If you think of the great cultural power couples of our time, you may be forgiven if literary duo Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt aren’t at the top of your list. Meeting in 1981 and marrying a year later, the pair have since resided in New York, working away their afternoons and convening to critique each other’s efforts in the evenings. The pair have contributed a dazzling array of fiction and nonfiction alike throughout the years, and I think in many ways it is their relationship that gives the impression of a balanced perspective throughout their respective works.
Auster’s most well known text is The New York Trilogy, a postmodern take on the detective story; however, the novel of his which most captured my attention was Invisible. Invisible follows a young student and an older couple caught up in an ill-fated love triangle, all three of them are subsequently catapulted into an irreparably destructive sequence of events that transpire in the year 1967. Auster’s gift is his ability to present in a unique manner what would in less capable hands be well worn territory, and this book is, to me, the most distinct manifestation of that thesis. Auster utilises first, second and third person perspectives that interweave different timeframes and viewpoints in order to give the reader a comprehensive, soaring depiction of how the ripples of one event can turn into waves for those involved as time goes by.
This kind of retrospective approach is one that Hustvedt employs too: her novel What I Loved is her most lauded and it’s easy to see why. We view events through the failing eyes of a near blind art critic remembering those he has lost and loved throughout his life, this journey in turn being conjoined with meditations on art as a medium of emotional expression. It’s undoubtedly one of the most deeply affecting and intense novels I have read, Hustvedt flying high where a less competent author may have fallen.
Beyond these two texts, the pair have a dazzlingly broad and varied bibliography: Austers’s 4321 takes a more prospective than introspective look at a life, structuring the narrative over several alternate timelines as to how one person’s existence may have transpired. Hustvedts’ Memories of the Future concerns an older woman looking back through a journal from her 20’s, remembering who she was back then, and how it has informed who she is today. Both members of this couple aren’t afraid to toy with expected structure and technique, whilst still maintaining the core emotional and character driven aspects that are the key to engaging a reader. In many of the texts I have discussed here we are given a narrator who looks back on the events of their past, and tries to come to terms with them, though each instantiation is distinct enough to stand out. In many ways this notion is emblematic of the very cause authors are committed to: as Hustvedt puts it ‘every book is a withdrawal from immediacy into reflection.’
It feels like a kind of rare treat to be granted such complementary and yet distinct perspectives on similar themes written by a compelling and genuine literary pairing. For any differences they may have, Auster and Hustvedt share a common thread of tender humanity evident in everything they write, and I would encourage everyone to sample some of their work – there’s plenty of it to go round.
Image courtesy of Helen Alfvegren via Flickr