2 June 1999

Only connect

The Art of Hunger
by Paul Auster

Paul Auster loves the word “of”. Its utility belies its tiny size: the OED entry sprawls over six whole pages. For a writer like Auster, this normally invisible word is a powerful aid to mental legerdemain, a conjuring prop. He uses it obsessively, both in his novel titles and in this new collection’s recurring trope: The Art of Hunger, “an art of life”, “an art of death”, “an art of solitude”. It never definitively means either “particular to” or “made from”, either “having” or “with regard to”; it hovers between them all with ambiguous magic. It is almost enough to make one avoid the word completely.

Fondly though he cherishes it, however, Auster is also frightened that all words might be like “of”: signifying nothing except shifting relations between other words. Indeed, in these essays on poets and novelists, mostly written in the 1970s before he turned to fiction, Auster returns helplessly, like a mouse on a wheel, to language’s supposed failure to connect with reality. “How to speak what cannot be spoken”, he wonders: the world is always “unknowable”.

He has no compunction, even so, about making large truth claims. Here he is, being cheeky with “of” again. “No writer has asked more of words than Laura Riding.” Does that cute “of” mean “about” or “from”? One might in refutation cite Racine, for using so few words that each acquires symphonic resonance; conversely, one might nod at Shakespeare, just for using so many, or at Wittgenstein, for interrogating them with his unquenchable, doggy fury. But what Auster likes in a poet is exactly what Riding provides: parables about how perilous and difficult writing poetry is. Perhaps he welcomes this message all the more because his own poems were not great.

As a critic, Auster makes a fascinating embryonic novelist. One senses his heart does not pump faster for the close prosodic struggle. In another piece on Laura Riding, he writes glibly that her poetry is characterised by “the unexpected juxtaposition of words”, as if most poetry did not juxtapose words unexpectedly. About Celan’s stunning “Todesfugue”, he writes: “The poem is literally a fugue composed of words.” No: it is that by analogy only; you cannot compose a fugue with words any more than you can write a novel with music. Yet there are superb lines, too, and when Auster’s enthusiasm roars into flame — for splendidly eccentric-sounding writers such as Louis Wolfson or Edmond Jabès — his prose glitters with pyrotechnics. There is, too, a beautifully contemplative essay about the high-wire artist Philippe Petit.

Auster’s mind appears almost ready to lift off into fiction in three intriguing, more experimental pieces here — on Walter Raleigh, Franz Kafka and the painter Jean-Paul Riopelle — where he tries on a lapidary style that combines Biblical rhythms with philosophical parody. “For a leaf is not only a leaf […] But it is also a leaf. That is to say, it is what moves.” These pieces, though in themselves often risible, are clearly edging closer to his novels, in their increasing engagement with paradox and fairy-tale simplicity.

Auster became a novelist precisely because he is so baffled by the world. Reprinted here, after a few desultory interviews with the author himself, is The Red Notebook, which muses on numerous impressive coincidences that occurred to him and his friends. And this is why the little word “of” is so essential to Auster’s aesthetic vision: by yoking together seemingly unrelated ideas, it allows him to suggest a universe governed by arcane connections, by some perfectly aleatory Fate. In City of Glass, for example, the action is precipitated by a wrong-number phone call. The Music of Chance, whose plot hinges on a card game, is not just another novel title, but the reified axiom behind all Auster’s work, the savoury murmur that life’s randomness is organised.

The Art of Hunger (the title comes from a meaty essay about Knut Hamsun’s novel, Hunger, while also invoking Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist”) is in the end for Auster completists only. One wonders how long he will be scrabbling in his strikingly voluminous drawers and cheerfully selling the contents before he writes something new. It would be a great pity if, as he stated a few years ago, Auster really intends to work exclusively in film from now on: the world will have lost a powerfully haunting novelist, and gained an uncommonly efficient recycler. It’s not as if the prepositions have dried up quite yet.