Baumgartner by Paul Auster - review by Ian Critchley

Ian Critchley

The Red Telephone



Faber & Faber 208pp £18.99

Paul Auster has described his previous novel, 4321, as ‘the biggest book of my life’. It is big not just in the physical sense (at more than one thousand pages, it is at least twice as long as any of his other novels) but in its scope and ambition too. Charting four different versions of the life of a boy named Archie Ferguson, it deals in great detail with the agonies and ecstasies of childhood and young adulthood.

By contrast, Auster’s new novel, Baumgartner, clocks in at barely two hundred pages and is partly a story of the pains and indignities of old age. Within its first few pages, the titular character, seventy-year-old Princeton professor Sy Baumgartner, has scalded himself on a burning pot and fallen down the stairs to his basement. As the novel progresses, we see that the pain is not only bodily. Nearly ten years after her death, Baumgartner is still mourning his wife, Anna: ‘He is a human stump now, a half man who has lost the half of himself that had made him whole, and yes, the missing limbs are still there, and they still hurt, hurt so much that he sometimes feels his body is about to catch fire and consume him on the spot.’

Little happens in Baumgartner’s daily life: the highlights of his day are the visits of the postwoman and occasional liaisons with his girlfriend, Judith. The real action takes place in his mind, more specifically his memory. The trigger for this is a typically Austerian moment. Just as in City of Glass (the first novel in the New York Trilogy), everything here begins with a phone call. Baumgartner describes a red telephone sitting on his wife’s desk, which is unconnected and hasn’t rung for years. The reader might guess that the phone is going to ring, which it duly does. On the other end of the line is Anna’s voice, speaking from beyond the grave. It tells him that the living can keep the dead going in a kind of limbo as long as they continue to think of them.

And so the novel roams back through Baumgartner’s life, detailing events such as his first meeting with Anna and their decades together, and then further back into his and her childhoods. Interspersed are extracts from Anna’s writing (as well as being a poet, she wrote several fragments of autobiography) and also a fable written by Baumgartner about a convict who is sentenced to write sentences. Such metatextual qualities and fabular excursions have run through Auster’s entire oeuvre and Baumgartner sometimes reads as a summation of everything Auster has sought to achieve in his work: the examination of America and the American way of life through a metaphysical, even absurdist lens, rather than through social realism.

There is much humour, particularly of the grumpy-old-man variety, but also a playfulness of tone. For Auster fans, there are several nods to his previous works. Another echo of City of Glass is the appearance of a character called Auster: in the earlier novel it was the name of a detective, whereas here it belongs to Sy’s mother. Anna (surname Blume) shares the name of the protagonist in Auster’s 1987 novel, In the Country of Last Things. Familiar themes also crop up. Although Auster has complained that critics reduce his work to musings on the nature of chance and coincidence, he’s at it again in Baumgartner when he writes of the fortuitous first and second meetings of Sy and Anna. ‘Contrary to what eminent rationalists have been telling us for years,’ he writes, ‘the gods are happiest and most fully themselves when playing dice with the universe.’ Sy is also the latest in a very long line of writer-academic heroes in Auster’s work, though it does appear that Auster is at least aware of the repetition. In 4321 he included several of the academic characters from his previous novels as a kind of in-joke.

Auster’s writing is rightly lauded for its propulsive narrative energy, and Baumgartner is no exception. But it’s hard to agree with the view of the New York Times that Auster is ‘one of the great American prose stylists of our time’. His writing tics can become obvious – for example, the accretion of clauses and subclauses which say the same thing in different ways (‘the most feeble ones, the out-and-out duds’; ‘A man who ran at the mouth at the least provocation, a fulminating word-bag’). There is also the occasional reliance on cliché, which undermines the vibrancy of his sentences: ‘Why go back and beat that dead horse when he is supposed to be crawling around in the woods with a hand rake and a toy shovel digging up little treasures from the Neolithic past.’

Baumgartner feels like a late novel in its emphasis on memory and nostalgia, its sense of life entering the final phase. But it doesn’t feel like Auster’s valediction. The conclusion of the novel is unexpected, Auster leaving us with the distinct impression that there are more stories to come. In the almost forty years since the publication of the New York Trilogy, Auster has proved himself to be one of the most interesting and exhilarating novelists of his generation.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March