October 6, 2008

Dejected By a Literary Idol Lost


It is a truth universally acknowledged that the person you sit next to at dinner can change your life. Jane Austen's heroines knew it: they spent half their lives ironing their lace and sharpening their wits to captivate whichever man might sit next to them, sipping on soup. Carla Bruni knew it: after asking her host to seat her beside someone "free" (the modern girl's equivalent of "a single man in possession of a good fortune"), she ended up marrying the President of France.

My friend and I played our own version of Top Dinner Date as we waited at a Fendalton Road bus stop. Avid students of English literature, we were less concerned with landed gentry or diminutive politicians than with writers. In the long chilly time before the bus, we mulled over which living writer would most deeply affect us, should we be fortunate enough to share a dinner table with them and exchange literary chit-chat.

Only when the bus roared up, to carry us away to lecture halls resonant with lofty ambition and Lord Byron, did we cast our final votes. Usually, having recently emerged from intense readings of The New York Trilogy, we plumped for Paul Auster. Clever but not a smarty-pants, post-modern but not opaque, self-referential but not smug, he was the ideal writer with whom to chew the (perhaps literal) fat. Besides, Auster's author photo displayed a dashingly handsome man - hardly your typical male writer, in constant danger of the socks-with- Roman-sandals or food-in-beard scenario. Auster was a modern-day Mr Darcy, minus the arrogance.

Even later, after the romantic poetry dust had fallen from our eyes, we keenly followed Auster's career. By then we considered it improbable that one conversation with the man would prove life- changing. I'd been writing for long enough to realise that famous writers rarely offer better advice than non-famous writers or fools, while my friend had left the book world for a less perilous career and was now more likely to dine with Alan Greenspan than a New York novelist.

Nonetheless, we continued to relish Auster: his succinct phrasing, his polish, his clever narrative twists. When, this week, he came to Berlin to show a film he'd both written and directed, my friend also flew into town. Shoulder to shoulder, we watched him stride down the aisle: older, still handsome, startlingly familiar from our dinner-gaming sessions at a Christchurch bus stop. As the lights dimmed, my friend muttered darkly about Paul's wife Siri, suggesting her long-term enthusiasm was as much fuelled by a handsome face as a handsome writing style.

It's a truth universally acknowledged that 93 minutes can seem like a day and a night when your literary idol is proving himself less than competent in an unfamiliar field. The theatre collectively slumped; my friend fanned herself with an overly large potato chip. "How can anyone write so well, yet blunder so atrociously in film?" she hissed, sounding like a Regency girl disappointed in love.

When the lights rose, Auster also rose. He spoke far more wittily than his dullard movie characters; his bearing was more imposing than that of his actors, his take on life sharper than his camera angles. Yet question time remained the kind of wasteland that makes chair-people sweat at night.

For it's a truth universally acknowledged that, when one's role- model strays off to a place where his feet are made of clay, one is too dejected to query why he ventured there in the first place. My friend chewed impassively as Auster left the stage. "Thank God we don't need to have dinner with him," she said, through stale crumbs.

(c) 2008 Press, The; Christchurch, New Zealand. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.