Many succumbed to the mesmerizing prose of Paul Auster 40 years ago when he was writing about his emotionally distant father. Auster was then only 35. His masterwork, The Invention of Solitude, chronicled his journey to make sense of his estranged relationship with his father who had died suddenly at 66, as well as come to terms with his then failing marriage to Lydia Davis, and his already strained relationship with his young son. Auster’s father, Sam Auster, made his living bitterly doing many different things he didn’t like to do. Auster wrote about him with crushing pathos: “Even before his death he had been absent, and long ago the people closest to him learned to accept this absence.”
Auster is now 76 and has written countless revered novels that revolve around familial dysfunction, fears of mortality, and Jewish malaise. He generally writes in a first-person conversational voice, and even when he slips into postmodern flights of fancy there is a grounded quality to his imaginings. He is obsessed with luck, chance, and randomness and never underestimates the power of an unexpected event to trash the most blessed life.
In his new work, Baumgartner, we meet an elderly Jewish man who seems to be a mixture of Paul Auster and his dead father. Baumgartner is still reeling from the death of his wife’s drowning at 58 a decade ago. Baumgartner had begged her not to go back into the raging ocean, but she had laughed and thrown her head back defiantly while running back in. He never saw her again.
Being a widower isn’t easy for him. Particularly this morning when he burns himself making breakfast. Then the meter guy shows up, and Baumgartner is embarrassed he has forgotten he was coming. It is a new guy who asks Baumgartner to walk him downstairs to the basement to show him where the meter is. Baumgartner tumbles on the stairs and winds up curled up in excruciating pain. The meter guy does all he can to comfort him. He promises to come back after work to check on him and bring ice. Baumgartner is almost uncomfortable around such kindness. Auster writes: “’Extraordinary,’ Baumgartner says to himself. ‘A perfect stranger going out of their way to do that. In a world full of shitheads and selfish brutes, along comes this good-hearted innocent as an angel of mercy, and yes, the ice will surely help, since the knee is excruciatingly tender and the flesh around the patella is bloated now, spongy with blood and damaged tissue or whatever it is that gathers under the skin when a part of the body begins to swell.’”
Baumgartner can never get too far into the morning, or the essay on Kierkegaard he is trying to write, without thinking of his wife Anna. She had such beauty and grace and an undeniable Gentile charm that covered up his deficiencies at parties. She wrote poems and short stories but was careless about getting all her work published and would just leave many of her manuscripts in various states of incompleteness on her desk. He loved the way she rejected the new Mac computer and remained loyal to her old typewriter. He would often wake to the sound of her pounding the keys.
In a moment of impetuosity that borders on recklessness, he decides to get as much of her work published as possible. He becomes elated when an unexpected phone call comes for a Ph.D. candidate who wishes to write a dissertation on her work. She wants to stay with him for a while and read all her unfinished work, as well as completed projects she never bothered to publish. He is overcome with excitement and wonders what this young woman might be like fantasizing she could resemble his late wife, Anna. But almost moments later, in another rash of impulsiveness, he is thinking about proposing to one of the women he has been seeing, convinced he probably loves her after all.
He decides to read one of his wife’s manuscripts and sits in her office which he has left untouched for a decade. We read along with him as the narrative shifts, and we hear her voice telling us about her first love. She remembers the electric current that ran through her the first time the young man put his arm around her. He wound up enlisting to go to Vietnam, which she never forgave him for. He hadn’t wanted to but wasn’t strong enough to resist his father’s insistence that he man up and go. He never got to the killing fields of Vietnam but died in a stupid training exercise at training camp.
As Baumgartner is reading, the disconnected phone rings, and it is his wife telling him about the afterlife and how there is nothing to fear. But nothing to look forward to either. Just waiting, endless waiting, for something that never arrives. Baumgartner realizes he must be dreaming. He misses her.
Baumgartner feels adrift much of the time now. He has seen some women, and had lunch with acquaintances, but the narrator tells us “Baumgartner still feels, still loves, still lusts, still wants to live, but the innermost part of him is dead.” But the reader thinks perhaps Baumgartner always struggled with feelings of lifelessness. Perhaps it was his temperament, or something genetic, or just the bad luck his Jewish brethren were always speaking about.
Baumgartner knows he has lived a life with far more freedom and comfort than his father had. He and Anna had never been able to have children, but it didn’t seem to bother either of them. They both had interesting all-consuming careers and each other; and it was enough. Baumgartner’s father had dreams like Baumgartner did. But he couldn’t pursue them. He was too busy just keeping a roof over their heads. He resented the limitations in which he was forced to live. Sometimes, when his store was empty, he’d leave his wife and sister to take care of the customers, and sneak upstairs to read Emma Goldman for the zillionth time. He rarely closed the family store but did once to take them all to Washington on vacation. Baumgartner recalls watching his father place a handwritten sign in the front window saying they would return the following week. He can’t remember anything about the trip other than the act of his father placing the sign in the window.
Memory fascinates Baumgartner. He can’t seem to figure out why we remember what we do and forget so much else. Baumgartner’s father remains impenetrable to him, a mass of contradictions. There were times he would go off on rants that revealed a smashed kernel of idealism but most of the times he was unreadable. Baumgartner’s father never asked him whether he was doing all right, and it was this omission more than anything else that Baumgartner found to be intolerable. His father’s first thoughts were always of himself.
Some readers may find their thoughts drifting to another author who reminds us of Paul Auster. Another precocious Jewish kid from Newark, New Jersey, who couldn’t wait to escape the chokehold of family life for the wider world now open to them. Philip Roth’s father, like Paul Auster’s father, and Baumgartner’s father, who is culled from Auster’s imagination, are all difficult, obstinate, demanding men. The kind of men who find aging intolerable and can’t navigate the dependency it brings forth. But Baumgartner has at least enjoyed his younger life and done with it what he pleased. His generation of Jewish men were certainly freer and a highly educated lot but carried within them guilt and remorse for the suffering of their parents. Suffering they had inhaled as well along with their advanced college degrees.
Paul Auster lives somewhere between his father’s generation and his own. He understands how much the world has changed, especially for American modern Jews who have become lost to assimilation, intermarriage, and the passing of time. Some of them have been devoured by their ambitiousness. Paul Auster is one of the few custodians of these turbulent memories that show us the passing of the torch, and the carnage that has been passed along with it.