New York has a lot of national centers and institutes whose programming I follow, but FIAF (French Institute Alliance Français) may have the most interesting and provocative. I say that as someone whose second language, such as it is, is Spanish, and who knows French only insofar as it resembles that other Romance language, or English. Irène Jacob, however, can speak French to me anytime she wishes, so I was happy to be at FIAF on Wednesday when the actress (and singer) joined the writer (and film director) Paul Auster for a bilingual reading from Auster’s The Red Notebook and On Writing.

I would say that my prior familiarity with both of those works helped in following Jacob’s contributions to the reading, but the fact is that she is simply so varied and charismatic an interpreter that it would have made little difference to my enjoyment of the event had it been in Swahili. Auster has a rich reading voice as well, though without the expressive intricacy of a Jacob. I assume that the event grew out of their collaboration on his film The Inner Life of Martin Frost, in which Jacob’s performance was among her two or three most memorable since her heyday in the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski. Auster’s books, I should say, were instrumental in my reading history, and especially in my view of New York as not just a city but a sensibility. If you have not read The New York Trilogy and In the Country of Last Things, do.

Auster and Jacob were each amiable and approachable in the reception and book signing afterwards, which was held on the occasion of the publication of Auster’s new book Winter Journal (not yet translated into French and so not part of the reading). My only criticism of the event was that sightlines were poor, as the readers were not elevated, and sat at a table rather than speaking from podia. But what a privilege to have been there.

Click on FIAF for information on programs and events at that venue.

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