Magazine article The Spectator

A Master of Prepositions

Magazine article The Spectator

A Master of Prepositions

Article excerpt

THE ART OF HUNGER by Paul Auster Faber, 9.99, pp. 395

Paul Auster loves the word `of. Its utility belies its tiny size: the OED entry sprawls over six whole pages. For a writer like Auster, this normally invisible word is a powerful aid to mental legerdemain, a conjuring prop. He uses it obsessively, both in his novel titles and in this new collection's recurring trope: The Art of Hunger, `an art of life', `an art of death', `an art of solitude'. It never definitively means either `particular to' or `made from', either 'having' or `with regard to'; it hovers between them all with ambiguous magic. It is almost enough to make one avoid the word completely.

Fondly though he cherishes it, however, Auster is also frightened that all words might be like `of: signifying nothing except shifting relations between other words. Indeed, in these essays on poets and novelists, mostly written in the 1970s before he turned to fiction, he returns helplessly, like a mouse on a wheel, to language's supposed failure to connect with reality. `How to speak what cannot be spoken,' he wonders: the world is always 'unknowable'.

He has no compunction, even so, about making large truth claims. Here he is, being cheeky with `of again. `No writer has asked more of words than Laura Riding.' Does that cute `of mean 'about' or 'from'? One might in refutation cite Racine for using so few words that each acquires symphonic resonance; conversely, one might nod at Shakespeare just for using so many, or at Wittgenstein for interrogating them with his unquenchable, doggy fury. But what Auster likes in a poet is exactly what Riding provides: parables about how perilous and difficult writing poetry is. Perhaps he welcomes this message all the more because his own poems were not great.

As a critic, Auster makes a fascinating embryonic novelist. One senses his heart does not pump faster for the close prosodic struggle. In another piece on Laura Riding, he writes glibly that her poetry is characterised by `the unexpected juxtaposition of words', as if most poetry did not juxtapose words unexpectedly. About Celan's stunning 'Todesfugue', he writes: `The poem is literally a fugue composed of words.' No: it is that by analogy only; you cannot compose a fugue with words any more than you can write a novel with music. …

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