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Money . . . and the Lack Thereof

September 12, 1997|ROBERT STRAUSS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — Paul Auster sits nonchalantly as a late summer shower spits rain on the back patio of his four-story Brooklyn townhouse. His wife, Siri, and his 10-year-old daughter, Sophie, are inside preparing for dinner out. He sits smoking one of his favorite little cigars amid the bountiful garden Siri has tended, chatting breezily about his odd new memoir.

The memoir is titled "Hand to Mouth" (Henry Holt), which is ironic given this summer scene that, if not lavishly wealthy, certainly bespeaks comfort in both money and spirit. But Auster, a novelist of near-impeccable repute ("City of Glass," "Leviathan," "Moon Palace," "Mr. Vertigo," various narratives of psychological puzzles) has long been ruminating about what it is like to barely scrape by.

"For a long time, I'd been thinking about the question of money--many, many years," said Auster, 50. "I've always had a desire to write an essay about it. When I finally sat down to do it, it became more and more personal. Suddenly, the theory was evaporating and stories were taking their place."

Auster's personal stories in "Hand to Mouth" are tightly constructed, even austere, and the characters, including the writer himself, almost seem to be from fiction. In fact, fans of Auster's work, which tends toward cerebral, inner discovery, will find many of them familiar as they appear, cast slightly differently perhaps, in his novels. In this book, as in much of his work, there are recurrent themes: baseball, integrity, relationships, personal struggles.

But that, Auster said, is the stuff of memoirs. "I didn't want to explicate things. Anyone who cares can see what's there and can make their own conclusions. Every novelist takes from his own life. How could you not?"

In "Hand to Mouth," Auster recalls how money shaped his early life. His parents' difficulties reconciling their views of money--his mother, a spendthrift; his father, a saver--caused tension in the suburban New Jersey household until their divorce when Paul was a senior in high school. Auster sought solace first in baseball and then in books, finally going to Columbia University with the thought of becoming a writer.

After college, he spent several years in France, then back to Manhattan, through a rough first marriage, up to the country and back to New York, seeking the literary grail. At each moment, it seemed he might have to get a "real" job, but a grant here, a translation job there, a book review in another place rescued him from having to veer off the writerly road. Though he was never in abject poverty, "Hand to Mouth" chronicles the anxiety of never knowing if he could turn the corner.

*

Finally, at 31, with a failed marriage and writer's block, his father died and left him an inheritance of about $80,000. His father's death prompted Auster to write a long essay and a novella, and the inheritance staved off bill collectors until the publication of his "breakout" books, "The New York Trilogy" of "City of Glass," "Ghosts" and "The Locked Room" in the mid-1980s.

The essay on living hand to mouth takes up 129 pages of the book; the other 320 pages Auster fancifully calls "footnotes." There are three unproduced plays from his 20s written in the absurdist mode of Samuel Beckett, still a big influence on his work. Following that are drawings of cards from a tabletop baseball game Auster invented but could never sell. And finally, there is his long first novel, a private eye story about the mystery surrounding the death of a baseball player.

"I know it is a very oddly structured book," said Auster, by manner both warm and reserved. "I put it there as evidence, long footnotes. It gives the book a kind of Talmudic construction, so the commentaries are in a way longer than the text. I thought it would make the thing richer, more interesting."

Auster suffers the fate of many so-called literary novelists: His books sell marvelously well in Europe, South America and even Japan (more than 1 million copies in print in France alone) but only have middling success in America. "I don't even think about it," he said. "Why spend time worrying about things you won't understand anyway? I mean to say, I have no complaints about how I'm treated here. . . . For all its craziness, I think America is the most alive and interesting country in the world."

With much of "Hand to Mouth" filled with the stuff of baseball, it might be tough going for the European audience, but the game has always been a deep part of his life.

"I played baseball passionately as a child. There was nothing I cared about more," he said. "From the age of 6 to about 14, 15, it was really the center of my life. Then I went through a period where I tried to lose interest in it. I thought it was not a serious pursuit. Little by little, the tug was too great and I got lured back in. It's the first thing I read every day, the sports pages. I comb the box scores." But Auster is careful not to believe the claptrap that baseball is some adjunct of literature.

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