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City life and letters

Wednesday, 9 October, 2013

When it came to the future of his native city, James Joyce claimed that if Dublin was destroyed you could rebuild it from the detail in Ulysses. The New York author Paul Auster makes no such lofty claims regarding his hometown, but many of his books are maps of the Big Apple, particularly his adopted Brooklyn. Auster is more than urban fiction, though. His books also contain humanity in all its fragility. Oracle Nights Anyone who has fought back from major illness will feel at home in the introduction to Oracle Night:

“I had been sick for a long time. When the day came for me to leave the hospital, I barely knew how to walk anymore, could barely remember who I was supposed to be. Make an effort, the doctor said, and in three for four months you’ll be back in the swing of things. I didn’t believe him, but I followed his advice anyway. They had given me up for dead, and now that I had confounded their predictions and mysteriously failed to die, what choice did I have but l live as though a future life were waiting for me?

I began with small outings, no more than a block or two from my apartment and then home again. I was only thirty-four but for all intents and purposes, the illness had turned me into an old man — one of those palsied, shuffling geezers who can’t put one foot in front of the other without first looking down to see which foot is which.”

As our narrator gets stronger, his wanderings take him as far as a stationary shop in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn and he buys a blue notebook, which then puts him under its spell. The rest is a story about haunted lives.

Those who do get a second bite of the cherry of life and survive serious sickness will relate to this passage towards the close of Auster’s novel: “I had my face in my hands and was sobbing my guts out. I don’t know how long I carried on like that, but even as the tears poured out of me, I was happy, happier to be alive than I had ever been before. It was a happiness beyond consolation, beyond misery, beyond all the ugliness and beauty of the world.”

The ugliness and beauty of the world as captured by writers will feature in two cities this week: Frankfurt, where the annual Book Fair begins today, and Stockholm, where tomorrow the Nobel Prize for Literature will be announced. Prior to that, in our continuing urban week, we’ll look at the city as the battleground for future conflicts.


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