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Stories Within Stories in “Baumgartner”

Stories Within Stories in “Baumgartner”

  • Our review of Paul Auster's latest novel, "Baumgartner"

Paul Auster’s best novels balance intricate and absorbing stories, with deconstructions of the art of narrative in a manner that rarely detracts from the flow or fun of the narrative itself. Unlike the machinations of many metafiction authors, the games Auster plays with storytelling never seem to get in the way of the stories themselves—except, of course, in moments when he stops compelling stories dead as with the gripping blue notebook tale unspooling in Oracle Night. As much as those moments might frustrate a reader—and it’s worth noting that even Auster’s finest works like 4 3 2 1 are rarely satisfyingly-ended—they also remind the reader that some stories aren’t meant to satisfy.

Auster’s newest novel, Baumgartner, ends perplexingly with the promise of a final chapter just beginning—a strange conclusion to a book that begins in a life’s third act. Baumgartner dwells largely in the memories of an old man dragging himself through the dregs of his leftover life since his wife’s abrupt and tragic death. Sy Baumgartner, Princeton philosophy professor emeritus, “author of nine books and numerous shorter works on philosophical, aesthetic, and political matters,” lives alone, and divides his days between working on various essays-in-progress, poring over his brilliant and exuberant late wife Anna’s trove of unpublished manuscripts, and taking long walks through his “memory palace,” descending into vivid, protracted visits to the past. In one of his essays, Baumgartner works at extending the metaphor of “phantom limb syndrome,” imagining himself—without the wife who made him whole—as a “human stump.”

Auster frequently intermingles the narrative of Baumgartner’s desultory day-to-day life with interpolated snatches of Anna’s transfixing poetry and autobiographical writing. Two of her stories capture her early days with Sy and a wrenching account of her first love, Frankie Boyle, who died gruesomely in a Vietnam-era rocket launcher mishap at Fort Dix. “The horror” of Frankie Boyle’s “ghastly annihilation”—and the “permanent gash” it left in Anna’s soul—long familiar to Baumgartner, doesn’t haunt him as Michael Furey’s memory haunts Gabriel Conroy in Joyce’s “The Dead,” though it’s hard to miss the parallels. What haunts Baumgartner then as always is Anna herself: “It had stirred him deeply to see those girlhood memories dancing across the pages of her yellowed manuscript, for once he began to read her words, he felt as if he was hearing Anna’s voice rise up from the paper and that she was actually talking to him again, even though she was dead now, gone now, and would never say another word to him for the rest of his life.”

The novel’s best moments occur in these nested narratives, including forays into Baumgartner’s own memories. Other fascinating digressions concern Baumgartner’s parents and grandparents and his childhood in Jewish Newark (hometown of Auster himself and many characters he’s created over the years). Baumgartner puzzles over what to make of the father he worshiped and feared, a forever-frustrated anticapitalist small business owner, “Polish-American Quixote of sad countenance and book-addled brain, king of the luftmenschen who ran his little dress shop on Lyons Avenue by letting his wife and sister do the work while he holed up in the second-floor bedroom reading Emma Goldman’s autobiography for the seventh time.”

Through the story of Baumgartner’s maternal grand-uncle Joseph Auster (not the first time fictional “Austers” have turned up in his novels), Auster invokes the history of The Workmen’s Circle, a “sublime and munificent” turn-of-the-century mutual aid society for Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants.”

Perhaps the most provocative detour the book takes comes in the form of an account of Baumgartner’s journey to Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine in 2017. Titled “The Wolves of Stanislav,” and first published in Lithub in 2020, the story is rendered in its original online incarnation as a story taken from Auster’s own life (notably, as “an improbably true parable for the pandemic age,” not an excerpt from a novel-in-progress). 

In “The Wolves of Stanislav,” Auster (in LitHub) and Baumgartner (in Baumgartner) describe a trip taken to the Eastern European town as a pilgrimage of sorts (“counterfeit nostalgia,” they call it) to the birthplace of their grandfather, a man neither ever knew. (As far as I can tell, the one difference in the story as it appears in Baumgartner is that Baumgartner is tracking his maternal grandfather, the Auster one.) Though Ivano-Frankivsk had once been home to many of the authors’ ancestors, the Austers—like all of the Jews who lived there before World War II—were long gone.

Auster and Baumgartner meet a baseball cap-wearing rabbi who recounts the long history of the town, but the only part that sticks concerns what the rabbi says Russian soldiers found when they arrived to liberate Ivano-Frankivsk from the Nazis in July 1944. While what had befallen the town’s Jews between 1941 and 1943 was well-known to Auster and Baumgartner, what surprised them in the rabbi’s tale was that all the occupying Germans and remaining non-Jewish townspeople had deserted the town as well: “Instead of people the city was now inhabited by wolves, hundreds of wolves, perhaps thousands of wolves.”

Upon returning home, Auster and Baumgartner recall researching the story but finding nothing to confirm it. The nearest thing to proper documentation they could find was a Soviet propaganda film from the period, predictably showing not wolves but joyous people grateful for their liberation. Both Auster and Baumgartner come away unsure of the facts but predisposed to print the legend.

“The Wolves of Stanislav” probes the kind of questions about stories and storytelling that Auster’s work has, in one way or another, been asking for 40 years. “Does an event have to be true in order to be accepted as true, or does belief in the truth of an event already make it true, even if the thing that supposedly happened did not happen?” Auster and Baumgartner ask. “And what if, in spite of your efforts to find out whether the event took place or not, you arrive at an impasse of uncertainty and cannot be sure if the story someone told you on the terrace of a café in the western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk was derived from a little known but verifiable historical event or was a legend or a boast or a groundless rumor passed on from a father to a son? Even more to the point: If the story turns out to be so astounding and so powerful that your mouth drops open in wonder and you feel that it has changed or enhanced or deepened your understanding of the world, does it matter if the story is true or not?”

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Beyond these musings, Baumgartner rarely rises to the vibrant and intricate storytelling of 4 3 2 1, Invisible, or Leviathan. And apart from the wild slapstick comedy of its opening scene, it rarely delivers the unalloyed narrative joy of much of The Brooklyn Follies or Mr. Vertigo. But Baumgartner remains deeply and strangely affecting. More than any Auster novel in memory, it relies on the transporting grace of Auster’s hypnotic, magnificent run-on sentences to hold the reader in its sway. 

In one bit of self-conscious fable-writing, Baumgartner describes the last half-century of his life as the result of being long ago sentenced by a judge to “a life of making sentences”—a sentence he has carried out faithfully in an open cell.

If Paul Auster regards himself as similarly sentenced, it’s been a sentence extraordinarily well-served.

by Paul Auster
Atlantic Monthly Press
Published November 7th, 2023

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