Capitalizing on France

Auster still had a presence back in Paris, which gave weight to his judgments in the United States. Dupin had returned the favor of publication by bringing out Auster’s translations of Jean-Paul Riopelle in Lumiere Boreale (Paris: Maeght Editeur, 1977). This paid nothing, but publication in France by a French poet gave Auster some weight. Daniele Robert expressed an interest in translating Auster’s poems, and he was regarded as “one to watch” among the French who followed American culture.

In Connecticut he and Davis were still dependent on translations, but they stepped up their small-press work. After the Dupin book, they brought out The Uninhabited: Selected Poems of Andre du Bouchet.76 The press still wasn’t making any money, but their skill and speed as translators were noticed. Pantheon contracted them to translate Jean-Paul Sartre’s Life/Situations (1977), which was mostly transcriptions of interviews but allowed them to advertise themselves as “translators of Sartre.” Then they knocked off three short novels by Georges Simenon, collected as African Trio.77 Living Hand published a collection that included Maurice Blanchot, and then Davis’ The Thirteenth Woman, Allen Mandelbaum’s Leaves of Absence, du Bouchet’s The Uninhabited, and finally Sarah Plimpton’s Single Skies. Although they were subsidizing them, these volumes raised the visibility of the press.

Exploring other kinds of attention spaces, Auster next wrote plays and concocted a “Magic Baseball” scheme, but he probably spent more time on his detective novel Squeeze Play, written as “Paul Benjamin” in the summer of 1978 (published in 1982). A foray into a popular genre, this was also an important exercise in writing narrative and in creating suspense. A post-modern Phillip Marlowe, Auster’s detective contemplates “the illusion that New York was still in business,” while he thinks about the Louvre, Henry James, and Donne’s Devotions.78 It was not convincing: that anomie of the Columbia days seems to have re-surfaced, though Auster was at least figuring out how to combine it with his post-modern “hunger artist.” Lydia was then translating Blanchot, whose manipulation of suspense would be instructive for her work and might have offered him suggestions too.

The couple had a baby now, more expenses, and more tensions. Suddenly they separated, Auster moving to Varick St. in Manhattan. If Paul Auster experienced a double denial, it was in this period: he writes of it as a purgatory, and the economic stress was significant. He held to his ideals and aesthetics, while making subtle adjustments as the field suggested, but no breakthrough arrived. A writer’s block seized him, but it lasted only a few months. He reports that it broke at a dance rehearsal in December 1978, and immediately he began writing the minimalist White Spaces, which he finished on January 14, 1979. The next day he learned that his father had died, leaving him some money. We have seen how important the economic aspect of the double denial is. Auster and his father had not been close, though he complained that his father never came to visit him in Paris. He never mentions visiting his father, who owned apartment buildings, during four years at Columbia. But rebellion against father figures and authority was de rigueur in 1960s fiction, and Auster had shown that influence in “Marshall Dokk at Big Man’s.” His father would be more useful as a shadow double, now that Auster himself was a father, in The Invention of Solitude. Suddenly there was money, time to write, and he was working.

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