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.
The success of this book full of cunning self-echoes seems to have made Auster anxious to break new ground, and the gruelling In the Country of Last Things (1987) moves into a downbeat futuristic mode of visionary dreariness and imagines for its valiantly questing and remembering heroine-narrator a crumbling (unnamed) New York not so very much worse than today’s. Here the city as a whole suffers the usual fate of Auster’s protagonists: deprivation and loss of identity. The central focus is the ever toughening routine of survival. Though it retains some of the stiffly logical manner of Auster’s earlier, Beckettian mode, the story compasses a more open, generously scaled, episodic version of the gathering air of doom – moving insidiously between dangerous exposure and appalling trap – that characterises Auster’s narratives in the Trilogy; and the three most recent novels share this larger movement. Moon Palace (1989), an extraordinarily ambitious weave of interests and emotions, again expands its territory, both heading out from New York into the West and to California, and exploring its way back from its odd young narrator at Columbia in the late Sixties and early Seventies, Marco Stanley Fogg, to his parents and grandparents, and to a larger American past. The hero’s main tasks come from his working as a secretary, not a detective or scavenger; and his employer turns out to be strangely related to him. As always, Auster’s plotting is unlikely, but possible – part of his point being the immensity of the odds against life’s actual concatenations of events. He finds a form which, in words he has quoted from Beckett, ‘admits the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else.’ Such a procedure, a persistence of measured, baffled, ironic analysis, has an obvious application to the challenge of writing about a puzzle the size of America: a nation which by thinking of itself as universal, as more than a nation, sometimes nearly transcends but often just confuses its own mere nationhood.
In 1991 Auster was still attending to, and playing through, ‘the music of chance’, and gave that title to a fine novel, following out a trajectory of freedom and entrapment with patience and passion in the third-person story of its drifting hero Nashe. The Music of Chance enticingly conjures and satisfyingly dismantles the hard-boiled mode, so the reader is both entertained and morally involved. One of Auster’s strengths (rare among authors of contemporary fiction) is an ethical intentness which engages with people’s feelings about the integrity or shapelessness of their own existences. His protagonists are usually artists of life, fallible perfectionists who must either come to terms with their imperfections or risk their bundle on a doomed attempt to fix the chaos with a meaning. This is true again in Leviathan, dedicated to Don DeLillo, where again Walden and Thoreau feature, this time as inspiration for a novelist called Benjamin Sachs, whose dissatisfaction with writing fiction as a way of engaging with the world leads him, via Austerian chains of coincidence, to a campaign of symbolic terrorism as the ‘Phantom of Liberty’, blowing up replicas of the Statue of Liberty across America to convey to the nation that ‘it’s time to start practising what you preach.’ The epigraph from Emerson declares that ‘every actual state is corrupt,’ and the contradiction between America’s heightened idea of itself and the unsatisfactory lives of its citizens, particularly in the Reagan-Bush era, is the condition which underlies Sachs’s personal crusade.
Auster brilliantly works his readers through a kaleidoscopic combination of highly-charged relationships, events, situations and developments: the husband reading his wife’s chillingly hostile journal entry about himself; the friends whose marriages break up out of the blue; the artist of ‘happenings’ whose projects involve constructing fictions around real people whose lives she has researched; the adulterous affair with the best friend’s wife begun for no apparent reason; the unforeseen act of necessary but compromising violence which ends one life and dooms another; the large but finite pot of money, a concentration of potentialities; the fantasy of killing a man and atoning or profiting by taking over his life with his widow. Most of these elements have played a part in Auster’s work before, but they are freshly, thrillingly put into play.
The story is narrated by a Paul Auster figure, a dedicated novelist called Peter Aaron whose c.v. includes a French apprenticeship, a novel called Luna, even (like his creator) a spell teaching at Princeton. He writes about Sachs, who has confided to him the secret of his final, fatal phase, from an admiring, quizzical standpoint not unlike that of Conrad’s Marlow reconstructing the tragically flawed, self-punishing career of Lord Jim towards a dubious martyrdom. Sachs starts the book by being so blown to bits that his identity is unknown to all but the informed guesser Aaron, who writes his friendly account, his inside version, against the clock while the FBI try to put their official case-report together.
Although a good deal has been made of the novelty of political subject-matter for Auster, much is familiar here for his regulars, who know the basic facts of his life. Aaron arises from Auster: his ex-wife is Delia (Auster’s Lydia), his present Iris (Auster’s Siri); his son is David (Auster’s Daniel), his daughter Sonia (Auster’s Sophie). Even the dates seem to correspond. At the front, indeed, ‘the author extends special thanks to Sophie Calle for permission to mingle fact with fiction’. This teasing game plays dangerously on the edge of the roman à clef and the cult of personality. At the same time, there are frequent references back to the rest of Auster’s work: the title, Leviathan, is that of Sachs’s last, unfinished novel (in which sense this isn’t the book it says it is), but also looks to the Book of Jonah, which is a link in the meditative chain of The Invention of Solitude; Auster’s previous hero Nashe reappears in the name of Nashe’s Tavern, where Sachs and Aaron first meet; Sachs’s wife Fanny works in Brooklyn on the 19th-century painter Blakelock, whose Moonlight, hung there, played a central part in Moon Palace; and Sachs draws the idea of his symbolic campaign from the distorted picture of the Statue of Liberty on the dust-jacket of a copy of his only published novel that he comes across in a second-hand bookshop – recalling the British cover of Moon Palace, on which she appears about six times.
Leviathan is still very ‘literary’, then: but it also contains suspicions of the literary in the (literary) way of Thoreau, extending the work of the imagination into the life of the writer and his society by the constant threadings backwards and forwards between fact and fiction. Auster’s own life is again put at stake in his writing (though less riskily than in The Invention of Solitude, the text of a crisis), while his novelist characters wonder if their writing is enough to give substance and meaning to their lives. For Aaron it is: ‘I was doing what I had to do.’ For Sachs it isn’t: ‘I’ve got to step into the real world now and do something.’
The author in The New York Trilogy saw a girl at Grand Central Station reading his hook and quizzed her about it. Her response made him think of punching her in the face: ‘It’s no big deal. It’s just a book.’ Sachs speaks with the same levity of his own work (‘It’s only a novel’), and rebukes his earlier stuff as ‘too literary, too full of its own cleverness’. Auster may be shaking his head at his own earlier work here, as where he notes that Sachs’s novel sometimes ‘feels too constructed, too mechanical in its orchestration of events, and only rarely do any of the characters come fully to life.’ If so, he’s unduly harsh on his first published plots and their uncanny way of creeping up on the reader; though Black, White, Blue and Brown in the middle novella of the Trilogy aren’t, in spite of their names, fiction’s most colourful characters.
Elaborately chancy as its plotting is, Leviathan’s main characters, its two writers and the women they’re involved with, do come to life through Aaron’s sometimes deliberately awkward narrative. The occasional lapses into the cute or the arch where the parental or the flirtatious registers are sounded – ‘Iris and I were in Babyland’; ‘I figured why waste my time listening to lectures on aesthetics when the beautiful was sitting there right in front of me’ – can be acutely embarrassing, regrettably believable. It seems worth pausing on this point, where Auster’s uncool and un-Parisian explicitness exposes him to criticism. The Independent reviewer spoke of ‘great dollops of mawkishness’, and claimed that ‘examined closely, the emotions which get Auster going are curiously gooey – male bonding, a father’s devotion to his son, love at first sight.’ But ‘examined closely’ these emotions – friendship, fatherhood and love – are less ‘gooey’ than many others. Auster seems interested in and moved by them because he’s arrived at them unexpectedly from a position of self-conscious alienation.
Auster requires his readers to put in a certain patience, and to grant some correspondence between the way things happen in his romances and the way they happen in our lives. This is a contract worth entering into. Like Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, say, his narratives sometimes verge on and are haunted by, but constantly elude, allegory or pure pattern. They are also variants of the adventure story, in the sense that his people suffer and take their chances, head into the unknown, with an unusual degree of engagement, from self-disgust and a desire for the redemptive act. Every new turn, though, leads back to complication. At one point Sachs intends ‘a quick, dream-like gesture, an act that would take no time at all’, but ends up caught in another intimate web of dependences. Consistently interesting and consistently serious, Auster’s work makes an equivocal appeal to our knowledge and ignorance of ourselves. His novel, as Buñuel said of his striking Phantom of Liberty (1974), ‘argues for the importance of coincidence, of a personal morality, and of the essential mystery in all things’.
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