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Last Updated on February 27, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 490

Paul Auster

Auster is an American writer well-known for such works as The New York Trilogy. In Hand to Mouth, he admits directly that his relationship with money earlier in life was problematic. Traveling to Europe as an eighteen-year-old, he later returned to Paris for a lengthy stay, subsisting on writing and translation jobs acquired through various acquaintances. Back in the United States, twenty-seven years old, he was still confounded by his reluctance to get a regular job to support himself. He quit a part-time job at an agency purveying high-end books of art and lived by translating texts from French to English and vice versa.

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By the time he was married with a child and living in rural surroundings outside New York, Auster's money problems were insurmountable. In desperation, he finished creating a baseball game played with cards that he had come up with as a child. Coldly rebuffed by a prospective backer, Auster reached "what I still consider to be the low point of my life." The game was eventually abandoned, but lying sleepless one night, he conjured up the idea for a detective novel.

Having finally—in his own estimation—prostituted himself by writing something solely to make money, Auster found it incredibly difficult to get his novel published. It eventually came out in hardcover, but the publisher was well on its way to shutting down, and the book went nowhere. Quite by chance, though, Auster happened upon a competent agent, and the novel was snapped up by Avon Books. Auster's days of living hand to mouth for the sake of his art were over.

H. L. Humes

In his chronicle, Auster describes his encounters as a young man with a pair of notable eccentrics down on their luck. One of these men, H. L. Humes, had helped establish The Paris Review in 1953 and was the author of two successful novels. He had descended, however, into mental illness and homelessness by the time Auster encountered him. Humes was possessed by a delusion that by handing out fifty-dollar bills to strangers, he could bring about the fall of the financial system. He lived in Auster's apartment for a time, but his ceaseless chattering interfered so much with Auster's university studies that Auster eventually asked him to leave. Auster read of Humes's death many years later and notes that he cannot remember a word of what the man had said.

Arthur Cohen

Cohen is one of several benefactors who helped Auster when he was younger. Cohen was his boss at the fine arts book agency Ex Libris. A writer and art collector, Cohen was wealthy and intelligent. Cohen was also dedicated to making his business profitable. Auster writes that Cohen "lived in and for the world of ideas" but was also a "crafty entrepreneur." Cohen and Auster got along well, and Cohen provided him with an introduction to the controversial Polish author Jerzy Kosinski, who needed a translation of his book Cockpit.

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