It’s just a book

Philip Horne

  • Leviathan by Paul Auster
    Faber, 245 pp, £14.99, October 1992, ISBN 0 571 16786 1

Paul Auster is an amphibious writer whose eclectic methods and influences make one unsure by which end to try and grasp him. His early self-exile to an apprenticeship in Paris as a poet and translator, absorbing the lessons of the ‘high’ aesthetic rigorists – Beckett, Blanchot, Jabès, Celan – was an unexpected preliminary to his return to America and, after several years, his dark, formally self-conscious entry onto the scene of the American novel with The New York Trilogy, an elaborate anti-detective volume full of Hawthorne, Melville and Thoreau. Despite its grand title it had been rejected 17 times before a publisher brought it out in 1985; yet it became, at the chic end of the market, a ‘best seller’, and established Auster as a figure to be puffed or sniped at, as some blankly indulgent and huffily impatient receptions of Leviathan have again shown.

We can follow the re-making of this American in Leviathan back to Ground Work: Selected Poems and Essays 1970-79 (1990), with its cultivation of the spare, enigmatic, paradoxical Continental manner and interest in the ‘impossibility’ of art. Auster there cited Beckett approvingly:‘To be an artist is to fail, as no other dares fail.’ Like Joyce, Auster began as a poet. A crucial staging-post on the trail – an exemplary ‘failure’ – was The Invention of Solitude (1982), a severely experimental and agonised prose document, in two parts, respectively about his father and his own fatherhood, of his bleakly eventful return to his homeland. His repatriation was marked by the death of his unsympathetic father and his grandfather; the accidental discovery of a terrible event in the family’s Wisconsin past; the break-up of his marriage; his consequent separation from his young son; and by a descent into depression and isolation that brought him close to personal collapse – out of which he was able to write himself. The experiences he painstakingly and movingly records, the patterns of coincidence and uncanny connectedness he gathers from them, and the extended meditation on the purpose and absurdity of writing which they provoked in him, have continued to nourish his work.

Having immersed himself in and found shape for his personal ties, Auster moved into fiction with The New York Trilogy like a new Poe taking on further hints from Baudelaire and his Gallic followers. The hero of the first novella writes mysteries as William Wilson, and gets involved in a case by taking a chance on a wrong number and doubling as the private eye asked for, Paul Auster ‘of the Auster Detective Agency’. In fact, the ingeniously-constructed Trilogy is peppered with references to Auster himself, to his activity as a novelist, and to the novel’s various 19th-century American source texts, including Hawthorne’s tale of displaced identity, ‘Wakefield’, and Thoreau’s Walden (‘Were he to find the patience to read the book in the spirit in which it asks to be read, his entire life would begin to change’). Throughout, characters get somehow disconnected and dwindle, or are caught up in others’ schemes and projects, till the bounds of their selves start to break down. For all theintricacy and scepticism, Auster keeps faith with the detective genre in its requirement of a drama of interpretation, and the narratives stow away a considerable punch.

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