Graduate Studies

During the fall of 1969 and spring of 1970 Auster worked on his MA, of which he wrote: “I tried graduate school for a year, but that was only because Columbia offered me a tuition- free fellowship with a two-lhousand-dollar stipend—which meant that I was actually paid to study. Even under those ideal conditions, I quickly understood that I wanted no part of it.”30 However, this immersion undoubtedly taught Auster a great deal about the currents of literary theory, while he waited for Lydia Davis to graduate. Her parents seem to have parked her with relatives in London during the anti-war protests; she took until spring 1970 to graduate from Barnard.31 The fall of 1969 was also significant because the first draft lottery was held on December 1. Previously a student deferment had protected him, but now Auster lucked out: his birth date was pulled 297th, at a time when induction notices were being sent only up to 196.32 He would never be in danger of going to Vietnam. No longer feeling any pressure to stay in school, Auster made an ambitious list of projects in the notebook he was keeping:

  • 150 pages—book of stories—2-3 months
  • —finish book of poems 2 months
  • 100 pages -> The Art of Hunger and Other Deaths—1-2 months

THE NOVEL after—5-7 months

In the meantime—translation: revisions of Dupin, then others for an anthology

Detective novels—Oedipus, quest: medieval, Crime + Punishment

  • — Poe = the detective novel through Chandler + Ross MacDonald
  • — Molloy, Sebastian Knight, Borges, Robbe-Grillet, Kobo Abe, Butor + others
  • — Plot: Dickens—Pynchon, Matthews, Burroughs
  • — Stylistics: Joyce, Tel Quel, etc.33

This to-do list is interesting not only for its ambition, range, and reading, but for its deliberate distance from the political events and passions of 1969. This was the summer of Woodstock and the moon landing. How many twenty-three-year-olds were then reading Jacques Dupin, Michel Butor, Tel Quel, Robbe-Grillet, Nabokov, Beckett, and Abe, as well as a broad range of Anglo-American literature? There is no reading planned on politics, the Vietnam War, race relations, or ecology. No Wilhelm Reich, Timothy Leary, or Norman Mailer.

Auster’s search for another way, neither establishment nor radical, was probably well under way when he met Ponge again in 1969 “at a party given by Serge Gavronsky, who had been translating Ponge’s work.”34 Gavronsky was another friend: a Columbia BA, MA, and PhD who would become a Barnard French professor and leading translator of Louis Zukovsky. Just below Auster’s note on this party in his notebook we find him working in a French style on “Prolusion: The Clown’s Universe,” which is pencil dated 1969:

What is seen, here, in the voice, falling, that Which falls, a soft liquid, in the voice, falling To a bowl, filled with, in the voice, filled of,

Moistened flames, the voice, faintly falling To silence.35

There are more stanzas in this voice, which recalls Ponge. Auster wrote that in this period “the only accomplishment I felt proud of was the French poetry I had translated.”36

His main effort had been fiction, he later claimed, all of which he had tossed out or lost, though in Report from the Interior there are mentions of film scripts and a play.37 But his notebook contains most of the longer “Death of Walter Raleigh” manuscript (and all of the final typescript). This was originally an imagining of Raleigh’s decision to face death (published in shorter form by Parenthese much later). The more interesting chapters concern an updated “Marshall Dokk,” with settings and motifs that prefigure “Letters from the City,” which itself anticipates In the Country of Last Things. One of these chapters is titled “The Archaeology of Clothes,” possibly alluding to Roland Barthes’s 1967 Systeme de la mode or possibly to Carlyle’s metaphor of clothes as the “outer garment” of the spirit in Sartor Resartus.

The fascinating aspect of the Auster notebooks is a glimpse of the ur-text of In the Country of Last Things and a view of his evolving aesthetic strategy. The new Dokk sketch is set in an upper West Side student apartment that recalls Auster’s. The narrator has adopted threadbare clothes as an emblem of his asceticism, and he seldom bathes:

I have been living here for two months, with Dokk, Jack Wilton, his girlfriend Mana, and others, friends and friends of friends, who seem to come and go without any warning. It is a three-room apartment on the upper West Side, sunless, dirty, and crawling with cockroaches. In the beginning I slept on the floor in a corner of Dokk’s room, but now that my appearance has begun to upset him, I have moved my blankets to the hall. I usually spend my days in the Columbia library.38

At the [Low Memorial] Library, a young female clerk befriends him (Auster had worked as a page there). This library had just been the scene of those famous confrontations between Columbia students and the police, which were detailed almost as-they-happened by James Simon Kunen in New York magazine. Kunen, the literary voice of the protestors, had only grudging respect for books—“not bad, for a book” he once wrote39—and Dotson Rader respected action more than words. For them, Low Library was a place of contested power. Auster was now re-imagining this place: it remains real in student geography, but rises as a site of mediation between unreflective student activists and the overbearing power structure. Auster seems to ask “What about the contents of the library itself?”

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