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BAUMGARTNER by Paul Auster


by Paul Auster

Pub Date: Nov. 7th, 2023
ISBN: 9780802161444
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

An elderly philosophy professor sorts through grief, mortality, and late love.

Raised by a mother surnamed Auster in Newark, New Jersey, educated at Columbia University and in Paris, married to a translator—for the title character of his latest, Auster dips often into the autobiographical well. As the book opens, S.T. Baumgartner, age 70, has been mourning his late wife, Anna, for 10 years when mishaps darken an otherwise ordinary day. He has a nasty fall, he learns that his cleaning lady’s husband has severed two fingers in a work accident, and he burns a pot he’s had since he first met his wife. Auster likes to stir up apprehension, but none of these misfortunes can match the frisson when a disconnected phone in his late wife’s study impossibly brings a call from her, telling him about the afterlife and how they remain connected. As Baumgartner, amid typical worries about how much future he has, frequently revisits the past, the narrative of his falling for Anna and their marriage takes shape—yet the strange phone call also frees him to enjoy love again, with a colleague at Princeton. Then another woman appears and seems to promise a different sort of emotional investment, this one tied to his late wife. Auster is not as textually tricky here as he has been in previous novels. He does bring back publisher Morris Heller and son Miles from Sunset Park (2010). He has Baumgartner working on “a serio-comic, quasi-fictional discourse on the self in relation to other selves,” which sounds like a study of Auster’s fiction. Baumgartner’s mind is full of late-life insights and angst, while his capacity for love provides a rich emotional seam. Auster packs a lot into this slim novel, including, alas, prose so prone to cliché that the mind winces.

An always intriguing writer mostly playing to his strengths.