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In Denmark, US writer Paul Auster’s death is keenly felt




The death of New York-based novelist Paul Auster, aged 77, on 30 April is being felt as a massive loss for his many readers in Europe, and notably in Denmark, where he had a significant number of readers, close ties with academia and a research library named after him.

Many readers look upon Auster as more than a novelist. He is seen as a deep thinker who addressed both human existential questions and the many problems of the modern world. His ability to formulate problems combining both rational argument and deep feeling hit the mark for a growing audience worldwide.

Auster graduated with a bachelor of arts and a masters degree in literature from Columbia University in New York, where he was arrested, along with hundreds of other students, for participating in the anti-Vietnam war protests in 1968. After his masters, he spent several years in France where he translated French literature into English.

Popular in France

Moving back to the United States in 1974, he started to publish his own novels and translations of French authors.

Auster is the author of over 30 books which have been translated into more than 40 languages. Some of his books are sold in the supermarkets of France.

“The first thing you hear as you approach an Auster reading, anywhere in the world, is French. Merely a bestselling author in these parts, Auster is a rock star in Paris,” the Intelligencer magazine wrote in 2007.

Revered in Denmark

In Denmark, he is also respected. In 2020 on Forfatterweb (authors’ web) journalist Niels Vestergaard wrote: “Paul Auster has a huge place in the heart of Danish book lovers, and the love is reciprocal. Several of his latest novels have arrived at Danish bookstores before coming to US bookstores – or in any other country in the world.”

At the University of Copenhagen there is a special Paul Auster Research Library, which issues a Paul Auster newsletter. There is also a Paul Auster Society and Auster had a special collaboration with the university’s Professor Inge B Siegumfeldt.

Paul Auster’s A Life in Words, a dialogue between Auster and Siegumfeldt published in 1971, brought together two years of conversations about Auster’s fiction and non-fiction.

Honorary alumnus

In May 2011, Auster was awarded the title of honorary alumnus at the University of Copenhagen in recognition of his work that “attracts general readers as well as academics in great numbers, but also for the special connection he has formed with his large Danish audience: Auster has released six of his novels in Denmark in advance of their publication in English”, according to the Study in Denmark site.

At the ceremony, former university rector Ralf Hemmingsen characterised Auster as “a university man”, comparing the author’s habit of being glued to the desk several hours a day with that of a researcher.

When his last novel Baumgartner was published in the fall of 2023, his first in six years, Denmark was chosen for the launch.

A ‘loss for readers around the world’

On his death, the Paul Auster Society issued a statement which described Auster as “one of the greatest writers of the past half century” and his death as “a great loss for American literature and for his millions of devoted readers around the world”.

A few days before Auster’s death, the society had hosted a colloquium on the opening lines in Auster’s novels.

“Auster knew about the colloquium, and was very interested in the discussion of first lines. We talked about how endings are also beginnings in Auster’s fiction. We talked about how his last novel, Baumgartner, ends with the promise of renewal, with the possibility of an exciting future.

“It is poignant to recall these discussions now that the author is no longer with us.”

Auster also participated regularly in the Louisiana lectures arranged at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art outside Copenhagen in August each year, and several recordings of the presentations have been published.

Freedom of speech

Auster was also a member of PEN America, the non-profit organisation whose goal is to raise awareness for the protection of free expression in the United States and worldwide through the advancement of literature and human rights. Auster was on the board of trustees from 2004 to 2009 and its vice-president from 2005 through 2007.

In keeping with his stance on human rights and freedoms, in 2012, Auster said in an interview that he would not visit Türkiye in protest at its treatment of writers, journalists and independent publishers. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan replied: “As if we need you! Who cares if you come, or not?”

A ‘writer’s writer’

On the occasion of his death, Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, said that in addition to shaping the worldviews of generations of Americans through his “bracing and beloved” novels, Paul Auster was “a writer’s writer”, consistently standing in solidarity with authors in China, Iran, Russia and around the world who were persecuted for what he was able to do freely: exercise his imagination and tell stories.

“A dean of New York City’s literary community, he was a friend and mentor to many and a treasured colleague and stalwart supporter of PEN America and writers in need everywhere. They joined other members of the literary community in PEN America’s event in support of Salman Rushdie after the horrific attempt on his life in 2022.”

‘Beautiful words’

In a statement on his death, the Paul Auster Research Library said Auster’s work had for half a century “delighted readers around the globe across divisions of age, gender, ethnicity, social class, religion”.

It noted that one of the reasons his books and films were so loved was because Auster “cared deeply about his characters”.

“Auster found it strange to think that his characters would live on after he was gone. But they will. The words remain. Auster’s beautiful words.”

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