Reviewed by Rod McLary
Paul Auster is an elegant and intelligent writer and these two qualities infuse this novel of loss and love. The protagonist – Seymour Baumgartner – has recently lost his wife Anna through a freak accident while she was swimming. Baumgartner was too far away to assist her in any way and now he is faced with living without her. Sy [as he is known] and Anna shared a deep and abiding love from their early twenties; and he is now beginning his seventies.
Baumgartner deals with minutiae of day-to-day living with all its trials and tribulations. From the visit of the meter reader to comforting the next-door neighbour when her father is injured at work, the novel is grounded in the here and now. But it is also grounded in wit and compassion for the small but significant interactions between Baumgartner and the people around him.
Baumgartner is an academic and he applies his mind to the mind-body conundrum phantom limb syndrome. Perceiving this biological syndrome as perhaps a metaphor for human loss and suffering which would go some way to explaining – or even fully explaining – why there are times when Baumgartner would wake in the morning forgetting that Anna was dead. He describes one such moment when reading a journal article which he found hilarious, he sought out Anna. Then he stepped ‘into the empty living room and remembered’, and immediately his thoughts went to her funeral when he was ‘standing by the open grave’ .
As in much of the author’s work, there are semi-autobiographical references. On one occasion – a sunny Saturday afternoon – Baumgartner tells himself to remember the past and what comes to mind is his childhood, his parents and sister, and their life in New York. But as the mind will do when left to its own devices, it goes not to the treasured moments such the first taste of whisky or the first hearing of beautiful music but to the moments of tension, betrayal and conflict. He recalls his mother – named Ruth Auster – and her difficult life [largely unknown] until she met Jakov Baumgartner. He remembers his father as ‘a human conundrum of such daunting impenetrability’ that he spent his boyhood continually uncertain who his father was .
There are also references to the author’s earlier works – for example, Anna was Anna Blume before her marriage to Baumgartner and Anna Blume was the narrator of Auster’s 1987 novel In the Country of Last Things.
Then – on 17 October 2019 – something unexpected happened which inspires Baumgartner to action. A young woman Beatrix Coen who wishes to do her dissertation on the poetry of Anna Baumgartner. There is a sense for Baumgartner of destiny being fulfilled; and thus enlivened by its prospect, Baumgartner advances towards the next [and final] chapter in his life. And it is on this note that the novel concludes.
Baumgartner is an intensely satisfying novel with the author’s recurring themes finding a place in the novel: themes such as the obsessive writer at the heart of the novel; the depiction of ordinary day-to-day events and particularly its intertextuality. There are a number of excerpts from stories written by Anna some years previously, one of Baumgartner’s own fables depicting an elderly man held in solitary confinement for more than fifty years which perhaps is a metaphor for the practice of writing. The old man says to himself ‘Great effort is required to make a sentence, and great effort requires great concentration, and as one sentence must inevitably follow another to build a work of sentences, great concentration is required throughout the day’ .
It is a book to be savoured.
By Paul Auster
ISBN 978 057138 494 5