Road to Nowhere, New York: Peter Lang, 2002.

VARVOGLI Aliki, The World that is the Book: Paul Auster’s Fiction, Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2001.

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1 The Inner Life of Martin Frost (2007) came later.

2 Dennis Barone’s Beyond the Red Notebook: Essays on Paul Auster (Philadelphia: U of Pensylvania P, 1995), Bernd Herzogenrath’s An Art of Desire: Reading Paul Auster (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999), Aliki Varvogli’s The World that is the Book: Paul Auster’s Fiction (Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2001), Ilana Shiloh’s Paul Auster and Postmodern Quest: On the Road to Nowhere (New York: Peter Lang, 2002), Mark Brown’s Paul Auster (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2007), James Peacock’s Understanding Paul Auster (Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2010).

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Référence électronique

I. B. Siegumfeldt et François Hugonnier, « New Avenues in Paul Auster’s Twenty-First Century Work »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. 18-n°50 | 2020, document 1, mis en ligne le 02 juin 2020, consulté le 15 mai 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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I. B. Siegumfeldt

I. B. Siegumfeldt is an Associate Professor of English, Germanic, and Romance studies at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. She is the co-author of a book of conversations with Paul Auster (Paul Auster and I. B. Siegumfeldt, A Life in Words: Conversations with I. B. Siegumfeldt, New York: Seven Stories, 2017). She chairs The Paul Auster Research Library.

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François Hugonnier

François Hugonnier is an Associate Professor of American Literature at the University of Angers. He is the author of a dozen pieces (including book chapters, articles, interviews and a forthcoming monograph) on Paul Auster’s poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. His book-length study of Don DeLillo’s Falling Man was published in 2016 (Paris-Nanterre UP). He is the Editorial Assistant of the Journal of the Short Story in English and a core member of The Paul Auster Research Library.

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