The two women hurried to finish their cigarettes on the steps of Housing Works bookstore last night, exchanging excited, quick trills in French: Paul Auster was about to arrive in person. This was not surprising: The first thing you hear as you approach an Auster reading, anywhere in the world, is French. Merely a best-selling author in these parts, Auster is a rock star in Paris. He is a subject of picture books — one, called Paul Auster’s New York, contains photos of locales from le maître’s novels — regarded as an official ambassador of authentic New Yorkiness, alongside Woody Allen. And a quick scan of the fans who turned out for a reading from his new novel, Travels in the Scriptorium, suggested a similar ardor can be found in many foreign countries.
Translated into 30 languages, Auster must (to quote Vidal on Vonnegut) “lose something in the original.” The crowd gathered at Housing Works was an unusual one for a literary reading: For one thing, everyone was extremely stylish. For another, English was almost everyone’s second language. Marta, from Barcelona, and Arturo, from Colombia, became fans reading Auster in Spanish; Arturo has just graduated to the original Oracle Night while Marta’s favorite is “Le-via-TAN.” Willowy Nadia has read the entire oeuvre in Bulgarian: “Even the last one is already translated,” she said. Scriptorium came out in the United States just six weeks ago; Bulgarian translators must be working on Auster in teams.
As the author appeared, wearing a shirt the French would describe as fraise under a navy sweater, a visible jolt went through the crowd. Auster began with a short unpublished piece from 1999, about home ownership and homelessness. In the evening’s context, the essay took on an explanatory tinge: “As with everything else in America, it comes down to the question of money,” he read. “Wealth creates poverty. That’s the secret equation of the market economy.” The international fans nodded, their worst images of America confirmed — and, at the same time, negated — by the handsome, casually brilliant speaker. Autographed tomes in hand, the crowd dissipated, all polite half-smiles. New York can be a great place if you know where to go; in two weeks, most are planning to reconvene at the MoMA premiere of Auster’s new film.