Paul Auster returns with an XXL biography on Stephen Crane, a forgotten classic of American literature who lived dangerously, wrote about the disenfranchised, and became estranged from Randolph Hearst and Roosevelt.
- Paul Auster: “Trump has us exhausted”
It is likely that the Spanish reader (with the exception of the lover of the war genre) has not heard much about Stephen Crane, the latest obsession of Paul Auster. The author of New York Triloga go back to bookstores with The Immortal Flame by Stephen Crane (Seix Barral), a marathon and ultra-enthusiastic biography of almost a thousand pages on a gifted writer, the first American modernist, a precocious, adventurous and fiery hustler who wrote works such as The Red Badge of Courage, the only novel about the civil war that still counts before dying at the age of 28, when the twentieth century has just opened. Crane is the American response to Keats and Shelley, Schubert and Mozart, assures Auster, who is already immersed in his next project: an essay on the use of weapons in his country.
I was exhausted after my previous novel and one summer when I was home alone I began to reread all of his work. Some of his books seemed like masterpieces to me. He is a genius, but today no one reads Stephen Crane, he is a very absent presence in the United States. And I want people to read it again because it is a treasure, someone who changed the course of literature. Also, I was surprised because he embodies one of the characters from 4,3,2,1, is the fifth Ferguson! We were both born in Newark.
In what way did literature change?
It came very close to existentialism. He described a world without gods in which man wonders what is the purpose of life. I understood that we are nothing, insects on a huge planet. I found sense in human connections. And it was very radical: it threw all the conventions of nineteenth-century literature out the window, all those filler descriptions. In his most famous novel, The Red Badge of Courage, which is about the American Civil War, he does not once mention slavery, who they fight or why. It is a book about fear, about any war. Without him there would be no Hemingway. He was angry and was the first to say: we are doing everything wrong. As a reader, it shakes you up. You can’t snuggle up to read Crane with a blanket like you would Dickens, Balzac, or Tolstoy. Everything is curved.
In the book he describes the golden age of the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, but also its reverse.
Like many other countries, the United States tends to create myths about itself and to put aside the less glorious past. Crane immediately understood the world in which he lived: that of the forging of great fortunes and a great gap between rich and poor, the same that we have returned in the last 50 years. We have returned to the trenches of the most outdated capitalism, leaving the market to dominate everything. We have destroyed our society just as it was destroyed then, although then there was still hope. Hence the strikes.
That they were very repressed.
It is that the United States is a violent place. Although the working class has never wanted to overthrow the system, the repression was more violent than in Europe in the 19th century. Crane understood how poverty degrades you, how generation after generation being poor makes you foolish, selfish and cowardly. But he was not a political activist, he stayed on the sidelines. He watched. His search was the truth, he criticized everyone, and that is very interesting to me. Writers are not politicians. We give our best when we analyze the whole of society and for that it is necessary to stay on the sidelines, in a kind of internal exile.
He wasn’t exactly a saint.
It was absolutely contradictory: he knew what was the right way to act, but he avoided responsibilities, he gambled, he spent too much … and I think he understood that he was going to die soon. He wanted to cling to life in the most ardent way possible and hence his fascination for gambling, cards, games of chance … in his life luck is very clear as the force that dominates the universe.
In the book he explains that he wrote it in a dark time.
I was referring to the rise of the far right, the erosion of democracies in the West, and the rise of Trump. This country is crazy and now more than ever. What can be said about Trump and what his party has become, about those crazy people who wanted to kill the Democratic leaders? We also see it in the pandemic: more than 25% of adults do not want to be vaccinated. We have outbreaks and 2,000 people are dying a day when we have the tools to fight it. We live in times of absolute madness. I don’t know what’s going to happen and I’m still perplexed, worried, sometimes optimistic and other times very, very pessimistic.
How about Biden?
He was not my favorite, I have always had mixed thoughts about him but I think he has done very well so far, he is being a good president. Understand the greatness of this moment. He wants to change society for the better, the problem is that the Democratic majority is very small in the Senate and that makes things difficult. There is very important pending legislation, we do not know if it will go ahead. There are days when I have hope and days when I see everything very black.
How have you lived the 9/11 anniversary?
Everything we can do wrong we did wrong. I understand why the United States felt the need to go to Afghanistan in 2001 and try to finish off Al-Qaeda. But we should have left after the Taliban fell three or four months later. The mission was not to rebuild Afghan society, that is not our business. Afghanistan is an ungovernable place, a tribal culture, to impose some idea of democracy, which we also did not do, does not make sense. It was wasting time. It still amazes me that the country and Congress followed Bush’s Axis of Evil narrative. A year after the attack, in 2002, they asked me for a text. I wrote that going to Iraq seemed like a planetary disaster to me. It was obvious. American arrogance and stupidity have caused so much trouble, so many hundreds of thousands of lives lost, torture, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, the creation of ISIS … we created a deadly nightmare. It’s our fault. So getting out of Afghanistan is good, I don’t know what we were painting there. Although there are aspects of the withdrawal that could have been done better.
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