Friday, April 07, 2006

Gotham Writer

Was there ever a writer more devoted to his craft than Paul Auster? Having recently finished reading Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure, in which Auster recounts his early years as a struggling writer, it is perfectly clear that there was never a doubt in his mind that writing would be his only occupation. He is unrelentless in this belief, despite an abundance of hard times that befall him. White collar work? Forget it. Blue collar work? Sure, but only for the experience it affords, which may shape itself into a story later on. Translating the work of others? Definitely, because it involves sitting down at a desk with pen and paper and requires a substantial amount of intellectual effort. Plus it pays the bills. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he had both Paris and New York as backdrops to inspire him during the leaner years. How does an artist survive in this day and age when the rising cost of living in such urban centres accompanies a steely and unwavering resolve to remain true to one's calling? A difficult question that shouldn't be but must be asked. As Auster relates in The Art of Hunger [a critical piece revolving around Knut Hamsun's Hunger],

A young man comes to a city. He has no name, no home, no work: he has come to the city to write. He writes. Or more exactly, he does not write. He starves to the point of death... The process is inescapable: he must eat in order to write. But if he does not write, he will not eat. And if he cannot eat, he cannot write. He cannot write.

Auster forged ahead despite an ongoing (but impermanent) relationship with poverty: poetry, non-fiction, criticism, fiction, screenplays, and more. My admiration for this man and his varied body of work is expansive. His work overflows with humanity that is achieved in a most understated and straightforward manner. However, my favourite aspect of Auster's writing has to do with his use of place, which seems like the single most important facet of his oeuvre: he is undeniably the quintessential New York writer. When I think of New York, one of the first things that pops into my mind is Paul Auster. The city belongs to him, and it reflects in his writing. One day, I hope to have such a relationship with my own city. I already feel the ties starting to bind.

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