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Academic Endorsement

The celebrity phase was followed by academic endorsement, a newer form of gatekeeping restricted to a few nations. In 1996 Auster’s novel Moon Palace (USA 1989, France 1990) was chosen as one of the dozen texts representing the entire English language for thousands of university students taking the CAPES-agregation danglais examinations. Every French university with a degree program in English—which is practically every university in France—mounts a course to prepare students for these exams. They are rigorous and the results are closely monitored: the pass percentage figures in a program’s prestige. So university professors had to buy and bone up on Auster’s novels. The more entrepreneurial of them started to write guides to Moon Palace, getting a publication or two out of the process.114 Thousands of students who had never heard of Auster began to read his works as if their livelihoods depended on it. That’s when his novels began to appear in supermarket checkout lines.

Annick Duperray, at the Universite de Provence-Aix, saw the Auster phenomenon coming. Actes Sud was then located in neighboring Arles. Duperray organized the first ever conference on Auster, the Colloque Paul Auster in June 1994, inviting Hubert Nyssen to speak. Together they published the papers.115 While the conference was multi-national, the stage was French in tone and location (Aix-en-Provence). A look at the published proceedings reveals that, among French participants, the literary figures most commonly used to explicate Auster were Yves Bonnefoy (four citations), Jacques Dupin (four), Paul Ricoeur (four), Maurice Blanchot (three), Michel Foucault (three), Vladimir Nabokov (three), Herman Melville (three), Edmund Jabes (two), Edgar Allan Poe (two), Gilles Deleuze (two), Gerard Genette (two), and Francois Lyotard (two). Auster was most often explained by the French in terms of the French authors he translated, or in terms of other French critics, or in terms of European-favored Americans such as Poe and Nabokov. Not a single paper saw him in the framework of, for example, Hawthorne, Phillip Roth, or Don DeLillo, much less his fellow writers at Columbia or New York City writers.

For most French critics, what was fascinating about Auster was the quintessentially Cartesian “scene of writing” or “intertextuality.” For some there was that old, exotic Judaism or the question of filiation and language, a vestige of Lacan. As Prof. Martine Chard-Hutchinson wrote, “The book of memory is the space that links the outside and the inside, and also a space of

‘recourse,’ of reversal, above all towards an anteriority that surpasses personal memory, to reach the collective and the mythic.” Fran^oise Samarelli took up the undeniable threads of intertextuality: “The room of the writer A becomes that of Holderlin, that of Emily Dickinson, of Van Gogh, of Anne Frank that one visits in Amsterdam, that in which Pascal met with enlightenment. The room is thematically the kingdom of solitude, of madness, and of difference, but the paradigm of rooms allows Auster to weave invisible threads and make words and scriptural quests communicate among them.”116

Professor Duperray’s introduction is a fair summary of the broadest French interests: Auster has, she wrote, “an aesthetic founded on ‘misreading’: games of ambiguity, the undecidability of sense, and aporia. But it is also true that the process of plurality goes beyond simple polysemousness, and that the multivalence of Austerian writing depends on a strategy of rupture: a ‘mise-en-abyme’ of the scene of writing, the reverberation of doubles, a search for the occluded meaning of a literary object, of that gratuitous moment when literature liberates signs from their meanings.”117

In 2007-2008 Auster again made the French short list of great English and American authors for the CAPES/Agregation exams. This time a section of Brooklyn Follies joined Macbeth and Frankenstein. Perhaps the French government website was too modest when it claimed that Hubert Nyssen “brought the American, Paul Auster, out of the shadows,” since its contribution was equally valuable.118 In 1992 Auster won the Prix Medicis for the best foreign novel published in France, and in 2006 he won Spain’s Prince of Asturias Award. But he had not yet received any honors in the United States. Nor was his apartment, where Doc Humes camped out, designated as a cultural landmark by New York City.

 
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