Introduced by Benjamin Markovits
Illustrated by Tom Burns
Set in a distinctly noir New York, these three hugely influential and ground-breaking stories unnervingly meld fiction and reality. Winner of Best Illustrated Book at the 2009 V&A Illustration Awards.
Paul Auster's New York Trilogy brings to life a distinctly noir cityscape, where fiction and reality meld unnervingly. Skewing the conventions of the mystery genre, Auster questions the very nature of identity, as his page-turning narratives lead the reader on through increasingly labyrinthine mind games.
Winner of the Book Illustration award and overall prize at the V&A Illustration Awards 2009
'It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not ...'
So begins 'City of Glass', the first of the three stories in Paul Auster’s hugely influential work, The New York Trilogy.The voice at the other end of the phone asks protagonist Quinn if he can speak to someone named 'Paul Auster' – reality intruding into a fictional world with dazzling results. In 'Ghosts', a private eye named Blue is hired by a man called White to investigate a Mr Black. Are they real people or characters in someone else's fiction? And in the final story, 'The Locked Room', a failing writer 'borrows' the work and family life of his more creatively fertile friend when the latter disappears.
Set in a distinctly noir New York, fiction and reality meet and identities meld unnervingly in all three stories. Auster uses – and skews – the conventions of the mystery genre to force his characters and the reader to question the concept of identity. In so doing, he creates a whole new approach to story-telling. His taut, page-turning narratives lead the reader on through increasingly labyrinthine, psychological mind-games.
'Seductive, metaphysical thrillers'
First published by The Folio Society in 2007, this is the very first illustrated edition of The New York Trilogy. Tom Burns's evocative pictures enhance the author's portrayal of the great city as a place of loss, a world as unfathomable, it turns out, as the very nature of existence.
Writing in the Folio Magazine in 2008, Robert McCrum, former editor-in-chief at Faber and Faber and former Literary Editor (currently Associate Editor) for the Observer, evokes the excitement surrounding the publication of Paul Auster's New York Trilogy.
In my twenty-odd years as a publisher I must have scanned many thousands of manuscripts, as book submissions are imprecisely known in the trade. Looking back, they blur into a ziggurat of unpublished – often unpublishable – material bound together with string, rubber bands and, occasionally, pink ribbon. From this tottering monument of literary ambition, one 'manuscript' stands out unforgettably (I can still see it with my inner eye): the bundle of typescript and unbound proof pages that represented the fiction debut of an unknown thirty-something Brooklyn writer named Paul Auster.
I would like to be able to claim that, from my first reading of this material (two short novels, 'City of Glass' and 'Ghosts', in proof from a small Californian press, and the typescript of a third, 'The Locked Room', I swiftly made a substantial offer and proceeded, in a well-oiled sequence of decisions, to a triumphant book launch. Alas, it was not so, at least to start with. The Auster manuscripts were submitted to Faber and Faber with the usual covering letter by the elfin figure of the late Maggie Noach (pronounced 'NOack'). Maggie was a wonderful literary agent, but a small one. When her submissions arrived at our offices in Queen Square there was not, shall we say, the urgency that should attend the recognition of future greatness. In a word, the Auster manuscript had to wait its turn.
When I look at my diary for the autumn of 1986 I see that I was flitting about the English-speaking world in a zigzag of international flights; here visiting an author in Australia, there attending a literary festival. There was simply not enough time to sit and read Paul Auster's work in tranquillity. My recollection now is that I read one of the novellas, probably 'City of Glass', was struck by its brilliance, and passed the rest of the material to my assistant Fiona McCrae to report on while I was travelling.
When I came to make my offer, I quickly discovered that the mysterious Mr Auster was not as 'new' as I thought. Not only had he published essays and poetry in New York throughout the 1970s, he had already sold a haunting memoir of his father, The Invention of Solitude, and had just completed another novel, In the Country of Last Things, as well. We were not just looking at three novellas but an oeuvre. How should we go about it? With this conundrum, thankfully, my nomadic habits could assist. I was due to pass through New York, making my way home from a literary festival in New Zealand, in the spring of 1986. So I could meet Auster for myself. I had an idea about how best to launch his work in the UK, but it was something I wanted to discuss face to face.
The tall, dark and extraordinarily handsome young man who walked into our rendezvous, a coffee shop on Madison Avenue two blocks from the Morgan Library, has become such a dear friend over so many years since then, that I am probably bound to mythologise our first encounter, but one thing is certain: we clicked at once.
I discovered that the author of the five books I had just acquired was as much a European as an American, a friend of Samuel Beckett, a translator steeped in French literature and a fine poet in his own right. And then, in the quirky kind of connection that might have come from one of his own books, he was also distantly related by marriage to Michael Flanders of 'Flanders and Swann', a childhood favourite of mine. So we drank our espressos and talked. I, jet-lagged, ordered more coffee, and chocolate cake, something we laugh about to this day. Now came the moment I had been dreading. How would it be, I asked, if Fabers were to put the novellas into a single volume, on the model of a Faber classic, Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, and give it a new title? To my relief and astonishment, Paul responded with delight and enthusiasm. This, he said, had always been his idea. He even had a title for such a volume: it should be called The New York Trilogy.
Remembering the Auster manuscript is one thing. Its publication in the winter of 1986 was something else. It was, quite simply, sensational. In a way that would now seem suicidal for the launch of a new novel by an unknown American, we had scheduled The New York Trilogy for late November. Paul, as it happened, was passing through London that month with his wife Siri Hustvedt and baby daughter Sophie.
So, in advance of the reviews, we organised a dinner for the literary press at the Groucho Club – a huge success – and then sat back to await the critical harvest. It's often said that book reviews today don't have the impact they used to in the days of Cyril Connolly. If that's so (which I doubt) then this was a last hurrah. The Independent, Time Out, the Scotsman and finally the Daily Mail all hailed a work of dazzling originality and promise. Malcolm Bradbury, writing in The Sunday Times, described the book as 'the sensation of the winter', words we used again and again in our advertising that season. In the Glasgow Herald, the poet Douglas Dunn perceptively noted that The New York Trilogy 'echoes much American fiction of the past, as far back as Hawthorne'.
By the new year of 1987 Fabers was into a second, and then a third reprint; The New York Trilogy was a No. 1 bestseller, and Paul Auster was famous. But not, as you see, overnight. Whatever the myth, classics aren't made that way.