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Paul Auster, Postmodern Author of ‘The New York Trilogy’ and ‘Smoke’, Dies at 77

Paul Auster, the best-selling postmodern author, noir novelist and screenwriter behind “Smoke,” “Lulu on the Bridge” and “The Inner Life of Martin Frost,” has died. He was 77.

The death of the author of “The New York Trilogy” and “4 3 2 1” was confirmed Wednesday by his literary representatives at the Carol Mann Agency, the Associated Press said. No details were provided about his death, and agency representatives did not immediately respond to The Times’ request for comment on Wednesday.

The New York Times reported that Auster died Tuesday evening at his home in Brooklyn from complications of lung cancer. The writer was diagnosed with cancer in 2022.

Auster, who also enjoyed a prolific career as a poet and memoirist, became a fixture on the Brooklyn literary scene. He was known for his “metafiction” and for drawing attention to the artifice of storytelling. Although his commercial success in the United States was modest, he was deeply admired abroad and received several awards during his prolific career, including the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature, the Prix Médicis étranger, an Independent Spirit Award, and the Premio Napoli . He was also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Read more:Review: For a door stopper, ‘4 3 2 1’ by Paul Auster is surprisingly light

“Listen, money is important. Everyone cares about money. And if you don’t have money, money becomes the overriding obsession of your life,” he said on the “Bat Segundo Show” in 2008. “I wrote a whole book about that .… ‘Hand to mouth.’ And the only good thing about making money is that you don’t have to think about money. It’s the only value. Because if you don’t have it, you’re crushed. And I was crushed for a long time in my life.”

Dubbed “the dean of American postmodernists” and “the most meta of American metafictional writers,” Auster’s oeuvre has numbered more than thirty books since he began publishing in the 1970s. He created fiction that was based on reality, but also challenged its definition. His seminal 1985 novel, “City of Glass,” combined hard-boiled detective fiction with existential investigation and featured a character named Paul Auster. The 1986 sequels, ‘Ghosts’ and ‘The Locked Room’, included Auster’s famous ‘New York Trilogy’. His 1994 fable, “Mr. Vertigo,” contained literal fantasies; and his 2008 work “Man in the Dark” created dreamscapes that evoked parallel visions of contemporary America, according to Times contributor Malcolm Forbes.

Read more:Paul Auster’s new novel lacks the usual postmodern fireworks. Thank God for that

His work imposed a sense of irreality on his readers, and his oeuvre was full of writers and themes that revolved around the elusiveness of human nature and the inadequacy of language to explore the matter, according to a Times review.

“Somehow you just get into what the words say,” he told KQED in 2009, “but you don’t even think about the words anymore.”

Paul Benjamin Auster was born on February 3, 1947 in Newark, NJ, and grew up in a middle-class Jewish family. His father was a greedy moneylender and his mother, who was about thirteen years younger, was a moneylender. The marriage eventually ended in divorce. Auster’s uncle, translator Allen Mandelbaum, left several boxes of books for his nephew to read while he traveled to Europe and the young Auster developed an interest in writing, literature and poetry.

Auster once joked that he became a writer after a fateful meeting with baseball great Willie Mays as a young boy. After missing Mays’ signature because he didn’t have a pencil, the future writer said he always made sure to keep a pencil or pen in his pocket “because I didn’t want to be caught unprepared again.” He famously worked without a computer, preferring to write with a typewriter and staying off the Internet to avoid emails.

Read more:Paul Auster: computer, no; cigars, yes

In his early twenties, writing in short form, such as poems, came easily to him, but he had difficulty with longer work. He published his first book, a collection of poems titled “White Spaces,” in 1980, and followed it up with his first memoir in 1982, “The Invention of Solitude,” in which he reflected on his father’s death. In an interview with the Louisiana Channel, he said he must have written 1,500 pages of broken novels and manuscripts, which he considered his apprenticeship in “how to put sentences together.” Writing became “instinctive” over time, but he never considered himself a fast writer. He believed that a good day’s work could produce one typed page – ‘two pages is great, three is a miracle’, which happens four times a year.

“The hard work is making it look easy,” he said.

His longest and most ambitious work of fiction was his 866-page novel ‘4 3 2 1’, which was published in 2017 and was a finalist for the Booker Prize. Although not traditionally a “doorstop” writer, Auster’s book told the story of Archie Ferguson, a character that mirrors the author himself in a four-part story. It catalogs the ordinary existence of four parallel Fergusons in the post-World War II era in detail, presenting the changing fate of each version based on different circumstances.

Auster’s other works include the nonfiction compilations “Groundwork” and “Talking to Strangers”; a family memoir, “The Invention of Solitude”; the novel “Leviathan”; and the poetry collection ‘White Spaces’. In 2021, he chronicled the life and work of 19th-century author Stephen Crane in “Burning Boy.” His most recent novel, 2023’s “Baumgartner,” told the story of a widowed professor haunted by mortality.

Several of his works, including his 1990 novel ‘The Music of Chance’, were made into films, with Auster behind the camera in several of them. Harvey Keitel starred in the 1995 drama ‘Smoke’, about a cigar shop in Brooklyn and its various customers, played by William Hurt and Giancarlo Esposito. Working as a screenwriter, Auster embellished his short story that originally appeared as a Christmas Day op-ed in the New York Times, using “the film medium as an extension of his literary art,” according to the Los Angeles Times review. The film earned him the Independent Spirit Award for first screenplay.

Later that year, he teamed up again with “Smoke” director Wayne Wang and they co-directed the sequel, “Blue in the Face,” which brought back Keitel and Esposito and also starred Lou Reed, Mira Sorvino and Madonna. He is also mentioned in the screenplay of Wang’s 2001 romance “The Center of the World.”

Auster wrote and directed the 1998 mystery drama “Lulu on the Bridge,” which again starred Keitel and Sorvino and was nominated for the Un sure Regard Prize at the Cannes International Film Festival. He wrote and directed the 2007 comedy ‘The Inner Life of Martin Frost’, which explored the art of writing, starring David Thewlis, Irène Jacob and Michael Imperioli.

Auster is survived by his wife, fellow author Siri Hustvedt, and daughter Sophie. His son Daniel Auster, from a previous marriage, died of a drug overdose in 2022 after struggling with drug addiction and being charged with second-degree manslaughter in the death of his infant daughter.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.