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Random Acts of Life and Literature

A childhood trauma in which bad luck played a leading role set the tone for Paul Auster's writing

October 07, 2002|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Loss, grief and redemption.

Paul Auster could be speaking of his new novel, "The Book of Illusions" (Henry Holt), a story about a college professor whose wife and two children die in a plane crash. Or he could just as easily be talking about any of his nine previous books whose central characters frequently suffer the vagaries of bad luck, chance or life. Or the 55-year-old New Yorker could be talking of his screenplays or poetry.

But on this October afternoon at the Argyle Hotel on the Sunset Strip, he isn't. He is just talking baseball.

The game, Auster asserts, is beautiful. Its geography, its design. The way it's both a team and an individual sport. And, unlike the commotion of football and basketball, it's beautiful in the way you can actually watch a play develop and unfold.

"It's a game of numbers, stats and history, and the fact it's played every day makes it like life," says Auster, in L.A. on his national book tour. "You have your good days and your bad days."

"A good team is still going to lose 40% of its games," says the critically acclaimed author whose American audience continues to expand but who still is more popular in Europe. "And a good hitter is still going to make an out 70% of the time. It's a game of constant defeats. That's instructive, I think."

He sounds like a Cubs fan or maybe the Red Sox. But it's worse than that: He's a Giants fan--the New York Giants--a franchise that abandoned East for West decades ago. And that's instructive about Auster, a man whose daily routine begins with reading the sports page then progresses to the obituaries.

"So much of my work is about loss and how people put themselves together after a crisis," says Auster, dressed in dark clothes and sunglasses. "What is the end result of grief? Can you go on living or not?"

Right now, Auster is wondering whether he can survive this tour, only his third. In spite of his dislike for the spotlight, he decided to do it out of a sense of loyalty to his publisher, who has treated him well through the years. "Publishing is a hard business," he says. "The fact is, without extra effort, books die for the most part."

The tour's constant demand for travel and interviews is physically grueling. Eleven cities from coast to coast in less than a month. It's midafternoon in Los Angeles, his fourth stop, and he's already exhausted. He politely asks when the photographer will be finished because all he wants to do is go lie down before he is to give a nighttime reading in downtown Los Angeles.

His smoking doesn't exactly help his energy. For 25 years, he's enjoyed between 10 and 20 Schimmelpennicks, a small Dutch cigar, per day. (It's the same brand that his character--played by William Hurt--lights up in the film "Smoke.") The habit has given him a gravelly smoker's voice and left his teeth a few shades darker than normal.

"I quit cigarettes," he jokes. "Smoking these little cigars was a transition toward not smoking, but I got stuck on the transition."

The tour has been no less taxing psychologically. "Writers are not performers," says Auster, a trim and fit man with graying hair. "If I were a musician this would be a piece of cake."

Even so, touring supplies its gratifying moments. It forces him to connect with his audience, something that almost by nature, writers are hesitant to do, he says.

"Writers are shut-ins mostly," he adds. "But I can't say I've been unhappy about everything. You meet people who come up with a big bag of every book you've written, shake your hand and say something nice about you. It's moving."

Reviewers also have nice things to say about his work, especially his latest. The normally guarded Kirkus Reviews enthused: "Auster's 10th novel is one of his finest; an elegant meditation on the question of whether an artist or his public 'owns' the work he creates, and a thickly plotted succession of interlocking mysteries reminiscent of his highly praised "New York Trilogy." ... In many ways, a summa of Auster's entire oeuvre, and a gripping and immensely satisfying novel in its own right."

The inspiration for "The Book of Illusions" is as much a mystery as the random events that befall many of his characters. One day, while talking a walk a dozen or so years ago, the character Hector Mann suddenly came to him.

"There Hector Mann was in my head, complete with his name, white suit and mustache," says Auster. "I have no idea how he got there."

In the novel, Hector Mann is an accomplished silent-movie star--the creative and comic force behind such films as "Tango Tangle" and "Mr. Nobody"--who suddenly vanishes and is presumed dead. Decades later, a college professor struggling to cope with the death of his wife and children takes up a biography of the enigmatic performer and soon discovers Mann may be alive after all.

Though Mann's origins may be a mystery, the integral role that silent movies plays in the novel is not. Auster has always loved the pre-talkie cinema.

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