There is something surreal about eating the same soup as Paul Auster. All of a sudden, the intangible, enigmatic, almost disembodied author, whose books I read, whose films I watch and whose activities I follow in the media, is scooping mashed potatoes (and soup) on his plate (not the one that had the soup) at the “grubby little place” (his words, not mine) next to the House of the Estates in Helsinki and ranting enthusiastically about Beckett. Such encounters are, of course, one of the somewhat nerve-racking benefits of studying a living author.
At the turn of August and September 2017, the Finnish Society of Sciences and Letters organized a two-day seminar in honour of Finland’s centenary, titled Open Windows: Democracy, Censorship, Literature. As an avid defender of freedom of expression, a former Vice President of PEN America (2005-2007) and a member of its Board of Trustees (2004-2009), Paul Auster was a most suitable guest of honour.
The seminar begun with Professor Bo Pettersson interviewing Auster on, among other things, his latest novel 4 3 2 1. What struck me the most was the calm yet enthusiastic way Auster approached every question, the passion with which he engaged his work and life in general, the way his speech flowed as eloquently as his writing. I hadn’t really thought what he would be like, but in hindsight, he could not have been more Paul Auster.
The seminar continued with Auster reading passages from 4 3 2 1, but unfortunately he could not stay for the rest of the first day’s presentations. The five or so days he spent in Finland were packed with interviews and other engagements, and he further claimed that the one-month-nine-countries tour would be his last of the kind.
Writing a novel is a political act, even if the writer is not conscious of it. Novels are about ordinary lives; authors get to enter the lives of the most ordinary people in the most intimate ways. Literature and writing are, therefore, democratic acts, because even the smallest of lives matter. Literature is a defence against tyranny; in connecting the reader with those who are not yourself, literature creates and teaches empathy. Novels are democracy in action.
This manifesto was accompanied by applause, and I’m sure I witnessed a few in the audience discreetly dab tears from the corners of their eyes.
Text and photos by Ira Hansen