Insights drawn from Auster’s work have concrete societal relevance for instance regarding political and social strategies of coping with violence or our obsession with the body in a world where the population grows steadily older (micro level) and indeed regarding the mechanisms by which an oeuvre such as this may enable a more nuanced understanding of the transfer of ethical, political and aesthetic principles across borders (macro level).
Each of the five thematic clusters sketched below provides a set of perspectives on the specific material (Auster’s work) and its impact (global culture) and together they constitute the Library Network’s research profile.
The voice of the author as his own critic everywhere accompanies Auster’s work, metafictively commenting on the mechanisms of writing. Importantly, it never assumes authority over the text nor will it presume to have superior understanding or ‘better’ truths, but rather, it provides a perspective at once external to the story and perfectly integrated into the texture of the narrative (Auster&Siegumfeldt). This dialectical force instills a substratum of ambiguity and indeterminacy in the textual universe which sets Auster’s work apart from conventional literary narratives as it invites the reader to participate in the effort to ‘make sense’ of the story. In this way, meaning-making is wrested from the hands of the conventional Author and laid in the hands of the Recipient – thus predicating the aesthetic process and product of literature on democratic principles.
These self-reflexive features combined with Auster’s penchant for ambiguity have propelled central discussions in literary theory and criticism over the past two or three decades (Butler, Donovan, Herzogenrath, Martin, Russell, Shiloh) and are categorized as part and parcel of central ideas in postmodern literary and film studies, gender and memory studies. Importantly, the effect of Auster’s insistence on the plurality of meaning, his inscription of difference, the inclusion of the reader and his deliberate reliance on the participation of the audience play directly into current debates on democratization and inclusion of the other.
These are, we propose, important features by way of which this particular body of writing has become a powerful vehicle of globalization.
Auster’s work plays into the Western literary and cinematic canons and draws extensively on his own middle-class American background: secular but informed by Jewish thought and history. They engage ever more critically with American politics: the coming-of-age of the individual and the nation concur as the developments into maturity of orphaned protagonists mirror parallel developments of the United States. These ‘frontier novels’ (Peacock) explore virgin territory in the self and in political, historical and geographical landscapes with iconic formative events featuring centre stage from the mythical Wild West, Wall Street crash, moonlanding, Vietnam war, to the terrorist attack of 9/11. Violence is explicitly intertwined with political reality in contemporary literature, and Auster draws heavily on the American tradition of civil disobedience to create contexts for resistance (Ford) that inform figures of dissent.
New York inhabits Auster’s literary and cinematic work as a global metropolis (Brown), a place of opportunities and anxieties where characters attempt to ‘disalienate’ (Jameson) their urban experience and ‘re-enchant’ (Robbins) the American urban space. We will look to Auster’s practices of storytelling to see how narration may transcend the limits of spatial and temporal experience to encompass diverse histories and geographies of both inner and external terrain.
Parallels between American and Jewish heritage recur as biblical fable and rabbinic hermeneutics are inscribed in the narratives (Auster&Siegumfeldt). Reflection on Jewish philosophy of language marks the oeuvre, (Rubin, Hugonnier) and we must test the proposition that Auster’s work is haunted “by the Jewish attitude toward writing: to witness, to remember, to play divine and utterly serious textual games” (Finkelstein) to see how the experience of difference and non-belonging may serve as a model for the modern novel in a climate of global migration and diaspora.
Auster’s prose is greatly enriched by the “enormous sense of relief” he experienced when he “finally understood that the word is approximate: it can't capture the world, but it's still the only tool we have.” (Auster&Siegumfeldt), and so, the rift between language and object informs the entire oeuvre which inevitably persists in obsessively probing the limits of representation.
This linguistic awareness in Auster’s work has increasingly prompted studies in cognitive studies and philosophy of language but the interdependency of language production and bodily movement is yet to be addressed. The inter-connection between verbal and physical communication, for instance in the mechanical movements of a feral child and the embodiment of letters invoking the tragedy of post-lapsarian language (1985), later recast in the kinetic eloquence of silent movie comedy (2002), and indeed through recent portraits of ailing and ageing male protagonists for whom difficulties with language and physical impairment mirror one another. Thus, the emerging fields of geronto literature and disability studies (Simonsen, Davis, Harper, Mitchell, Rooke, Siebers) draw on Auster’s portraits of people weakened by mental or physical impairments as a source of knowledge and insight into the emotional landscapes of people who are ailing, ageing and grieving.
Self narration is prominent in the entire body of Auster’s writing. In the more memoirs, the narration is given completely over to a strangely evocative second person narrative perspective. This unusual vantage point enables the speaker to tell the stories of himself in a vocative form which exactly mirrors the material he is working with: the writer addressing aspects of himself in the course of retrieving memories which are consolidated by emotion. (Athanasiou, Clough, Gregg, Sedgwick)
We will use Auster’s work here as a platform for studying the nature and effect of the writing subject’s relation to his/her object through shifting narrative perspectives and look at the ways in which we portray multiple aspects of ourselves and others –not just on the page but also in pictures and through physical movement: film, painting and drawing, photography, acting and dancing.
As an important formative factor in the development of any writer, the act of translation is written into both theme and structure of several of Auster’s narratives. Some of his books have been translated into more than 40 languages and thus, as a body of world literature, they constitute a unique corpus of parallel texts which invites studies in contrastive linguistics and stylistics in modern literary translation. Likewise, his films have been subtitled and dubbed into a number of languages. An important task of this Library is therefore to collect a corpus of his translated works – both in audiovisual format, in various electronic forms and in hard copy – and, with the permission of publishers and film distributors worldwide, make it available to scholars, teachers, students and translators. The strategic platform, “Translation: Actors, Processes and Outcomes” (Gottlieb, Hvelplund & Jansen) at the Department of English, German and Romance Studies, Copenhagen University, will provide a home for this work. We hope that this international, multilingual and multimedia Auster corpus – with its potential for systematic analyses of the differences and similarities in translational approaches across languages and translation modes – will serve as a model for future archives of translated works. Most corpora of parallel texts stem from the political arena or concern scientific areas.
A corpus such as the one we aim to establish is thus original both in content and scope. The parallel corpus, consisting – we hope – of all translations of Auster’s works will function as an infra-structure for the transdisciplinary work on his themes and techniques. At the same time, it will provide an indispensable tool for translation studies focusing on the craft of the author. In view of the fact that material relating to the various Auster works, film adaptations, television programmes, analyses, interview data – even reader response data, will be accumulated in the corpus, the importance of documenting one of the world’s most influential oeuvres in this way will be an invaluable asset for the Library.
Scholars, students and other identified interested parties may obtain access to the Auster Archive with different levels of restriction. It is hoped that the Center will thus meet the international call for “a much-needed framework for reading translation's effect on fictional works […] and visual media.” (Walkowitz)