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Paul Auster Papers in the Berg

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The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection has made the papers of Paul Auster, dating from the years 1999-2005, available to the public. This installment of Auster’s papers joins an existing collection already in the Berg, dating from 1963-1995, and a third installment, bridging the gap between the two collections, from 1995-1999. Guides to all the papers are now available to researchers at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (researchers can also email us for a copy at berg@nypl.org.

Auster, who grew up in the New Jersey suburbs of New York, is known for his New York stories featuring protagonists whose usually orderly worlds are upended by chance events. One such novel in draft form in the Auster papers is his The Book of Illusions (2002), a heady, suspenseful story narrated by David Zimmer, a literature professor who has recently lost his wife and sons in a plane crash. Zimmer’s grief leads him to late nights spent watching old movies and an obsession that blooms into a scholarly study of a silent film star who disappeared in 1929. One night, Zimmer is summoned to New Mexico by an inexplicable phone call from a woman who says the missing man is still alive, and we’re off and running. In the telling of Zimmer’s quest, Auster interposes interesting questions about creative identity and the purpose and ownership of art. Other novels, like the early New York Trilogy (1987), stray further from realism (The Berg Collection has the first draft of this influential darling of post-modern texts).

In addition to The Book of Illusions, the 1999-2005 material now available includes drafts of the novels Oracle Night and The Brooklyn Follies. Like Sidney Orr, the protagonist of Oracle Night who writes in expensive European notebooks with a glossy blue cover, Auster himself writes his first drafts in the French-manufactured Clairefontaine notebooks. Auster’s own draft of Oracle Night is in a brilliant blue notebook. Looking at the manuscript creates a kind of Russian doll effect where the viewer opens one blue notebook only to read about another, where a miraculous story involving yet another manuscript unfolds.

The 1999-2005 material also includes the manuscripts of several nonfiction works, including the 2002 The Story of My Typewriter, a love song of a picture book penned in homage to Auster’s vintage manual Olympia typewriter, in use since 1974. Here, Auster’s writing process is animated, both by text and image. In illustrations done by the artist Sam Messer, Auster’s typewriter is caked with paint. Its keys wobble with a palpable kinetic energy; as if they have been recently struck. In other paintings, as with the images above, Auster massages a levitating alphabet mid-air, as if conducting a symphony of words.

The text of Typewriter serves as a printed counterpart to the stardust of the archive itself, pulling back the veil to describe the improbable Olympia, chugging along some thirty years after its acquisition, impervious to the hard truth that some day a shortage of typewriter ribbons will volley it the way of Irish deer and dinosaurs. Auster writes unabashedly here of his aversion to PCs and Macs as well as email (a dislike borne out in the archive, rich in holograph and typescript pages, but few computer print-outs). Advantage, researcher: Because the author uses the fax as his primary mode of written communication, the archive preserves both outgoing and incoming parts of the conversation. Correspondence includes letters to and from Beckett, as well as the artists/writers Pedro Almodovar, Sophie Calle, William Corbett, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Lethem, Sam Messer, Michael Ondaatje, Philippe Petit, Rick Moody and Jonathan Safran Foer.

Also in Auster’s archive is a draft of the introduction for Nathanial Hawthorne’s charming and poignant Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa, which chronicles Hawthorne’s adventures looking after his son, while his wife Sophia and daughters Una and Rose were away (for a complete listening of the Berg’s Hawthorne holdings, please see the finding aids).

Additional material dating from the years 1995-1999, including drafts of the novels Leviathan and Mr. Vertigo as well as material-related to the cult film favorites Smoke and Blue in the Face (written and directed by Auster) is currently being processed, and will likely be available to the public later this year.

For recent novels by Auster, check out the intriguing Invisible (2009) and Sunset Park (2010).

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