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Bestselling novelist Paul Auster, author of 'The New York Trilogy,' dies at 77

"You think it will never happen to you," Paul Auster wrote about aging and mortality in his 2012 book <em>Winter Journal. </em>He's<em> </em>pictured above in New York in April 2007.
Nicholas Roberts
AFP via Getty Images
"You think it will never happen to you," Paul Auster wrote about aging and mortality in his 2012 book Winter Journal. He's pictured above in New York in April 2007.

Updated May 01, 2024 at 09:13 AM ET

Best-selling author Paul Auster, whose novels addressed existential questions of identity, language, and literature and created mysteries that raised more questions than they answered, has died. He was 77.

His death was confirmed by friend Jacki Lyden on behalf of Auster's family.

A leading figure in his generation of postmodern American writers, Auster wrote more than 20 novels, including The New York Trilogy, which included his 1985 breakthrough book, City of Glass, and his ambitious 2017 novel 4 3 2 1, which ran close to 1,000 pages.

"I think he was a really exciting and compelling voice of his generation," says Alys Moody, a professor who teaches postwar American literature. "Auster will be remembered for being one of the leading figures in a post-modern tradition that's reimagining how central language is, and how central writing is, and how central above all storytelling is."

Auster was born in 1947 in Newark, N.J., to Jewish middle-class parents of Austrian descent. After he graduated from Columbia University with undergraduate and Master's degrees, he moved to Paris. There, he supported himself by translating French literature. Auster returned to the United States in 1974, part of a disillusioned generation. In a private 1992 interview with me, he said his novel Leviathan was about a character much like himself: "Someone filled with a kind of idealistic hope about what could be done about the future of the country and the world, who saw all these dreams bit by bit be dismantled by subsequent political events."

In his 20s, Auster published his own essays, poems, and translations. A strange event in 1980 led to his first novel.

"I was living alone in Brooklyn. And I did receive a telephone call," he recalled. "And the person on the other end asked if he had reached the Pinkerton Agency. And, of course, I said no and hung up. But after the second or third time, I said, well, what if I said Yes? And that was the genesis of the novel."

The story of that novel, City of Glass,is set in motion when the main character, a detective fiction writer named Quinn, gets a late night phone call:

The writer in the novel takes on the identity of the detective, who sets out to solve the mystery of "what is reality?" He was sometimes criticized for the bizarre coincidences in his work, but the events of his life, he said, outstripped the implausibility in his fiction.

"When I was about 13 or 14 years old and, I was off at a summer camp, and we got caught in a storm. And a boy standing next to me was killed by a bolt of lightning. Dropped dead. Struck down by the sky. I think maybe that informs my work more than any book I have ever read," he explained.

Auster also wrote and co-directed a handful of independent films. He was never at a loss for words. In 2017, he published an 880-page novel called 4 3 2 1 that told the story of one main character in four different versions, in alternating chapters. When he finished that book, he decided to take a break from fiction, so he began writing a 780-page biography of 19th century author Stephen Crane.

"I have tried in my books to turn myself inside out as much as possible," he said. "And not to hide behind style, tricks — whatever you might call it."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Corrected: May 1, 2024 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story indicated that Paul Auster was born in 1937. He was born in 1947.
Tom Vitale