Securing such an elusive American literary giant as Paul Auster, who has rarely appeared in the UK was a thrilling coup by the Oxford Literary Festival and attracted a large audience to the Sheldonian Theatre for this preview event.
Auster is an iconic figure in American fiction, the author of sixteen novels, and the winner of many literary prizes. His distinguished output including Winter Journal, Sunset Park, Invisible, The Book of Illusions and The New York Trilogy have been recognised by membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and his publications and translations of French poetry have conferred on him a Commandeur del'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Married to the author Siri Hustvedt, the couple are reported to have been offered a modelling contract by Gap as the epitome of metropolitan cool, and Auster's voice, which he describes as 'like a piece of sandpaper rasping over roof shingle' was now about to be heard in Oxford, reading from his new book 4321.
Introduced by the literary critic Boyd Tonkin, who warned the audience from the outset that there would be no questions from the floor, Tonkin handed over to the main man. Auster declared the Sheldonian 'the most beautiful room for giving a reading I have ever been in.' With this courteous beginning, Auster gave a brief summary of the book. The large fan base of all ages filling the Sheldonian were doubtless aware of Auster's frequent themes of identity and personal meaning, coincidence, inconsistency and contradiction. The books's protagonist Archibald Isaac Ferguson – born in New Jersey in 1947 of Russian-Jewish parentage – had not one narrative but four. While all Fergusons shared 'the same parents, the same bodies, and the same genetic material', and all loved the same woman Amy Schneiderman, their lives thanks to chance and circumstance take different directions.
Selecting two contrasting passages, Auster then read for half an hour. Was it the acoustics, sitting high up in the gallery, or was it Auster's fabled voice, or perhaps it was the prose itself drawn from 864 pages that was too fine-grained to be concentrated on for that long without a break? The rest of the time was spent in conversation with Tonkins, who skilfully drew out several thrilling anecdotes which demonstrated why Auster has the huge global following he enjoys.
It was a pity that the audience was not able to ask a single question, and that Auster left immediately – without signing a single book, or from where I was sitting, not engaging with a single fan. Having each paid between £12.50 and £15.00 for a ticket, was I the only one thinking that such a privileged hour cut both ways?