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Because what happens never happens…

September 22, 2008

Paul Auster kicks off The New York Trilogy saying, “In the good mystery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant.  And even if it is not significant, it has the potential to be so—which amounts to the same thing.” 

So we’d better pay close attention.

Having just finished Beckett’s Murphy and having wandered around in the poetry of both Beckett and Auster, it’s hard not to be struck by the sense of the continuity of these writers.  Beckett wrote in 1936:

“As we cannot eliminate language all at once, we should at least leave nothing undone that might contribute to its falling into disrepute.  To bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it—be it something or nothing—begins to see through; I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today.”

And Auster does attempt to bore new holes, wormholes, in the language, where identity, authorship and their value are questioned.  These may be sort of detective novels, but mostly rather than whodunit, it’s who’s asking, who wrote it, who is it.

Auster, by the way, is indeed the editor of the elegant Grove Centenary Edition of Beckett’s work.  He writes that back in the ‘80s, he offered to translate some of Beckett’s later poems for a new volume.  Auster says Beckett considered it, but ultimately declined saying that only he could do the translations—and he didn’t feel up to it.  At his age (80s), who could blame him?

In these three taut little tales, elegant, spare and glassy, Auster cannot help but focus on words and their slipperiness, their shifting meanings.  Peter Stillman, a bizarre, damaged subject in the City of Glass section said:

“This is what is called speaking.  I believe that is the term.  When words come out, fly into the air, live for a moment, and die.  Strange, is it not?  No and no again.  But still, there are words you will need to have.  There are many of them.  Many millions, I think.  Perhaps only three or four.”

The three tales are separate but woven together in a loose unravelling circular skein.  You don’t need to read all three together, but it helps. Characters recur, deja-vu-ness occurs, red notebooks keep appearing and the author, Auster himself appears in various guises.  

Auster’s poem Narrative seems to hover in the haze:

“Because what happens will never happen,

and because what has happened

endlessly happens again.”


A red notebook. Or Rothko's Black on Maroon.

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