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Last Updated: Monday, 2 February, 2004, 14:30 GMT
Oracle Night
Paul Auster's latest novel Oracle Night is a story within a story.

(Edited highlights of the panel's review taken from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight Review.)


KIRSTY WARK:
A strange New York fairy tale. Writing about writing, Julie Myerson, as you know probably, is a very, very difficult trick to pull.

JULIE MYERSON:
Yes, I mean usually I think it's a bit of a no-no. There are so many novels where there is a writer in it, it doesn't work. But it was fantastic, this did work. I think I have read almost all of Auster, and this is the best thing he's ever done for me. I think the reason it worked better than usual, I do love all of his stuff, but this one was less cerebral or more rooted in reality. You believed in the relationship this man Sydney had with his wife Grace. The story he started writing within it, you usually think no, because you are going to have to skip those bits because they're boring. In fact you get just involved in the story he's writing. It pulls you in and it's devastating when he stops it.

KIRSTY WARK:
He does stop it. There's a slight worry he gets to this Alice in Wonderland point of the room within rooms and then the story stops. You wonder, is that deliberate or did Paul Auster just have a bit of a problem?

SIR JOHN TUSA:
Yes, well by the end I think I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I thought it was extraordinarily clever, very, very ingenious. Although you have to keep your bits about you as you read, I think it's quite extraordinarily clear. And after all, when it's a novel within a novel within a novel, I think it's only three or three-and-a- half, then you have all of the elements of magic, the disappearing Chinese shop, he himself seems to disappear sometimes, the magic quality of the notebook, one of the characters in one of the sub- books, I forget which it is, who is blind and who can foretell the future, somehow or another it ought not to work, but I think there's a clarity of his style which for me kept it very, very clear and absolutely compelling.

KIRSTY WARK:
What about that half story? Because what it is is as if the footnotes themselves become part of the choreography of the book, an enormous amount of footnotes.

TOM PAULIN:
It belongs to a genre, there's a poetic genre like this which is about not being able to write. This is in a way a symbolist prose poem about writing. Its source is a Henry James story, The Private Life, about a great writer who is invisible when he is writing and creates a double of himself. But I kept thinking, what's going on here? I didn't believe in the sexual relationship, the marriage, and the way he describes the woman as having heart-stopping beauty as being a fetching creature, full of clichés like that. I liked it to begin with. I thought, yes, this could be a Borgesean story about the duplicity of the imagination, what it's like to be a writer on the margins always, who is somehow free but not really existing. But then I thought, no, he's lost it, it doesn't work, it can't work, it's a disaster.

KIRSTY WARK:
Julie, but you know better than anyone else here Paul Auster's work. And the criticism about him generally is that he does return to the same themes time and again. In a sense, he is creating different versions of the same book.

JULIE MYERSON:
Almost all writers do that I think most of the time. But I mean, no, I disagree. I think what Paul Auster can sometimes do, I think, is begin something so well, set something up so fantastically, he almost has nowhere to go. You could argue he does that with the story within a story, although I didn't mind this. This book, I agree with what John was saying, almost everything he does in it, every trick he plays, there's a point to it. It takes you somewhere that is worth going. I just believed in every word of it. Also, it's a terribly readable book. We must make that clear. It's a book you don't want to put down.

SIR JOHN TUSA:
I think that dead end is so blatant, he could not have got himself into that dead end...

KIRSTY WARK:
It's a dead end where there is nowhere else to go.

SIR JOHN TUSA:
By accident. Absolutely not.

TOM PAULIN:
But this is really saying, this is like the novel by the other author that the central character loses on the subway; "Actually, this is an abandoned draft I have written up". It's full of fake moments where you don't quite believe the excuse he gives to his wife because he goes out on a Saturday morning leaving her for the entire day. It's such a weak excuse you think "I am meant to think this is a weak excuse, chime the Chinaman running the shop", I don't believe in him. What he is saying is, "no, you don't believe in it, this is a fiction, it's fake. And I am recycling something I abandoned years ago. Here it is. I am giving it a go".

SIR JOHN TUSA:
It's terribly clever. It's beautifully put together.

JULIE MYERSON:
He's a man who's been very, very ill and clearly almost died. His state of mind is slightly different. He also writes that state of mind so well.

TOM PAULIN:
But he's thick and also a very boring fellow. How does this beautiful woman love this guy? I thought he is such a tedious fellow.

KIRSTY WARK:
You often have problems with that, very boring men falling in love with beautiful women.

JULIE MYERSON:
He doesn't say she's beautiful. That's absolutely wrong. He says, he explains, I wish I could quote it. He explains how he found her incredibly beautiful but how she was actually very ordinary looking. That it was for him that she was beautiful.

SIR JOHN TUSA:
You ought to love... look, Julie does that, OK. But you two, it's words. And he says words can kill. Words are too important not to be trusted. There's a key section, that's what the book is about, isn't it?

JULIE MYERSON:
It's about writers believing their work can be so powerful and it's about that whole business, can it be true?

KIRSTY WARK:
We'll have to leave it there. Oracle Night by Paul Auster is published by Faber.


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