“Reading the City”: The concept of language in Paul Auster’s "City of Glass"

Seminar Paper, 2008
18 Pages, Grade: 2


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Short information about Paul Auster and his work

3. ‘Reading the City’ - urban spaces and their readability in Paul Auster’s City of Glass
3.1 Getting lost in the labyrinth New York - the concept of urban space and its impact on the main character
3.2 Urban space as a text

4. City of Glass as a detective story and the concept of language 10
4.1 City of Glass a classical detective story?
4.2 Language: Tool of the detective. Role and function of language in the novel

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography


Hunger, chance, disappearance and solitude are the central themes of Auster’s fiction.1 Sometimes these themes are easy to detect but in their core more complex as they seem to be on first sight.

With the New York Trilogy Paul Auster has created a powerful and deep going tripartite work which made him popular all over the world. In 1989, he received the Prix France Culture de Littérature Étrangère for this, his first novella and many other prices followed for other works he has published until now. City of Glass2 deals with reality and coincidence - failure and identity in the frame of a detective story. “It was a wrong number that started it”3 is the first sentence the reader detects when one begins to read the novel. A story about a writer named Quinn that used to be a quite talented writer. After he had lost his wife and son, he publishes detective stories under the pseudonym William Wilson. Isolated from his fellow humans Quinn gets involved into a sequence of events marked by chance and solitude. He accepts to work on a case as a detective after he had received a strange phone call asking for Paul Auster the famous detective. Quinn accepts the case and from now on works under the name of Paul Auster. Him and the caller Peter Stillman meet and Quinn gets to know the details of his work - he is to protect Peter from his father Mr. Stillman senior who as Peter’s wife thinks is planning to kill his son. This marks the beginning of Quinn’s long journey through New York City.

I have divided my paper into four main parts. I will start with a short information about Paul Auster and his works, which is to provide a general overview of his life in connection to his literary production .

My second point will focus on the picture of the city Paul Auster creates in City of Glass. A story playing within a city of despair and alienation. Auster plays with the reader’s conventions by telling the story in the form of a hard-boiled detective story and comments on the process of signification. This provides the basis for the third part of my paper. I want to look at the general structure of a classical detective story and the role of language within this genre. But which role does language play in Auster’s detective fiction? Is the function of language identical with one in the classical detective story? These are questions I want to look closer at. In he fourth and last part of my paper I want to provide a conclusion and look at the influence Auster’s life had on his work.

2.Short information about Paul Auster and his work

Paul Auster was born in Newark, New Jersey on 3 February 1947. His father was a landlord of Jewish origin who owned buildings in Jersey City and his mother worked as an interior decorator. He himself described the marriage between his parents as an unhappy one. Auster grew up with his little sister in the suburbs of Maplewood and South Orange.

His interest in literature began very early. After he had graduated from Columbia High School in Maplewood, which is about 20 miles from New York City, Auster visited different regions of Europe like Spain, Italy, Ireland and France. He returned to America and started studying literature at Columbia University. In an interview with the Guardian, he once said that he in a way fled from home; from the “stiflingly suburban”.4 His little sister suffered from a mental instability and as he said, “snapped in her 20s and has never put herself together”.5 In 1967, Paul Auster left to Paris to attend his Junior Year Abroad. During this time, he discovered his interest in French culture and literature but also his strong desire to write stories himself. This step in his life has to be seen in close connection to his uncle Allen Mandelbaum who provided young Auster with literature. He profited from his proximity when he started writing poems: “He was very hard on me, very strict, very good”.6 After coming back from his one year stay he graduated from Columbia University in 1970 with a master degree and worked in Paris for another four years as a translator. But before that, he had also worked on an oil tanker and did other jobs of low prestige - maybe in order to discover something new. In an interview with the Guardian, he said: “I think young, literary men are often in search of adventures, and many other writers have shipped out to sea - Kerouac, for example, and Malcolm Lowry."7 The time that he had spent abroad was essential for his later writings.

When he came back to America, he worked on different book translations and wrote two poetic sequences Wall Writing and Disappearances. He also wrote different reviews and essays for the New York Review of Books and other press dealing with literature. Auster married Lydia Davis in 1974 and has a son with her, Daniel Auster, but his marriage didn’t last long.

On the 14 of January, 1979 Auster’s father died while he was working on White Spaces and the money he inherited was essential for the continuation of his career. Auster once said: "For the first time in my life I had the time to write, to take on long projects without worrying about how I was going to pay the rent".8 Auster published his collection of poetry Facing the Music a nd his prose work White Spaces in 1980. He had also finished Portrait of an Invisible Man which dealt with the death of his father and would form the first half of The Invention of Solitude. During 1980, he began working on the second half of the book The Book of Memory. Paul Auster moved to Brooklyn and continued to work on The Book of Memory and a bilingual anthology that was titled The Random House Book of Twentieth Century-French Poetry. While he was working he one day received a couple of wrong-number phone calls which build the basis for his famous novel City of Glass.

Auster fell in love with Siri Hustevdt and married her in 1981. They are still married and have a daughter, Sophie Auster.

In 1886, he started to work as a lecturer at Princeton University until 1990. Auster published other works like Moon Palace in 1989, The Music of Chance in 1990 and had already finished his most famous collection The New York Trilogy until 1987. These works made him famous and he is regarded as a unique talent of contemporary literature, which different prices like the “Prix France Culture de Littérature Étrangère” for The New York Trilogy show. Paul Auster began to wok on movies as a screenwriter and director and received just as well as on the field of literature prices like the “Bodil Awards” for the Best American Film - Smoke in 1996. But this new field he had discovered for himself didn’t keep him off working on other novels. He published Leviathan and The Art of Hunger in 1992 and Mr. Vertigo in 1994. He didn’t forget what his main and original field was, namely literature and he once said in an interview (Futurist Radio Hour in 1996) that movies are "not real food the way books are".9

3.‘Reading the City’ - Urban Space and it’s readability in Paul Auster’s City of Glass

The City has always played an important role in literature. It doesn’t matter whether we look at the picture of London and the industrial revolution with it’s grey colour covering the city like a veil or ancient Rome in all its majestic facets. Even ‘The book of the books’, as the Bible is often referred to, covers many different pictures of the city. On the one hand we find the praised city Jerusalem and on the other hand the description of the ‘Tower of Babel’ in Moses 11, standing for the pure satisfaction of the spirit of men by building a tower that would led them reach heaven.10 But we can find different approaches towards the concept of the city. St. Augustine’s City of God for example describes the ideal city on earth as a reaction on the shortcomings of all earlier cities. Sir Thomas More’s Utopia deals with the ideal Renaissance city-state.11

New York definitely holds, just like other cities in the past, a dominant position when we look at contemporary city novels. But City of Glass can’t be regarded as a traditional novel dealing with a metropolis. This novel has rather to be seen as a literary landscape of New York which constructs and deconstructs space and time.12 Of course, any description of a city is closely linked to the personality - personal views on the world and the age the author lived in. Saul Bellow puts it this way and calls the city: “The expression of the human experience it embodies, and this includes all personal history”.13 This is a very interesting way of looking at the concept of the city, which somehow makes clear that the city is only a mirror of the people that live in it. Paul Auster plays with this idea and designs an image of the city from the perspective of a detective lost within it.

3.1 Getting lost in the labyrinth New York - the concept of urban space and its impact on the main character

In Paul Auster’s City of Glass the city - urban space functions in different ways. On the one hand, Quinn’s home - his apartment is a part of the city and on the other hand, the city scares him in a way. In other words, in Quinn’s life two separated spaces play a very important role. The first one is the inner space - his home which gives him shelter and the outer space - the city - standing for chaos.14 Quinn describes the city as following: “New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps”15. The city as a labyrinth is a very interesting motif that I want to look closer at. What do we understand by a labyrinth?

When we look into a dictionary, we often find two definitions. One describes the physical labyrinth, a place that is made up of complicated series of paths or passages through which it is difficult to find your way16 or a literary one, a situation, process, or area of knowledge that is very complicated.17 The labyrinth Quinn faces has to be seen as a literary one; he always has to take new decision leading to new situations. This is somehow the essence of the literary motif of the labyrinth: “Zum einen bezieht sich das literarische Motiv als ein eher fiktiver Ort auf ein Irrgartensystem, das die Möglichkeit des Verlaufens bietet, da es Kreuzungen, Sackgassen aufweist, als auch die Möglichkeit der Entscheidung zwischen verschiedenen Wegen ins Zentrum - gesetzt den Fall, dass es überhaupt eines gibt. Der Benutzer/Gefangene ist daher gezwungen, die Situation immer wieder neu zu beurteilen, sich ständig aufs neue zu orientieren und kontinuierlich die Zielvorgaben zu überprüfen“18 Quinn is somehow not able to do just that. He doesn’t know how to deal with the world around him when he leaves his inner space.

From a psychological perspective, we could say that he doesn’t readjust his ‘filters’. Every person has developed such ‘filters’ in order to be able to deal with the immense sum of information which our brain has to deal with in order to classify information and decide whether something is important or not. Exactly this missing ability is the reason why he looses himself and the connection to reality.


1 Dennis Barone: Beyond the Red Notebook,University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia 1995, S.2

2 Auster, Paul: The New York Trilogy, Faber and Faber Limited, London 1987

3 Zit. Auster, Paul: The New York Trilogy, Faber and Faber Limited, London 1987 S.3

4 Zit. http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/generalfiction/story/0,6000,819191,00.html

5 Zit. http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/generalfiction/story/0,6000,819191,00.html

6 Zit. http://www.englisch.schule.de/auster/group4/start4.htm

7 Zit. http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/generalfiction/story/0,6000,819191,00.html

8 Zit. http://www.englisch.schule.de/auster/group4/start4.htm

9 Zit. http://www.paulauster.co.uk/briefbiography4.htm

10 http://ldolphin.org/babel.html

11 Cf. Preston, Peter; Simpson-Housley, Paul: Writing the City. Eden, Babylon and the New Jerusalem, Routledge, London 1994, S.3

12 Cf. H. Lenz, Günter; Riese, Utz: Postmodern New York City. Transfiguring Spaces - Raum Transformation, Universitätsverlag Winter, Heidelberg 2003, S. 255

13 Zit. Writing the City, S. 1

14 Cf. Postmodern New York City. S.263

15 Zit. City of Glass. S.3

16 Collins Cobuild, HapperCollin Publishers, Glasgow 2003. S.800 - 1

17 Collins Cobuild. S.800 - 2

18 Cf. Postmodern New York City. S.248

Excerpt out of 18 pages


“Reading the City”: The concept of language in Paul Auster’s "City of Glass"
University of Constance
Hauptseminar - „History, Theory, Practise of Reading“
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reading, city”, paul, auster’s, city, glass
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Sebastian Bohl (Author), 2008, “Reading the City”: The concept of language in Paul Auster’s "City of Glass", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/213383


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