In 1974, Samuel Beckett sat in a Paris café across from a nervous, chain-smoking American—a 27-year-old named Paul Auster. Auster wouldn’t become a well-known man of letters for another decade: Back then, he was just another lost expatriate freelancing his way through France, young and glum, and so obsessed with Beckett that a mutual acquaintance took pity and set up a meeting. At Beckett’s opening gambit—“Well, Mr. Auster, tell me all about yourself”—Auster froze. He suddenly found he had absolutely nothing to say. Or maybe the idea of revealing something real about himself—his poverty, his rootlessness, the crises of purpose he’d later recall in a memoir, Hand to Mouth—terrified him.