Paul Auster & Siri Hustvedt
Literary Arts Icon

Literary Arts

Paul Auster & Siri Hustvedt

Past Event: Monday, January 23, 2006

Sponsored by Gull Industries.

Primarily known as a novelist, Paul Auster has also written essays, poetry, memoirs, and screenplays. Auster mines the themes of shifting identity, arbitrary influence, and elusive truth. He sees life as filled with “unexpected events and strange twists,” a view reinforced by a pivotal event in his own life, when as a fourteen-year-old he went hiking with a friend who was killed by lightning. Swayed by mysterious coincidences, Auster’s characters navigate surreal settings as they search for meaning and identity. In The Book of Illusions (2002), the discovery of a blue notebook containing a mystery offsets a man’s grief over the sudden death of his family. Other critical favorites among his ten novels are The New York Trilogy (1985-86), Oracle Night (2004), and The Music of Chance (1990), nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award. In the 1990s, Auster branched into screenwriting for Smoke, Blue in the Face, and Lulu on the Bridge, which he also directed.

After earning an M.A. from Columbia, Auster assumed the role of starving artist, scraping out a living as a census taker, translator, and merchant seaman. Described by one critic as a “Francophile existentialist with a touch of Gothic,” he enjoys a strong following in France, where he lived in his twenties. Auster has received the French Prix Medicis for Foreign Literature as well as a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.

Siri Hustvedt is an accomplished novelist, poet, and essayist. She was born and raised in rural Minnesota, the setting of her second novel, The Enchantment of Lily Dahl (1996), which she calls an “allegory of psychic life” played out in a small town. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times hailed her first novel, The Blindfold (1992), for its “thoroughly original style and lucid contemporary voice.” While critics have invoked Kafka and Rilke in describing Hustvedt’s writing, she credits her childhood reading of the Brontes and Dickens for inspiring her to become a writer. Like her husband Paul Auster, she portrays a dreamlike world of eerie uncertainty and emotional intrigue. What I Loved (2003), narrated by art historian Leo Hertzberg, scrutinizes the art and academic world of Manhattan with a penetrating but compassionate eye. She also writes on literature, art, and sensuality in the intensely personal essays Yonder (1998), The Mystery of the Rectangle (2005), and A Plea for Eros (2006).

Siri Hustvedt grew up in Northfield, Minnesota. Her father was a professor of Scandinavian literature, and her mother emigrated from Norway at the age of thirty. Hustvedt holds a Ph.D. in English literature from Columbia. She and Paul Auster have a teenage daughter and live in Brooklyn. What I Loved, an international bestseller, won the Prix des Librairies du Quebec for the best foreign book of 2003.

Excerpt from Paul Auster’s Oracle NightThe traffic out on Court Street must have hit a lull just then, or else the plate glass window was exceedingly thick, but as I started down the first aisle to investigate the store, I suddenly realized how quiet it was in there. I was the first customer of the day, and the stillness was so pronounced that I could hear the scratching of the man’s pencil behind me. Whenever I think about that morning now, the sound of that pencil is always the first thing that comes back to me. To the degree that the story I am about to tell makes any sense, I believe this was where it began—in the space of those few seconds, when the sound of that pencil was the only sound left in the world.

Excerpt from Siri Hustvedt’s What I LovedArt is mysterious, but selling art may be even more mysterious. The object itself is bought and sold, handed from one person to another, and yet countless factors are at work within the transaction. In order to grow in value, a work of art requires a particular psychological climate. At that moment, SoHo provided exactly the right amount of mental heat for art to thrive and for prices to soar. Expensive work from every period must be impregnated by the intangible–an idea of worth. This idea has the paradoxical effect of detaching the name of the artist from the thing, and the name becomes the commodity that is bought and sold. The object merely trails after the name as its solid proof. Of course, the artist himself or herself has little to do with any of it. But in those years, whenever I went for groceries or stood in line at the post office, I heard the names. Schnabel, Salle, Fischl, Sherman were magic words then, like the ones in the fairy tales I read to Matt every night. They opened sealed doors and filled empty pouches with gold. The name Wechsler wasn’t fated for full-blown enchantment then, but after Bernie’s show, it was whispered here and there, and I sensed that slowly Bill too might lose his name to the strange weather that hung over SoHo for a number of years before it stopped, suddenly, on another October day in 1987.

Selected WorkPaul Auster Oracle Night (2003) The Book of Illusions (2002) The Art of Hunger: Essays, Prefaces, Interviews (1992) The Music of Chance (1990) The New York Trilogy (1985-86)

Siri HustvedtA Plea for Eros (2006) The Mystery of the Rectangle: Essays on Painting (2005) What I Loved (2003) The Enchantment of Lily Dahl (1996) The Blindfold (1992)

LinksPaul Auster’s website

Paul Auster interview

Reflections on the Work of Paul Auster

Siri Hustvedt interview

Reading guide for What I Loved

Siri Hustvedt audio interview