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Auster's private obsessions lay the Groundwork for life story

Autobiography: Groundwork: Autobiographical Writings, 1979-2012

Paul Auster

Picador, €18.99

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In his autobigraphy Groundwork it is about as close as you'll ever come to figuring out who the real Paul Auster is.

In his autobigraphy Groundwork it is about as close as you'll ever come to figuring out who the real Paul Auster is.

In his autobigraphy Groundwork it is about as close as you'll ever come to figuring out who the real Paul Auster is.

In the summer of 1965, Paul Auster had ambitious dreams of becoming a wandering writer in exile. Fresh out of high school, he took a ship across the Atlantic. Traversing the old world provided an opportunity for Auster to follow the path of his literary heroes. Urbane, cosmopolitan, European, and existential, they shunned the respectable bourgeois good life for a peripatetic borderless existence - where art and suffering were always seen as two sides of the same sacred coin. But the ambitious young artist quickly discovered the vagabond bohemian life could be a soul-destroying, lonely existence.

A month spent in a dingy Paris hotel room was ostensibly meant to see a work-in-progress novel completed. Maintaining sanity became the eventual goal though. Excessive solitude led to voices in Auster's head. They told him it was time to move on.

A month trekking across Italy and Spain lifted Auster's spirits. But when he arrived in Ireland, the focus once again returned to literature. The visit was based on an obsessional interest in Ulysses.

The Dublin Auster had read about in Joyce's novel was a city where the mythical and quotidian bleed into one another as mundane metropolitan life is observed through a series of walks with no point, purpose, or direction. Accordingly, Auster took to his feet to play flaneur. He walked the Phoenix Park. Journeyed out to Joyce's Martello Tower in Sandymount. And recrossed the Liffey more times than he could count.

That short Dublin sojourn had an enormous influence on Auster's development. In Groundwork, Auster is keen to stress its lasting psychological impact: "In the loneliness of those days I [saw] the darkness [in] myself for the first time," he confesses.

Dublin also ignited in Auster a lifelong curiosity in psychogeography. It feeds into two major themes in his work: alienation, and the mysterious allure of crowded urban spaces. They have tended to push his prose in a certain direction. Evasive, confusing, and ambiguous, it has always sought to explore memory, time, language, and spacial awareness with a sceptical distrustfulness. Most of Auster's early adulthood was spent moving back and forth between New York and Paris. Playing the role as drifting outsider was part of the plan.

"Sometimes it feels as though we are wandering through a city without purpose," Auster writes, "so that what we are really doing when we walk through the city is thinking."

Those thoughts generally began to turn towards a negative disposition, however. Auster always aimed for honest life experience to inform his art. But the reality of his financial situation meant he considered quitting writing as a profession. The problems were never just about money, though.

"I went through a period for several years when everything I touched turned to failure," Auster explains. Light eventually entered into Auster's personal life in 1981 when he met fellow American novelist, Siri Hustvedt. "[I] understood that this was a brilliant woman, one of the best minds [I] had ever met," Auster writes in a rare moment of heartfelt happiness. On Bloomsday in 1982 they married. They still live together in Brooklyn, and have one daughter, Sophie: now a songwriter and actress.

These non-fiction personal memoir writings have already been published by the American poet, novelist and film director as individual books respectively. Most of the content eschews standard linear time frames. Auster's life and career thus presents itself here through a series of stream of consciousness scattered fragments: highs and lows of playing tortured romantic artist; bohemian poverty; failed first marriage to American poet, Lydia Davis; birth of their son, Daniel; and eventual publishing success with New York Trilogy series.

But reading these details together in this unified collection has numerous advantages. Namely: connecting Auster's private obsessions together so that a coherent story emerges.

Its roots lie in a dark complex family history. Auster's grandmother, Anna, murdered his grandfather, Harry, in Wisconsin in 1919. The case was described in court as "justifiable homicide by reason of insanity". This meant no prison sentence was passed down and the family moved east to begin a new life.

Auster's father never shared the details with his son. In fact, the author only learned about the story when Samuel Auster died in 1979. Auster is unforgiving, cutting, and cold in retelling his father's life story.

Sentimentality is purposely avoided because passing judgement on the dead man's failings becomes Auster's main concern.

As a playful postmodernist, Auster ordinarily has no interest in originality or authenticity. And a deconstruction of everything - including ego and the text itself - is usually his primary motive.

Groundwork is about as close as you'll ever come to figuring out who the real Paul Auster is.

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