Auster feels US marginalises writers as film stars shape opinion


AMERICA:Novelist Paul Auster, promoting his latest memoir, has no illusions about socialist ideals

HUNDREDS OF Paul Auster’s fans crowded into the Politics and Prose bookshop one evening this week to hear the best-selling author read from his new memoir, Winter Journal. Auster is the son of Jews of Polish extraction, born and raised in New Jersey. He reads a passage about how, with his “brownish skin and wavy hair and gray-green eyes” he has “eluded ethnic identification” for his entire life, being mistaken for an Italian, Greek, Spaniard, Lebanese, Egyptian and Pakistani.

Auster (65) has been a wanderer. An earlier book delights in the name of a Sligo law firm called Argue and Phibbs. In Winter Journal, he recalls James Joyce warning a woman who asks to shake the hand that wrote Ulysses: “Let me remind you, madam, that this hand has done many other things as well.”

The memoir recounts Auster’s years in Paris, living in a chambre de bonne in the early 1970s. The French feel a kinship for the intense self-examination, quest for identity and meaning in Auster’s books; they’ve given him five of the 13 honours awarded to his oeuvre.

After the reading we sit at an outdoor cafe so Auster can smoke his Davidoff cigarillos. In Europe intellectuals are coddled and feted, invited to pontificate about politics on television. Not in the US.

“No writer is important in America. We’re all marginalised beings,” Auster says.

“We have movie stars. And movie stars are royalty. Everyone wants to hear what they have to say. They’re the ones who get involved in politics. But not writers. Because writers are intellectuals. And this is an anti-intellectual country.”

Auster harbours what he describes as very strong political convictions. “They’ve always been of the left; far to the left of the Democratic party,” he says.

“But I’ve always voted Democratic because I’m not so deluded that I think a socialist candidate could win.”

Auster has “never seen a president more disrespected by the opposing party” than Barack Obama.

“He’s black. That’s why. This is a racist country. And he’s black. They really want to get the ‘nigger’ out of there. And they’ll do anything to get him out.”

In the beginning, Obama, a moderate, thought he could bring people together, Auster continues.

“He’s learned now that it’s never going to happen. And he’s become more ferocious lately. If he gets a second term, and I hope he will, I hope he uses it to go around those obstructionists and . . . improve life in this country.” Since the Democratic convention, Obama’s poll numbers have risen sharply, especially in the key swing states that will determine the election.

Mitt Romney is losing momentum, but Auster still worries that Romney could win. “We’ll go back to the days of George W Bush, but even worse,” he predicts.

“Because the Tea Party has come up since Bush. And these people are even more rabid, even more crazy. I call them Jihadists because they want to destroy the American government. Of course they’re not bombing anyone and they’re not walking around with machine guns, but if their policies are enacted they are going to kill a lot of people: poor women who need healthcare; children who won’t get free lunches in school any more. People will die because of these ideas.”

Echoing Obama, the author dreams of a US “where we believe in the idea that we must take care of one another and that it’s not every man for himself.

“It’s not dog eat dog and survival of the fittest, all these Darwinian metaphors that the extreme right has been promulgating for God knows how many hundreds of years now.”

The Republican ideologue Ayn Rand was “an absolute fool and a terrible novelist”, he adds.

Europe-bashing is de rigueur at Republican rallies. “Don’t you remember ‘freedom fries’ when the French opposed the Iraq invasion?” Auster asks. “That has to be the stupidest move the US government ever made. Listen, if people understood what Europe has done for its people, maybe they wouldn’t be so opposed to it.”

The problem, Auster says, is ignorance. Years ago, he saw a newscast about a southern school district cutting funding for language programmes.

“They went around asking people what they thought. And one man said, ‘I have no problem with it. If English is good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me’. That’s not stupidity. It’s ignorance. He thought that Jesus spoke English because he read the Bible in English.”

In much of the US, Auster would be dismissed as a New York snob and intellectual. But for him, “the real America is in New York City. It embodies the spirit of America more fully than any Kansas town. New York is the place where the whole world lives. It’s a heterogeneous society.

“We have people from every corner of the Earth. Every religion, every colour, every language. New York can be a tough place. There’s hatred and racial violence at times.

“But more or less, New York works.”