Paul Auster Additional Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Paul Benjamin Auster (AW-stur) was described in 1992 by Sven Birkerts as “the ghost at the banquet of contemporary American letters” because his modernist-grounded works did not fit active categories of debate. Since then, his presence in American and world literature has been observed by many. Born in Newark, New Jersey, to third-generation Jewish parents who never attended college, his mother, Queenie, was thirteen years younger than her husband, Samuel Auster, a landlord in Jersey City. When Auster was three years old, his sister was born, and within five years psychological disorders that would disturb her into adult life were evident. Before Auster attended high school, his parents stored several boxes of books for his uncle, Allan Mandelbaum, the poet and translator of Ovid, Vergil, and Danté, who later tutored Auster in writing poetry. This literary “inheritance,” his middle-class parents’ squabbles over finances, and their eventual divorce—all recurring themes in Auster’s life—shaped his relationship with money and materialism and his desire to be a writer.{$S[A]Benjamin, Paul;Auster, Paul}

Translation of French poetry figured prominently in Auster’s training as a student at Columbia University, where he received his undergraduate degree in 1969 and a master’s degree in comparative literature in 1970. His time there coincided with a period of social unrest, though he was never directly involved with politics. He reviewed books and films in the Columbia Daily Spectator and the Columbia Review, sometimes under the pseudonym Paul Quinn, a sign of the prismatic sense of identity he would resort to later in his career. Disappointed by an exchange program’s unchallenging curriculum, in Paris in 1967 Auster withdrew from college but was reinstated the next fall at Columbia, regaining deferment from the threat of the Vietnam War draft. At Columbia, he encountered and sheltered H. L. Humes, the downtrodden novelist and cofounder of The Paris Review, whose rants about the end of capitalism influenced Moon Palace, which Auster began around this time. He studied intensely the American Renaissance, which The New York Trilogy investigates, and was drawn especially to the modernist “hunger artists” Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, and Knut Hamsun. They inform Auster’s compulsive belief that art can uncover new meaning, his sense of ethics, and his political skepticism. His works, especially In the Country of Last Things, also conceived around this time, examine and extend the moral philosophical aesthetics of these modernist influences.

Chance, a major theme of Auster’s writing, intervened when a high lottery draft number spared him from fighting in Vietnam. Instead of seeking a...

(The entire section is 1136 words.)