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Book Review: ‘Baumgartner,’ by Paul Auster



These early pages showcase some gorgeous passages about his wife. There’s a startling little piece written by her about her first love. And later, one about how she and Sy met and eventually decided to marry. The pieces read like time capsules for cultural moments like New York in the 1970s or the anguish of the Vietnam draft, and they are some of the more memorable and touching sections of the novel.

Sy contemplates new love. He turns out to be less old and frail than he seemed, and attempts a second spring. But, as in all things:

He realizes that the advancing afternoon has moved a bit more rapidly than he had thought, that the moment will soon be coming when the sun declines into an even more acute angle and the world it shines upon will be bathed in a spectral beauty of glowing, breathing things that will slowly dim and vanish into darkness when night falls.

With this, the novel begins to lose some of its urgency. Let’s call it a lull between chapters for Sy, though his final chapter is unclear. The novel doesn’t tell us where he’s going, settling instead for irresolution and ambiguity. Still, Auster leaves us with two closing metaphors for where Sy has been.

The first reiterates that grief is an inner conflict that annihilates your mind, your heart, leaving behind only the wolves of memory, trolling for ways to stay alive. The second comes in the guise of what might well be Sy’s last book, a thought experiment that uses the automobile as a proxy for “individual and collective human life”: mechanics, breakdowns, anarchy and the end of self-determination. The project is less hokey than it sounds, and it does get at how frantically Sy tries to find purchase and purpose in what may be the twilight of his time as a man of letters and an arbiter of how we are meant to make sense of the world.

There are a lot of books out there about grief, and it’s hard to say what kind of conversation “Baumgartner” is having with them — every grief is its own. Still, Sy’s experience puts me in mind of C.S. Lewis, who at 61 lost his wife to cancer, and who wrote about the loss in “A Grief Observed.” This was before Elisabeth Kübler-Ross codified grief into a famous five-stage model that’s been the subject of debate ever since. This was just one human groping his way forward, without a map. As Lewis put it: “Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.” “Baumgartner,” for its quiet and thoughtful meandering, reads the same way.