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“Baumgartner,” the Latest Book by Paul Auster: Irony and Fatalism

"Baumgartner" is beautiful. It counters the Shakespearean nihilism of the late Roth with irony and fatalism, thus addressing old age and resisting death.
Paul Auster Baumgartner

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Baumgartner, the latest book by Paul Auster, is a “short novel, recklessly sophisticated, mournfully hilarious.”

Paul Auster, the prolific American author known for the “New York Trilogy,” has passed away at the age of 77 due to lung cancer complications.

Nowadays, it seems almost a literary genre in itself. Whether it’s memoirs, intimate journals, or works of fiction, the number of books (usually thin and wise) that feature an aging bourgeois dealing with widowhood is countless. From Clive S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, which moved all of us to tears, through Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, poignant and unbearable as it is, to Abraham Yehoshua’s Five Seasons, and Julian Barnes’s thoughtful yet equally painful Levels of Life, there is an abundance of books chronicling mourning. From my experience as a whimsical and inconsistent reader, Didion seems to be a virtuous exception. Judging by the plethora of such works written by men, one might believe that widowers are more inconsolable than widows.

It’s now Paul Auster‘s turn. After the tour de force of 4 3 2 1 (his masterpiece?) and a long digression on the life of Stephen Crane, he returns to fiction with a short novel, recklessly sophisticated, mournfully hilarious. From the title, which coincides with the protagonist’s name—Baumgartner—we understand that it’s a typical Auster novel, one of those intimate works from his last joyful season that began with The Brooklyn Follies. I wouldn’t write about it if I didn’t think that this is the type of novel, seemingly minor, in which one of the greatest writers of our time reveals the most intimate core of his inspiration.

Let me clarify, Auster does not match my ideal of an artist. Too politically correct. There hasn’t been a virtuous cause in recent decades that he hasn’t championed, nor a PEN Club petition he hasn’t signed. To quote the poet, Auster is the undisputed standard-bearer of “magnificent progressive destinies.” He belongs neither to the tribe of great neurotic solipsists like Bellow, Roth, Updike; nor to that of gloomy apocalyptics like Pynchon or DeLillo. In a way, he is the forerunner of that generation of very proper Jewish novelists who have preferred Brooklyn and its beautiful sandstone villas over the old Upper West Side. What distinguishes him from many imitators is his style. Illuminated as it is by such natural grace that dispels any doubt about the eminent place he occupies in contemporary literature. His writing is velvety and frugal, his tone casual and conversational, his ability to sculpt environments, situations, and characters is impressively natural. Take his sentences. They seem short but are very long, marked by the syncopated dance of commas. More persuasive than muscular, they are designed to reassure the reader but also, and here comes the difficult part, to unsettle and move them.

Seymour Baumgartner is a philosophy professor from Newark. Approaching retirement, he lives and teaches in Princeton. For ten years, since the day his wife Anna—a translator and poet with vibrant and modest talent—died in a mundane sea accident at Cape Cod, Baumgartner has essentially stopped living. Having finished his work on Kierkegaard, he is now grappling with a new essay. Aptly suited to the circumstances, it is dedicated to the so-called “phantom limb syndrome.” As he writes, as is right, he thinks of himself, his own mourning, but also “of mothers and fathers who mourn their dead children, of children who mourn their dead parents, of women who mourn their dead husbands, of men who mourn their dead wives, and of their suffering that closely resembles the aftermath of an amputation because the leg or arm that is no longer there was once attached to a living body, and the person who is no longer there was once attached to another living person, and if we are those who continue to live, we discover that our amputated part, our phantom part, can still be a source of deep, unworthy pain. Sometimes certain remedies can alleviate the symptoms, but there is no definitive cure.”

To account for this pain, Auster describes his character dealing with grotesque and pathetic rituals, like rearranging his deceased wife’s underwear: “lace panties, cotton panties, bras, slips, stockings, pantyhose, socks, gym shorts, tennis shorts, swimsuits, T-shirts.”

Apparently, Baumgartner’s existence has been reduced to a dreamy suspension marked by a pronounced propensity for misfortune for the past ten years. Seymour often falls, gets hurt, but doesn’t show it or complain; he is a stoic, a man of substance. Thus far, we are at the heart of the widower novel genre. However, as we continue, it becomes clear that Auster has more unexpected twists in store for his professor (and for us readers), capable of transforming the narrative into something else, which I really wouldn’t know how to define.

After a bizarre nighttime incident, part dream and part hallucination, in which his resurrected wife invites him to come to terms with her death, Baumgartner makes a sudden return to life. He starts a relationship with Judith, who then leaves him for another man, younger than him. A painful experience, certainly, a new blow, but not so terrifying as to again withdraw him from his duties among the living.

The book then becomes a reckoning, propelling the reader into the protagonist’s youth. The past brings back Baumgartner’s father and mother. Auster’s portrayal of the father is memorable. Baumgartner senior’s life was marked by the most Jewish of punishments: the sense of duty. To keep his family and small shop afloat, he had to sacrifice his intellectual ambitions. At least apparently, he had no choice, although on second thought, “everyone has a choice, and it’s not certain that his father made the wrong one, even though it later poisoned his life, but if he had made the opposite choice and fled to become a history professor, a lawyer, or a free-spirited troublemaker, probably the unforgivable sin of abandoning his family in their greatest time of need would have tormented him for life, and this suggests that there wasn’t a right and a wrong choice but only two right choices that would ultimately prove wrong.”

This is just a small taste of Auster’s and his hero’s approach, a calm and tentative manner that makes Baumgartner a beautiful novel. For its themes and setting, it may remind one of The Dying Animal or Everyman, although it is clear that it was not written by Philip Roth, but by his younger fellow citizen, Paul Auster. Opposed to the Shakespearean nihilism of the late Roth, Auster offers a secular Epicureanism, tinged with irony and fatalism—an exceedingly appropriate recipe for facing old age and resisting death.

Alessandro Piperno

Corriere della Sera la Lettura #628, December 10, 2023

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