by Alastair Reid
January 5, 2004
“Isn’t there supposed to be a reading here in about twenty minutes?” I asked. . . . “It was cancelled,” the bartender said. “With all that slop out there today, there wouldn’t have been much point to it. Poetry’s a beautiful thing, but it’s hardly worth freezing your ass off for.”
This interchange takes place early in Paul Auster’s novel “Leviathan.” As his readers know, many small happenings in his novels have an uncanny prescience about them; and this one in particular seemed likely to be confirmed by reality the other day, when the first blizzard of winter blew in, muffling streets and minds. That afternoon, Paul Auster was to begin reading his new novel, “Oracle Night,” in its entirety, in two four-hour sessions, one on Saturday and one on Sunday, at the Paula Cooper Gallery, on West Twenty-first Street.
Close to the appointed hour, people straggled in from the outside whirl, with much stamping of boots and shedding of coats and scarves, entering the long upstairs gallery, warm and well lit, where a hundred and sixty chairs waited in silent rows. Bit by bit, they were taken over by occupants, who made small camps out of them, often clutching fresh copies of the novel, until some fifty expectant souls faced a small table, bearing only a microphone and a bottle of water. Jack Macrae, co-proprietor, with Paula Cooper, of 192 Books, the bookshop that was fathering the event, congratulated the members of the audience on their presence, explained the proceeding—a full reading, with a break every hour—and introduced Auster, who, tall and grave and dressed in gray, took his seat at the table, book in hand.
With little preamble, he began to read, in an even tone, holding the book in one hand, his eyes fixed on the page. Sometimes during the reading, his free hand would parse the prose with finger movements, like a miniature conductor. “Oracle Night” is written in the first person, which made it easy for the author to be its narrator; and, as the story began to unfold, its listeners settled into various postures of attention. A few of them were following the text from their copies of the book, perhaps in fear that the author might skip a paragraph, as small children do at bedtime. Others would occasionally reach for the book to find the place and single out a sentence to underline or just to remember. A number of others seemed turned to stone, statues with ears. One woman buried her head in an ample anorak, making a private darkness for herself.
The ten-minute intermissions were just enough for some people to change wavelengths. “Supposing this catches on, the way poetry readings did after Dylan Thomas,” one woman whispered. “Can you imagine? Tom Wolfe reading his new novel—a weeklong event.” But the novel called, the parenthesis closed, and the voice and the story unrolled.
There were comings and goings throughout—newcomers from the cold, arriving for a taste of the occasion, others leaving for their own Saturday nights. The audience swelled and ebbed, but all the seats were eventually sat in.
During the intermissions, the author moved about easily, signing a book, greeting a friend, as curious about the experiment as his listeners were: “You know, it’s not at all like a reading, where you read chosen passages. There you perform, you project the text, you look at the audience. Here I hardly look up, I’m reading the book as much to myself as to anyone else.”
Saturday gave way to Sunday, and the blizzard gave way to an afternoon of golden sun. A new audience assembled for the second half of the story, with a small knot of staunch listeners from the previous day who looked determined to listen to the last syllable. The text had turned into a whole landscape by now, and, as it entered the foothills of conclusion, attention tightened. Inevitably, Auster read the last sentence, closed the book, and stood to an applause that was a mixture of astonishment, exhilaration, and relief.