Paul Auster is one of the great American novelists. His previous novel 4321 (2017) was a magnum opus that traced four alternative lives of its main character. But it was a bit of an outlier compared to his many much shorter novels, such as Leviathan and Mr Veritgo, that deeply investigated the lives of their protagonists. Auster’s latest book, Baumgartner, his first since 4321, returns to this style of a short, deeply observed character study.
Sy Baumgartner is an ageing academic living on his own. The opening section of the book quickly establishes Baumgartner as a man who is struggling a little to cope but also has a support network around him. Readers soon learn that ten years on he is still mourning the death of Anna, the love of his life. Sy brings their romance and their story out through Anna’s short stories and poems over the course of the novel, all the while trying to produce his own new work. At the same time, Sy reflects on the journey of both of their families and the circumstances that predated them coming together. Auster takes readers into his main character’s point of view and uses a variety of techniques to bring his reminiscences and his past to vivid life.
Auster, himself 76, is likely reflecting on his own life, but as he has done before, he uses this fictional vehicle to make universal observations on memory, ageing and love. As part of this there is, as in many of his previous novels, a bit of fourth-wall breaking relating to the Auster family. While Auster was clearly not sure how to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion, Baumgartner is still a beautifully observed and achingly written character study. It shows a great author reflecting on universal themes and still able to deliver something new in a style that has always been his own.