Inside the artist’s mind

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By: Sumit Chakrabarti

A Life in Words is a volume of interviews of Paul Auster by I.B. Siegumfeldt. Apparently the book stirs the old debate about whether the writer should talk about his art at all, to ruin, by investing specificity in imagination, the magic of discovery or the wonderment in ambiguity. The artist, however, is perpetually unsure about the meaning or certainty of what is being produced. As Auster infers about his art: “… there are no eternal givens in the world. Somehow, we have to make room for the things we don’t understand. We have to live with obscurity.”

What needs to be understood is the fact that not only does the book talk about almost the entire oeuvre of an important author such as Auster, but the interviews also span three years of his life when he is still fruitfully engaged in the act of writing. It is a journey, one notices gradually, where one cannot lay too much stress on meaningfulness, as much as on making sense. An artist who has vacillated among various literary and artistic genres, and who discusses his art across a considerable time span, will unintentionally provoke an ambivalence that belies simplicity. Auster is a complex mind, and he talks of complex things.

Siegumfeldt concedes in the Preface that as an author, Auster has no unequivocal truths to offer, and that he is more interested in ‘inquiry’ than in ‘certainty’. “He is regularly on the brink of failure,” asserts the interlocutor, and this remains a trope through the entire body of the interviews. In spite of such ambivalence, a settling in of the uncertain as Auster talks in detail about both his fictional and non-fictional works, there is a consistent attempt to resist overtly academic and sophisticated readings or critiques of his oeuvre. The author is aware that more than forty odd books of criticism have been published about his work, as most of them are sent to him. But he never reads them: “I take a quick peek inside, then shut the book and put it on a shelf.” In one of these was the “baffling assertion” that all his autobiographical works were pseudo novels, carefully veiled works of fiction. Auster clearly finds this disappointing: “I worked so hard to be honest in what I wrote, and to see all that turned into some kind of clever, postmodern game perplexed me. How could anyone be so wrong?” Much later in the book, Siegumfeldt returns to the concurrence of the publication of The New York Trilogy and the celebration of French theory within literary studies, and Auster promptly detaches himself from any involvement with such sophisticated academic and critical engagement: “I have a feeling that, as the years go by and as French theory diminishes in importance, people will stop reading my books in that way. At least I hope they will.”

What emerges, on the other hand, from the body of these conversations is that on the question of literary art, of talking about life in language, the writer may only manage to talk around the thing, and never about the thing itself. The thing itself is forever beyond articulation: “A man encounters his old love on a street in a foreign city. It means only what it is. Nothing more, nothing less… Chance will create patterns. And those patterns will seem to have meaning, but they’re arbitrary.”

The reader will not miss how many times and how consistently Auster talks about failure, about uncertainty in his art, about not knowing the right answer ever, about the inability to crack the mystery of a human being. “In a sense, all writing is failure,” he says, but refuses to veil it as postmodern strategy: “… I don’t want to elevate my doubts to some status they don’t deserve. I’m really stumbling… I don’t know… But again, ‘postmodern’ is a term I don’t understand.” However, he is quite certain about the fact that form never precedes content, and the worst fear of his writing life has been of being reduced to wordlessness, “to be reduced to saying nothing”. Grappling with the complex nature of reality, the literary artist confesses that “language is always just an approximation of the real. Language is categories. This is the incompatibility”. Auster talks about the relief of his discovery that there’s a rift between word and world: “The word is approximate: it can’t capture the world, but it’s still the only tool we have. We’re always going to fall short.”

There are no smart lines in the book. There is no dazzling repartee. Auster’s responses stare back at the reader with inviolate honesty. The only certainty that emerges out of these long interviews is the ambivalence and tentativeness that constitute the core of literary practice. At least for Paul Auster.

One little note of discord however, is how the interlocutor, I.B. Siegumfeldt, is referred to throughout as ‘IBS’. It is funny, but unavoidable, and does not, for a moment, compromise the seriousness of the conversations . This is a delicious book.


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