First Readers

In the fall of his freshman year Auster met Lydia Davis, an attractive freshman at Barnard. As Dana Goodyear writes, they “played touch football and one-on-one basketball. Davis had long honey-colored hair and a dreamy affect. ‘She had pheromones, and men and boys followed her around panting,’ an old friend said.”10 She also had more social and cultural capital, having attended the Bearley and Putney private schools. Auster was “sunken-eyed and soulful,” Goodyear writes: “ ‘a dark-haired Jewish boy from New Jersey with a public-school education.’ ”11 Davis’ father, Robert Gorham Davis, was a Columbia English professor and New York Times book reviewer; her mother, Hope Hale Davis, wrote short stories. Prof. Davis had taken an interest in Francis Ponge, a poet teaching that semester in the French Department, even though he spoke no French, according to Auster, and Ponge spoke little or no English. Lydia spoke excellent French though, and she brought Auster into this world.

A. was invited by her father (an English professor at Columbia) to the family apartment on Morningside Drive for dessert and coffee. The dinner guests were Francis Ponge and his wife, and A.’s future father-in-law thought that the young A. (just nineteen at the time) would enjoy meeting so famous a writer. Ponge, the master poet of the object, who had invented a poetry more firmly placed in the outer world than perhaps any other, was teaching a course at Columbia that semester. By then A. already spoke reasonably good French. Since Ponge and his wife spoke no English, and A.’s future in-laws spoke no French, A. j oined in the discussion more fully than he might have, given his innate shyness and penchant for saying nothing whenever possible. He remembers Ponge as a gracious and lovely man with sparkling blue eyes.12

Lydia does not exist in this story-world. In his imagination Auster is already the intermediary between the two literatures. His use of “A,” part of a strategy he adopted later to distance himself from the 1960s, to allude to Kafka and other European writers, requires a solitary self. In his unpublished notebook of this period Auster recorded another detail that does not appear in print: “One of the things he [Ponge] talked about that evening was a new magazine in France called Tel Quel. The very next day I went to the library and read through all the available copies.” In this notebook he also wrote, under “Stylistics,” the words “Tel Quel” and underlined them.13 This would be his key to a prise de position.

Columbia in 1966 was traumatized by the anti-Vietnam War protests, which would produce such politically engaged books as Dotson Rader’s I Ain’t Marching Anymore (1969) and James Simon Kunen’s The Strawberry Statement (1969). But Lydia Davis seems to speak for both Auster and herself when she said that she stayed “on the edges” of the counterculture: “I didn’t smoke much pot, I didn’t listen to much Bob Dylan.”14 Coming from a more cultured background, she was a major influence. She writes that she and Auster read and discussed Samuel Beckett, a favorite of hers since high school. They studied French and they worked on translations. She introduced him to Maurice Blanchot, who was to be a major influence on Auster. Davis recalls that they spent that summer, when President Lyndon Johnson ordered the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong, in a remote part of Maine, distant both emotionally and geographically from the conflict forming their generation. With Davis as one first reader, and Mandelbaum shaping his taste, Auster was well-positioned on the field, already half-way to his creation of a “world elsewhere.”

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