Aster's 18th novel opens with a scorched pot of water, which Sy Baumgartner-phenomenologist, noted author, and soon-to-be retired philosophy professor-has just forgotten on the stove. Baumgartner's life had been defined by his deep, abiding love for his wife, Anna, who was killed in a swimming accident nine years earlier. Now 71, Baumgartner continues to struggle to live in her absence as the novel sinuously unfolds into spirals of memory and reminiscence, delineated in episodes spanning from 1968, when Sy and Anna meet as broke students working and writing in New York, through their passionate relationship over the next forty years, and back to Baumgartner's youth in Newark and his Polish-born father's life as a dress-shop owner and failed revolutionary. Rich with compassion, wit, and Auster's keen eye for beauty in the smallest, most transient details of ordinary life, Baumgartner asks: Why do we remember certain moments, and forget others?
A more scaled-down, stripped-back affair that traces a single life-trajectory in a more conventional way. And it is all the better for it ... Shifts among a variety of tones ... By dispensing with his postmodern pyrotechnics, Auster has produced a more grounded and consequently more believable work about a memorable life — and a life of memories. It may not be vintage Auster, but it is moving and compelling enough to qualify as a late-career triumph.
I can hear the whingeing already: Nothing happens in this novel. It’s too slow, it’s boring, it’s not high concept or high event ... What kind of a novel is “Baumgartner,” then? It’s lovely. It’s sweet. It’s odd. But maybe not so odd for Auster fans who will immediately want to locate Baumgartner in his body of work (he’s written 20 novels) and to look for leitmotifs and signature moves. There are plenty ... Early pages showcase some gorgeous passages about his wife ... The novel begins to lose some of its urgency. Let’s call it a lull between chapters for Sy, though his final chapter is unclear. The novel doesn’t tell us where he’s going, settling instead for irresolution and ambiguity.
I wanted to love Baumgartner...and for some 40 glorious pages I did ... Winningly farcical and fast-moving, it’s a terrific opening ... Yet even in the most involving moments there’s a red flag: Auster’s actual words, and the events they itemise, matter less than the fact of their accumulation ... Odd ... Auster’s turbo-charged kickstart ultimately takes us on a ride without destination.