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Public Intellectual

Auster needed to get his name noticed in the attention space. “I started doing articles for other magazines as well. Harper’s, Saturday Review, Parnassus, The San Francisco Review of Books, I can’t remember all of them,” he wrote. “I looked on those pieces as an opportunity to articulate some of my ideas about writing and literature, to map out some kind of aesthetic position.”72 The wave of French literary theory gaining currency showed that there was respect for a position that was neither classicism nor activism—a position that hypothesized beyond them. It would not hurt if it were French. Auster must have suspected that a narrative application of his poetic minimalism was possible. He could be its exemplar, the American Blanchot. He trimmed down “Death of Sir Walter Raleigh” to a few pages, and Meyers published it in Parenthese 4 (1975). He also changed his style in “From Cakes to Stones,” a piece on Beckett for Commentary (July 1975).

A friend had suggested that Auster contact Bob Silvers at the New York Review of Books. Now he did so, placing “One Man’s Language” on the French writer Wolfson (February 6, 1975), the Laura Riding piece (August 7, 1975), and articles on Jabes and Ungaretti (one of his uncle Mandelstam’s interests). He also reviewed books by John Ashbery and John Hollander in “Ideas and Things” for Harper’s (November 1975); he discussed Celan, “Poet of Exile,” in Commentary (February 1976); and explained Giuseppe Ungaretti, “Man of

Pain,” for the New York Review of Books (April 1976). He wrote several catalogs for the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York. He worked the literary tide- lands hard to become an explainer of things French to New York. Though his audience was scattered and small, he was finally being attended to.

This was hard work, but not the career of failure that Auster has narrated.73 He was a young writer striving to break in, who could capitalize on his cultural knowledge of France and developments in French literature, if he found a larger forum. That began to take shape in the winter 1976 issue of TriQuarterly 3.74 There he published an article on “Contemporary French Poetry: An Introduction Against Introductions,” which set the appropriate tone of denial, not this school and not that school. It also indicates that he was already thinking about an anthology, a book that would position him for wider note.

TriQuarterly was then at the nexus of literary theory and creative writing, at once academic and read by avant-garde writers. The big names appeared at the front of the magazine, and Auster appeared at the back, with three prose pages introducing his translations of ten of his favorite French poets: it was like his little surrealist anthology but just different enough. In his preface he attacked recent French poetry anthologies, not by name, but taking the position that they belonged to “the vague realm of literary sociology. Everything has been laid out for us in advance. The poems have been pre-digested.” He went on to embrace a Romantic but minimalist conception of art—“A poem is an irreducible object, created in silence and solitude by a single individual.” He endorsed “vigilant hermeticism, preoccupation with the act of writing itself, an almost ruthless metaphysical reductionism.”75 The audience for this message was the larger intellectual cohort, people who knew that the 1960s were most certainly over.

 
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