Paul Auster on meeting Samuel Beckett

The best-selling American novelist discusses his acquaintance with the Irish writer
Paul Auster. Photograph: Jean-Christian Bourcart/Getty Images
American writer Paul Auster speaks to The Irish Times about his life, his recent work, and meeting Samuel Beckett (via Twitchelmore):
The Saturday Interview: Paul Auster:

‘Well, Mr Auster. Tell me all about yourself.” Quite a way to start a conversation. But then, if you’re Samuel Beckett, you can probably get away with any conversation-starter you like. And it goes without saying that you can lean across the table to pilfer a cigarette from your new acquaintance – though, being Beckett, you’ll probably be polite enough to ask first. And never mind that you have a packet of your own – albeit cigarillos rather than cigarettes – on the table in front of you. Stolen smokes are sweeter by far, writes Belinda McKeon.

Thirty-five years after he first met Samuel Beckett in a Paris cafe, Paul Auster has picked up a few of his ways. Novels narrated by obsessive men tripping over the perils of memory and through the trapdoors of language: yes. Monologues that pit consciousness against itself; those too. And even in Auster’s dark good looks – those intense eyes which have stared from the jackets of his books for some 30 years now – there is now a touch of those hawk-like Beckett features; at 62, grey-haired and high-browed, he looks just about ready for his close-up with John Minihan. And then there are the cigarillos. The air is struck with the smell of cigar smoke as Auster opens the door of his Brooklyn home, a beautiful brownstone in the writer-riddled neighbourhood of Park Slope, where he and his wife, the novelist Siri Hustvedt, have lived since the 1980s.

This week, Auster and Hustvedt will both travel to Dublin, to take part in the inaugural Mountains to the Sea DLR Book Festival in DĂșn Laoghaire. On Friday evening, they’ll each read from new novels in progress – Auster’s 16th, Sunset Park , which he has just finished in a longhand draft, and Hustvedt’s fifth, The Summer Without Men . But on Thursday evening, in the keynote event of the festival, Auster will deliver what has been titled the “Beckett Address”, a talk on the Beckett he knew and the Beckett whose colossal impact he still feels as a writer and a reader. It’s been pleasurable, Auster says, to dredge up memories of that first meeting, in 1974, and of the correspondence that followed, (including a letter from Beckett which read, in its entirety, “Dear Mr Auster, OK for ‘Lethal Relief’, Yours, Sam Beckett”). But Auster still cringes somewhat at the memory of his very first response in that Paris cafe – his first Beckett address, so to speak. “He said, tell me all about yourself. And I had nothing to talk about. Nothing to tell him. So I stammered a bit, and stumbled, and I felt like crawling into a hole.”

But then Beckett stole a cigarette, and sparked it up it with a wisecrack about vices, and the younger writer relaxed a little. And they talked, for a while, “about many things” – the poet John Berryman, who had recently taken his own life; the painter Joan Mitchell, who had coaxed Auster into writing to Beckett and asking for a meeting in the first place; the trials of translation.

Though he was in awe of Beckett’s writing, which he had discovered, and devoured, as a teenager, Auster didn’t ask Beckett much about it – though he did offer some “young and enthusiastic” counsel on the translation of Beckett’s 1946 novel Mercier et Camier – and would have been content, he says, to have talked about cricket the entire time, if that was what Beckett wanted. “Though my cricket knowledge is not very good,” he laughs. “Really I just wanted to chat.” They chatted about Dublin, which Auster had visited as a Joyce-mad 18-year-old. They talked also of New York, which Beckett had visited just once, in 1964, shooting Film with Buster Keaton and getting lost on a trip to the World’s Fair in Queens with his publisher, Barney Rosset. “And apparently,” says Auster, “and I love this, Rosset took Beckett to a Mets double-header, and Beckett sat through both games completely transfixed. And Beckett said, this is a wonderful sport and if I lived here I’d be completely involved with it.”

Auster need not have worried, then, about the prospect of an awkward conversation about cricket or anything else; he and Beckett hit it off, and they had plenty in common to keep discussing through their letters as the years went by. But, unlike many who wax lyrical about their bond with “Sam”, Auster is refreshingly realistic about the connection he and Beckett had.

“We weren’t friends at all,” he says. “I mean, you can’t call it friendship, it was hardly even an acquaintanceship, but there was some feeling of solidarity, I felt, from him towards me, and I appreciated it very much. And I think now that I’m an old fellow and I see young writers, you know, there is always this feeling of tenderness and fear that you have for them. [Read More]