Paul Auster, Brian Eno, and ambient writing

It’s grey and raining in Boston today. My calendar says it’s mid-June, but the chill feels like November. So I sit in my beautiful and bizarre brick house (pictured above — well, that’s actually an 18th-century Piranesi etching, but close enough), drink tea, and read books.

I read the entirety of Paul Auster’s 1997 collection The Art of Hunger before I went to sleep last night. It’s a dense anthology of literary criticism, interviews, and hazy, enchanting recollections. The criticism is mostly of books and poetry of the French persuasion. Auster got his start as a writer by translating French books into English, and French figures loom large over his life.

This particular passage reminded me a lot of Brian Eno’s approach to ambient music, which grew increasingly minimal and textural as the ’70s progressed:

“The one thing I try to do in all my books is to leave enough room in the prose for the reader to inhabit it. Because I finally believe it’s the reader who writes the book and not the writer…

In reading a book like Pride and Prejudice, for example, I realized at a certain point that all events were set in the house I grew up in as a child. No matter how specific a writer’s description of a place might be, I always seem to twist it into something I’m familiar with … I think this probably has a lot to do with one’s relation to language, how one responds to words printed on a page. Whether the words are just symbols, or whether they are passageways into our unconscious.

There’s a way in which a writer can do too much, overwhelming the reader with so many details that he no longer has any air to breathe. Think of a typical passage in a novel. A character walks into a room. As a writer, how much of that room do you want to talk about? The possibilities are infinite. You can give the color of the curtains, the wallpaper pattern, the objects on the coffee table, the reflection of the light in the mirror. But how much of this is really necessary?”

One thought on “Paul Auster, Brian Eno, and ambient writing

  1. mike

    it is always the viewer/listener that brings a piece to life – completes it… i think this is part of what makes it frustrating for artists that don’t receive recognition – besides the other reasons of course, economic, need for validation – without being seen a work is not completed….


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