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A sardonic sac

Auster sauce

A concerned reader writes:

What’s with this hate campaign against Paul Auster? See Hadley Freeman in [yesterday’s] Guardian and Wood in recent New Yorker. Have I missed something? ((Thanks to Daniel F.))

If he has, so have I! But let’s see. Hadley Freeman writes:

Paul Auster is repeatedly described as an author with a “European sensibility”, suggesting that American book reviewers see “European” as meaning “repetitive and narcissistic, with a particular appeal to self-important male undergraduates.”

Miaow. Meanwhile, James Wood’s review begins with a parody of Austerian prose and incident. Wood characterizes his own effort as:

l’eau d’Auster in a sardonic sac.

So European! I take it that a sardonic sac is a Frenchwoman’s handbag that makes subtly wounding comments about your own, much less chic bag as they face off over the café table?

  1. 1  Stan  December 10, 2009, 10:28 am 

    Recently I heard Auster described as a Polanski apologist. It’s a long list.

  2. 2  organic cheeseboard  December 10, 2009, 10:46 am 

    Freeman says:

    The Amanda Knox case – truly, a Henry James story gone very, very wrong

    I think an unspeak entry for ‘truly’ is necessary here.

  3. 3  richard  December 10, 2009, 3:26 pm 

    When I read “sac” I think “bladder” or “scrotum.” I’m not sure what Freeman is trying to say about his parody by associating it either with urine or testicles, but your own “monstrous balls” comes to mind.

  4. 4  hellblazer  December 10, 2009, 7:28 pm 

    re#3 Freeman isn’t doing any parody in *her* article; but, no, I read that parody from James Wood and was rather puzzled by that particular choice of words.

    Would be interested to hear Steven’s thoughts on Wood’s hatchet job (and I use the phrase not to imply malice, but a certain destructive glee) since I’ve not read anything by Auster, and am oblivious to any sniping that may have gone on between him and some “literary scene”.

    Also, has Steven’s concerned reader (any relation to Dorothy Parker’s Tonstant Weader?) read Freeman as jumping on an anti-Auster trend? I just thought she was reaching for an example, not involving John Kerry, of American use of “European” as a negative epithet.

  5. 5  Iroquois Pliskin  December 10, 2009, 7:39 pm 

    As much as I enjoy James Wood (both as a critic and a novelist), the man has a very narrow understanding of what makes for good fiction. As an avowed disciple of Flaubert, his unit of critical assessment is the sentence. While he has a great eye (ear?) for novelistic phrasing, and he has some pretty bad Auster prose to butcher here, he’s never been a perceptive analyst of the pleasures of storytelling. Which is where Auster really shines. (I think his repeated complaint that Auster’s plotting is contrived rings hollow; detective fiction is the model here, and in detective fiction unanticipated things happen. This is not a bad thing!)

  6. 6  Steven  December 10, 2009, 8:06 pm 

    I had forgotten my theory that Auster’s work is all about the word “of”.

    Wood: “The books fairly hum along.” In the context of the review, we must suppose that this is a deliberate cliché?

  7. 7  Tawfiq Chahboune  December 12, 2009, 1:11 am 

    I can’t work Auster out. It’s amazing that the same author who wrote something as superb as “The New York Trilogy” also wrote the terrible “Travels In The Scriptorium”. I could be mistaken, Steven, but if I remember rightly I think you wrote an appreciative review of the latter.

    Auster is making a name for himself as an author who has two kinds of book in him: the staggeringly awful and the genuinely brilliant.

    Don DeLillo wrote “The Body Artist”, but I like to think that after writing so many excellent books he can be forgiven something as bad as this. But Auster has lots of these one offs, while DeLillo, as far as I can tell (I haven’t read every novel), has only fallen short just the once.

    But can anyone challenge Auster for the title of this rather weird category of following excellent novels with pisspoor offerings? D’oh! Forgot Salman Rushdie!

  8. 8  Steven  December 13, 2009, 12:24 am 

    I did indeed write a review of Scriptorium, whether “appreciative” exactly I’m not sure; I do see now that it has something to say about Auster’s use of cliché, which is not necessarily as unthinking as Wood charges.

    I never read the one about the dog? But apart from that one (maybe) I don’t know of any truly bad novels by Auster.

    I don’t think The Body Artist is bad either. Of course James Wood — who is always worth reading! — has something against DeLillo too.

  9. 9  Tawfiq Chahboune  December 13, 2009, 8:00 pm 

    Belatedly turning to this week’s Guardian Review (nice choice, Steven, in choosing Frank Wilczek’s book), I was spooked to discover the two books I didn’t like returning the following day in the Review. My “false positive” of the year:

hit parade

    guardian articles

    older posts