A recent instalment from The Atlantic's 'By Heart' series
|Paul Auster, photographed at home in 2010. Photo: Michal Rubin|
In 1974, Samuel Beckett sat in a Paris café across from a nervous, chain-smoking American—a 27-year-old named Paul Auster. Auster wouldn’t become a well-known man of letters for another decade: Back then, he was just another lost expatriate freelancing his way through France, young and glum, and so obsessed with Beckett that a mutual acquaintance took pity and set up a meeting. At Beckett’s opening gambit—“Well, Mr. Auster, tell me all about yourself”—Auster froze. He suddenly found he had absolutely nothing to say. Or maybe the idea of revealing something real about himself—his poverty, his rootlessness, the crises of purpose he’d later recall in a memoir, Hand to Mouth—terrified him.
“I felt like crawling into a hole,” Auster recalled in 2009.
This is the kind of harrowing and funny scene that might be found in books by either man. Both Auster and Beckett famously embrace the comic horror of being held helpless in absurd situations. For both writers, humor is a way out, a means to dignify and redeem what might otherwise be anguished, insufferable. “Even in some of my grimmest works, there have been comic touches,” Auster told The Washington Post in 2003. “There have to be, because that's the way we're built as human beings, and often when we're in dark circumstances we survive them by cracking jokes.”
When I asked Paul Auster to contribute to this series, he chose to return to Beckett, in an essay celebrating a brief but masterful example of the Irish author’s use of humor. For Auster, Beckett’s Watt is a profound reminder of how humor can help writers and readers alike foster the courage to endure. [Read More]
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