Music of chance – John Fleming on his encounters with Paul Auster

The expanse of the imagination

A jazz band plays backing to New York writers as they read in Manhattan’s Bottom Line. Summer 1997. Two performances: 7pm and 9pm.

Last Exit to Brooklyn author Hubert Selby Jr is onstage. Bass, percussion and woodwind punch out an audio portrait of his dark, tragic words. A survivor of multiple defeats, he conjures with childhood squalor and the melodramatic social realism of living memory. This is a fiction of foreboding and fatalism. He is a small man with a deeply human smile as the music peters out.

Next up: Paul Auster. The ascendant literary star of New York and making his mark with movies Smoke and Blue in the Face, he stands by the mic. Deep televisual bass strikes up with a stab of brass-necked brass: Auster reads. He reaches into the same city streets as Hubert Selby Jr but his grasp is different, his stories cast in another shade of light. Every character and event oozes potential – they can leap from the very facts of being fiction. Streets, corners, banal details of routine are all pumped with one promise: anything can happen.

The first session ends. Selby Jr says hello with a warm handshake. Auster is seated with a glass of white wine. Conversation strikes up: I tell him he once wrote to me in Dublin. He reveals he is considering Dublin as a location for a film with Harvey Keitel. We talk of the Ha’Penny Bridge. (A year or so later, Lulu on the Bridge is released replete with a Liffey plunge.) Auster buys me a drink. He greets a black-leather-jacketed man. It’s Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed. “Lou – this is John. John: Lou.” We shake hands. Auster is set for round two. This is just the interval of a high-calibre evening 27 years ago.


Paul Auster died last month at 77. I have read nearly all his books. I love the coincidence and themes that finer minds than mine deem repetitive flaws. He first came to my attention on an ITV arts show, The Other Side of Midnight, presented by Factory Records guru Tony Wilson. Auster read from his breakthrough novel Moon Palace (1989). Its sparse prose framed the mixed fortunes of a life against notions of infinity: the late-1960s American space programme and the moon landings, the cowboy myth of the West, the randomness of encounters, romanticised hunger and impossible wealth, the expanse of the imagination. The Invention of Solitude (1982), Leviathan (1992) and The New York Trilogy are masterworks: they are suffused with the idea writing is an illness, an addiction from which the truly cursed wish to be cured.

Dublin 1991. Stuck in a crack in my own unfolding existence, I was a leech on Waterstone’s wine-generous book readings by the likes of Fay Weldon, John McGahern and Peter Carey. On Dawson Street I glanced at the window. An A4 notice. A new book. The Music of Chance. Paul Auster was reading in the shop that evening.

I went home to collect something and returned by bus. The great writer was introduced. “Page 1 is as good a place as any to begin,” he said. Sipping wine, he retraced to square one the words written, breathing them out in arresting, bare-bone form. A tale of a driver, a hitchhiker, a game of poker, clownish lottery winners and luck running out. It featured the toil of rebuilding an ancient wall and the cruelty exacted for playing a losing hand. Afterwards I approached Auster nervously with an envelope containing my novel Catapult Elastic: “I would like to read your book.” We did a swap. As I left, I saw a woman dressed in pink. It was Siri Hustvedt, Auster’s wife. She was carrying my manuscript.

I read The Music of Chance that week and loved the way it showed fortunes can change overnight: it promoted the gravity of wild swings – from freedom to incarceration, from riches to rags, from start to finish.

One month later, a letter from Brooklyn arrived. A cut foolscap page of dense handwriting. “Dear Mr Fleming,” it began. “I have at last had time to read the manuscript you gave me in Dublin. And I must say I am impressed by…” I have redacted his words on grounds of false modesty. A great, vivid writer, Auster would become the king of east coast American cool as the 1990s passed into what seemed like darker times. He ended his letter thus: “Whatever happens and no matter how tough things might become and what people might say, keep going. Keep writing and never say die.” The last word was underlined. Paul Auster RIP.

John Fleming and The Prongs play a post-punk-music-lit show in the Button Factory in Dublin on Thursday, May 30th.