Meditations on the wellsprings of a writer's work

February 21, 1993|By Joseph Coates | Joseph Coates,Chicago Tribune



Paul Auster.

Sun & Moon Press.

! 312 pages. $24.95

As a title, "The Art of Hunger" applies to much more than the leadoff essay on the odd first novel called "Hunger," published in 1890 by Knut Hamsun -- a work so idiosyncratic that in its pages, says American novelist Paul Auster, Mr. Hamsun "walks straight into the twentieth century" and into an artistic challenge most serious writers face a century later.

This and the other essays amount to a key moment in the tentative but methodical development of Mr. Auster, who is one of our most intellectually stimulating fiction writers but whose reputation outside a small cult is based on a fuzzy perception that he is some sort of genre writer (mysteries? science fiction?) with cryptic pretensions. This book should do much to clarify things.

In an interview at the end of the collection, Mr. Auster says that he began writing by translating French poetry, simply to understand the poems and to gain confidence in putting words on paper.

From there, while still in college, he began writing poems of his own -- gnarled, "very dense . . . coiled in on themselves like fists," he says; and after discerning a narrative direction emerging from years of this he began writing appreciations and reviews of novelists such as Beckett and Kafka, whose work he admired, as apprenticeship in prose that would eventuate in such fiction as "The New York Trilogy" and, most recently, "Leviathan."

These essays, which constitute the bulk of this book, are not all concerned with writing; his preface to the autobiography of the daredevil Philippe Petit as much defines his aesthetic as do the Hamsun and Kafka essays. That is because after encountering Petit in Paris late one night, traversing a wire illegally suspended between the towers of Notre Dame, Mr. Auster saw a fellow practitioner of "an art of solitude, a way of coming to grips with one's life in the darkest, most secret corner of the self," a performer without portfolio who "learned to escape the police on my unicycle. I got hungry like a wolf; I learned to control my life."

It's probably no accident that Mr. Auster's first book-length prose was "The Invention of Solitude," a non-fiction meditation on the mystery of his father's life and death, a realization "of how problematical it is to presume to know anything about anyone else"; and no accident either that in the Hamsun essay Mr. Auster is attracted to works in which "the world of art has been translated into the world of the body.

"It is an art that is indistinguishable from the life of the artist . . . an art that is the direct expression of the effort to express itself . . . an art of hunger."

In another essay, he quotes Georges Bataille's belief that "a moment of rage" is behind all great works, in this case, "Le Schizo et les Langues," a novel written by an American mental patient, Louis Wolfson, in French "precisely because he had no choice. . . . The book itself is nothing less than an act of survival" from the assaults of the English language that is Wolfson's problem.

In these essays, and the fiction of his own that is here newly illuminated, Mr. Auster clearly shows that literature begins and ends outside literature, as something one does to live. "It's not that writing brings me a lot of pleasure," he says in an interview, "but not doing it is worse."

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