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France Brings Out the Best in Foreigners
French book reviewers fitted Auster to an important cultural template: the foreigner who does his best work in France. Daniele Robert, his poetry translator, began the cheerleading for him in 1988 in the magazine Impressions du Sud with an omnibus review titled “Qui est moi aujourd’hui?” After summarizing the plots of City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room in complimentary post-modernist terms, she wrote almost apologetically, “Paul Auster, the novelist, states that the story stops only because it is necessary to end a story once begun, that’s the law of the genre and it reassures readers, satisfies them” [Paul Auster romancier precise que l’histoire s’arrete parce qu’il faut bien terminer une histoire commencee, c’est la loi du genre et il faut rassurer le lecteur, le satisfaire].103 Then Robert began the primary French point of comparison: Auster was like Holderlin. In a parallel essay in the same magazine, Jean Todrani evaluated Auster’s poetry, in which he found
a text closed, linear, despoiled of the actual, the unique: a poetry almost aphoristic, like a meditation without experience, the upside of the
weight of silence. Murales shows something surprising in the context
of American poetry. There is in this work something of a surpassing of conditions, a surpassing of forms. Often enough this poetry reminds one of Holderlin.
[un texte serre, lineaire, depouille de l’actuel, du singulier: une poesie presque aphoristique, comme une meditation sans experience, le la-dessus du poids du silence. Murales a de quoi surprende dans le contexte poetique americain. Il y a dans cette reuvre comme un depassement des conditions, un depassement des formes. En bien des moments, cette poesie nous rap- pelle Holderlin.]
A photo of a handsome, dark, young Auster accompanied that article. But there was an even better photo accompanying Pierrette Rosset’s review of Ghosts for Elle magazine in August 1988:
The handsome Paul Auster excels at showing, in a game of extremely reflective mirrors, he who writes and he who watches, in sum, a man in the mirror who resembles him perhaps as a brother . . . required reading for all the grown cousins of Alice in Wonderland.
[Le beau Paul Auster excelle a montrer, dans un jeu de mirroirs extreme- ment reflechissants, celui qui ecrit et celui qui regarde, bref, un homme au miroir qui lui ressemble peut-etre comme un frere . . . a faire lire a tous les grands cousins d’ Alice au pays des Merveilles.]104
Other French reviewers also searched for a different cultural equivalent by which to familiarize Auster. Rosset had suggested Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland—foreign but not too. But the comparison to Holderlin, a German who came to work in Bordeaux in 1802 and there wrote perhaps his greatest work, “Andenken” [Remembrance] was the one that stuck. It also appeared in Robert Amutio’s omnibus review of Auster’s poetry in the journal 117.
It’s always Holderlin-like questioning, and Adorno’s injunction tied to Auschwitz and everything is exact, if only because of this “choice” of selfexpression by judgments—which teach us that they don’t make sense of that which is greater than they are—by that red thread of “Hebrew blood”, by that concern that makes this language so close to the French poets Jacques Dupin, Andre du Bouchet, close also to the concerns of Maurice Blanchot— writers whose works Paul Auster has translated—all evidence of the source of the fact that poetry announces its disappearance, its uselessness . . .
[C’est toujours l’interrogation Holderlinienne, et l’injonction d’Adorno liee a Auschwitz, et tout est exact, ne serait-ce que par ce «choix» de s’exprimer par sentences—qui nous apprennent qu’elles ne donnent pas sens a ce qui est plus vaste qu’elles—, par ce fil rouge du «sang hebreu», par cette inquietude qui rend cette parole si proche des poetes fran^ais, Jacques Dupin, Andre du Bouchet, proche aussi des preoccupations de Maurice Blanchot— ecrivains dont Paul Auster a traduit des oeuvres; toutes evidences d’ou sur- git le constat que le poeme frappe de disparition, d’inutilite . . .]105
While this reminds us of US reviewers fitting Garcia Marquez to the templates of the Bible and “family of man,” and of German reviewers adapting Bukowski to the Punk Movement, the larger lesson is that the great successes of contemporary World Literature have familiar templates of cultural reception set up for them, and gatekeeping reviewers who can find them. But there is a second domesticating tactic in this review: Auster is “like” the best of French avant-garde writing, as well as being “like” important foreigners who come to France to write. The fascination with “Hebrew blood”—the Jabes element—would be awkward to mention in the United States, but those are American cultural blinders: the elements of Jewish, Native American, or black blood can be orientalized in parallel receiving cultures.