It seems so unlikely, but we have only Just discovered Paul Auster.
We are aware that he wasn’t waiting for us to discover him. Or that many millions of other readers aren’t already firm devotees (judging from the slightly heaving bosoms and moist eyes of identification and adoration from the bearded ones last night at the reading). But we have been so far in the past (usually between-the-wars – as in 1920s+) with our love of literature and usually in England (or Berlin – Isherwood) or in the drawing rooms as portrayed by Noel Coward (and set-dressed by Gladys Calthrop)
Gladys Calthrop* (by Howard Coster)
*we should explain – where Noel Coward is our virtual Guardian (dispenses our virtual inheritance and the golden pennies from Quality Street at Christmas) – Gladys is our virtual Aunt – look at that hat and the perfect almost boucle of the fitted jacket – isn’t that someone You’d like to have as your virtual Aunt to tell you how to behave in the Country (especially on packing and etiquette-at-late-auppers-after-the-argument)? We thought so. Just like you’d want Cecil Beaton to do your first awkward-stage-photograph (pre-palest pink tulle ballgowns and definitely after one has outgrown the sailor suit – a difficult age, non?)
How we Get Distracted.
………………………………back to Paul Auster.
so we sort of knew about him – in the canon of impressive looking men of a certain age talking about being a Lion in Winter and living in Brooklyn with all the other writers and we thought we wouldn’t find a place of connection (as they say). Strangely we did….
we saw an extract of his new book Winter Journal and could not stop reading – we read it into a cafe, during tea (thankfully we were Alone) and then decided we could Not start with his treatise on aging – we must Start At The Beginning (which turned out to be poetry and then translations of other people’s poetry, in Paris so we looked for the Moment the Prose began) and went to Barnes & Noble (it was close – sometimes we like to buy in an actual bookshop – especially now our commuting days are Almost Over) and bought:
we have not been able to put it down.
we’re able to read walking-down-the-street (or maybe people find it just so adorable to see someone with their head in a book walking down 6th Avenue in Manhattan that they carefully get out of our way……) and so we do, often.
we read Paul’s work across 6th to the swimming pool and back downtown and we just needed some tea (and a cupcake) and we couldn’t stop long enough to make it ourselves, at home (plus no cupcakes live in our house) so we went to sweet revenge and sat in the window with the shutters open, our feet on the side of the wooden flower boxes, leaning on the wooden counter and read and read until our eyes hurt.
shall we tell you about the reading at Barnes & Noble first, before we give you our favorite/favourite/choicest passages?
there was something called “priority seating” if one was carrying a copy of his latest book (we Almost started to tell them how we wanted to start at the beginning before we read the latest one but we thought they probably Wouldn’t Care).
the room was packed.
we did our best smile and asked if there were any seats.
they looked at us as if we were crazy.
but we’ve lived in manhattan for a while.
we know that people save seats just so they can pick and choose a stranger to sit next to.
didn’t know that, did you?
try it ;-)
we looked vaguely (and winsomely) into the crowd and looked as if we’d spotted a friend.
miraculously the chain was opened for us and we wandered to the front – found the sort of grad student with a duffle bag and mixed tan/khaki clothing with a spare seat.
is that, by any chance, free?
we said, with a Very Literary British Accent.
it was ;-)
we slipped into the space between the grad student and the adoring women-from-out–of-town who have loved Paul Auster since-the-beginning (who stared at us in horror that we got a seat at 6.55 at a Paul Auster reading, about to start).
suddenly we saw him – Paul Auster that is – he was standing diffidently behind the black curtain with a duffle bag (Andy Spade, bought by Siri? – the writer, darlings – not the weird body-less-voice on an device by the fruit company – god, that must have been an awful day in the Auster house when they found out about That Siri). The duffle bag perfectly matched the almost Calvinist look of dark denim, Prada-esque severely cut black jacket and what looked like a plain white thick cotton shirt (the sort of incredible textiles used by Margaret Howell) but on closer inspection (we have very long sight) was actually a tiny checked fabric, we believe. The shoes were leather, black, a tiny bit slipped-into-and-not-cared-for but thank goodness, no trainers/sneakers/unmentionables). The overall effect was definitely Lion in Winter and sort of Lou Reed – but less proud. The hair is magnificent.
when he got up to the podium there was no flourish, no here-I-am.
and no sense of performance either.
he took a sip of water, straight from the bottle (which, disappointingly was not a glorious Italian fizzy mineral glass one but there you go – times are hard), but otherwise read to us as if we’d popped round to his house and he’d cooked (as Siri had a reading at Yale that evening) and we’d eaten well – but not extravagantly and we’d begged (in an understated Brooklyn cords-wearing-cashmere-from-Milan-in-navy sort of a way) for “just a few pages from the new one” and so he cleared his throat and read to us.
the effect – for the first thirty minutes – was enchanting – his voice is Utterly beautiful and frankly sonorous (the grad student next to us fell asleep at the feet of the Master and the luscious women in plain dresses and interesting necklaces and open toed sandals – no nail polish – relaxed and spread back into their seats).
but then – towards the end – he became darker……
I am flawed and wounded – bleeding words onto a page
almost from nowhere we were taken by surprise from the earlier comforting notions of being-Male and finding-out-about-Love and the lushness of women and the temptations of the flesh ever present, even while inside a long marriage and the glorious travel – whiskeys in Ireland, making a film, freezing temperatures and the warmth again of friendship, no, true camaraderie. The language of men. The stories they tell each other.
from lust and realism and pain and bathing his children while they were babies he turned dark and moody and yet his voice never changed – the tone remained exactly the same as he started to tell us about burning towers and grief and the crowd shifted, almost angrily, looking lost and bereft and irritated. You don’t surprise a group of New Yorkers with a tale about 911. they don’t like it. they barely talk about it. especially those who witnessed it. it’s a subject to be slowly introduced, carefully asked about, less shared the better, the group pain and anguish of a city that felt human dust on its tongue does not like to be surprised.
and yet he did.
and then he went one step almost too far (although this is our first experience of a Paul Auster reading – maybe this is What He Does – and the audience are masochists and enjoy, on a deep scary level, the way he unsettles them – it’s possible – this is America, after all).
to an audience of predominately Eastern European descent he mentioned standing on a mass grave and hearing the screams of fifty thousand dead Russian solders.
you could hear a pin drop.
and then he stopped.
and thanked us.
there was clamorous applause.
but we felt confused.
we got up and ducked under the barrier and watched the hordes descend on the signing tables; a group of shop assistants attempting to keep order.
perhaps that’s what storytellers do.
they evoke pain. give us a place to understand it, in safety. and we go on. having experienced catharsis.
do you agree? we’re not sure.
what we will say is we took the Long Way Home to think.
and then stared in joy and bubbling happiness at a weaving inebriated party-goer who had a shining circular torch-like child’s toy and was twirling it around her head and laughing to the heavens.
it was exactly what we needed.
perhaps we’ll give you our favorite/favourite/choicest passages from Paul Auster another time.
it was a strange and beautifully moving evening and we need to let it all sink in.
so much is changing.
so little will look like this in even a few months.
we had a pain in our left inner elbow all through the reading and forgot its source until we got home and saw the blood on the surgical tape.
more blood tests.
just in case.
just to know that we’re healing.
because sometimes we think we’re not.
and others we are.
then we hear an author describe pain and beauty and love and sex and violence and rage and regret and we realize nobody ever really heals.
the point is to be alive to experience it all.
twirling is especially good to celebrate being alive.