“Maximalist” – Burning Boy by Paul Auster

IMG_12Nov2021at135115Burning Boy is, by some way, the book it has taken me the longest to read and review in over 20 years of doing Bookmunch. Part of this is, perhaps unsurprisingly, down to the fact that (including the index) it clocks in at just shy of 800 pages. But it’s also worth saying that Stephen Crane, the subject of Auster’s first biography, was largely unknown to me (despite the fact that I read his most celebrated work, The Red Badge of Courage, some 20+ years ago at university). And so I read Burning Boy hand in hand with The Complete Works of Stephen Crane, which clocks in at 2,000 pages plus. If you were to ask me, I’d say this is the ideal way to read the book.

Ah, you might say, that feels rather academic and you’d probably be right but it felt to me the best way to navigate the slightly push-me, pull-you nature of Burning Boy itself, which tells us, one moment, that Crane is:

“America’s answer to Keats and Shelley, to Schubert and Mozart, and if he continues to live on as they do, it is because his work has never grown old.”

Before admitting, “It could be that I am exaggerating somewhat.” But even here, if there is a genuine push-me, pull-you, Auster is undoubtedly on Crane’s side. Any qualifications he makes are there, it felt to me, to gently offset claims that Auster lacks a bit of critical distance at times. Here he is talking about Crane’s debut novel, Maggie of the Streets:

“This is extraordinary. A hundred things have happened in eight short sentences, and they have happened so fast that it is almost impossible to take them in on the first reading.”

You want to say – really, Paul? A hundred things? When he is writing about The Red Badge of Courage, we get a glimpse into just how much of a froth Crane has whipped Auster up into:

“As I was preparing to write this chapter, I picked up the novel again for the umpteenth time, determined to note down everything I found to be essential in each paragraph. After four chapters I had covered twenty-six pages with my small, knotted handwriting and understood that if I carried on with the exercise through all twenty-four chapters of the book, my notes would be as long if not longer than Crane’s novel.”

And that is, to some extent, the crux of the issue really. Paul Auster has discovered a passion and, in tandem with the discovery, is the blossoming knowledge that Crane is hardly taught in schools anymore, is unread by the yoof of today, has not retained the standing that other American greats have (your Mark Twains, your Emily Dickinsons etc). Burning Boy is a great setting of the record straight.

There is a point to be made about the size of the book. Crane died at the age of 28. The vast majority of the book deals with a five year period in Crane’s life, where he wrote all of the books that have been remembered (and sadly forgotten). This is both a biography and a critical literary re-evaluation of pretty much everything (all of the novels and novellas but also all of the poetry, all of the journalism – we even get a look at a newspaper that was produced by Crane after he and his group of friends had a trip together). Given the mammoth prospect of reading Burning Boy and all of Crane, being confronted by sentences like the following can’t help you feel like, is there an editor in the house?:

“Whilst working on his novel, he was also working on his poems, and while working on his novel and poems, he was also working on his newspaper sketches and various stories, and while working on his newspaper sketches and various stories after he had finished the novel and the poems, he was working on his novella, and while working on his novella…”

Things I struggled with as I read the book – do we need an 800 page biography of Stephen Crane not five years after the most recent Stephen Crane biography (a well-reviewed outing from Christopher Sorentino, A Life of Fire)? If you were to set Auster’s work alongside, say, Peter Guralnick’s Searching for Robert Johnson (the latter not even 200 pages), could an argument be made for where you end up with a keener critical stringency, a limit posed on your own enthusiasm? There were times, in my own reading, where Auster’s enthusiasm was so great that I struggled, a little, to see what Auster saw in Crane’s prose. (Not all the time, I should add – the poetry is really interesting, The Red Badge of Courage is a masterpiece and, yes, I’m glad I made time for the likes of Maggie of the Streets and Monster).

There’s another point to be made about Auster’s maximalist approach, though, and that is in regard to other biographies and biographers. You know sometimes when you are reading a book and you have what you might call a niggle and can’t quite get to the heart of what the niggle is? The niggle I had with Burning Boy was only made manifest when I read Claire Tomalin’s The Young HG Wells. Tomalin alludes to details of Wells’ life and you’ll often see small numbers at the end of sentences, alluding to more detail on interesting digressions and tidbits of further detail collected in footnotes at the end of the book. Tomalin makes choices about what information is required for the main track of the book and what is interesting but of less consequence (and thereby routed into footnotes). Auster makes no such concession to the reader. Here is all I know.

But – and it’s an important but – these are niggles. The book is extremely entertaining. Auster’s enthusiasm is infectious. Crane himself led an interesting life. There are scandals, there are celebrity fallings-out, there are periods of exile – there are even long periods of penury that arguably reflect periods of penury in Auster’s own life (see Hand to Mouth). You can’t get away from the fact that it’s an avalanche of Crane-nucopia, a book so huge as to dwarf its subject, but for Austerphiles there is still a lot here to enjoy.

Any Cop?: We suspect people who pick this up will fall into two camps – Auster obsessives (like us) and Crane obsessives. It’s unlikely to be a draw to the casual reader.

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