The novel Baumgartner, by Paul Auster, opens with its seventy-year-old protagonist, Sy Baumgartner, accidentally grabbing a scorched pot that he has forgotten to remove from his stove. This accident and the sight of the pot take the professor on a road to his past, especially to his life with his wife Anne, who died in another accident ten years ago. We journey with him deep into his past, as far back as a century in Ukraine, from where his maternal grandfather moved to America.
Baumgartner is a moving novel about grief, old age, and memories, which also serves as a character study of its protagonist. The novel has an episodic structure, recounting the pasts of several characters in flashbacks, interconnected by the train of thoughts of an ageing philosophy professor who is writing a book on human consciousness. The novel is narrated in the third person in a voice that is warm but never bothers to emotionally attach to the narrative. The result is a story that connects to its readers and simultaneously leaves enough space for them to have a detached assessment of it.
The episodical plot of the novel constantly changes lanes and prevents the reader from guessing the direction that it could take at any point. Though I was bedazzled by the writing, I was waiting impatiently for all the subplots to tie up neatly and make sense. Then came the final reveal of the subject of his philosophical book, and all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fell into place. The book is essentially a reflection on human life and the constant struggle to make sense of it.
The author brings so much warmth and personality to his protagonist that I suspect there is an autobiographical root to the whole enterprise. Or maybe the theme of love, grief, and mortality is too universal. The plot revels in the ordinary everyday existence that one mostly forgets after mechanically living through it. One remembers the accidents, both physical and metaphysical. The novel starts with the aforementioned accident, proceeds through more accidents, and climaxes in one.
Baumgartner has been born and has become what he is through a series of accidents. If his maternal grandfather had decided not to flee from Ukraine or if his father had decided to take up activism, he wouldn't even exist today. He meets his wife Anne accidentally—twice. He proposes to her after she escapes another accident. He loses her to another one. I feel the writer is trying to emphasise that life is a series of accidents, and even though grief and pain are the products in the short term, it is these crashes and collisions that fuel the journey forward.
I received the advance ebook copy of the novel from its publisher Grove Atlantic through Netgalley in exchange for my feedback.