When I was a student, Paul Auster was all the rage in Romania. My fellow students of languages and literature were all going through a post-modern craze at the time (literary currents tended to reach our shores a decade or two later). Boys and girls were wearing black roll-neck jumpers and smoking, discussing Derrida and Foucault, reading The New York Trilogy and Umberto Eco, John Fowles and Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. [Yes, I wonder too sometimes about those strange juxtapositions.]
But I have to admit I haven’t read Auster since the late 1990s. When Annabel announced that Paul Auster is her favourite writer and that she would dedicate a whole week to reading and reviewing his books, I idly checked the catalogue at my university library and came away with three books. (I can seldom stop at just one – that goes for both cakes and books. Maybe that’s why I never started smoking, even in my postmodernist university days…) And this one fits nicely with my memoir reading month this February.
The Invention of Solitude is his debut work, a memoir and a meditation on what makes us the people that we are, especially men and writers. It’s made up of two parts: Portrait of an Invisible Man, a description of Auster’s distant, apparently cold and unemotive father as Auster goes through his belongings in an attempt to clear the house after his death. The second part, The Book of Memory, is a mix of memoir and fiction, an exploration of Auster’s own relationship with his son, but also of all fathers in art and literature, mixed in with a sense of grief and loss as the narrator waits for the death of his grandfather. Pascal Bruckner, who wrote the preface to the 25th anniversary edition, claims that this is Paul Auster’s ars poetica and that there is a theme of remorse running through all of his work. How painful it is to be an individual today when we no longer have the protective shells of any ideologies or beliefs, Bruckner says, and of Auster’s characters, he has this rather striking description: ‘Their chaotic odyssey never ends in peace, and they always fail to regain their lost innocence.’
Back to the ‘Invisible Man’. After his parents’ divorce, his father refused to budge from the house that had become far too big for him. He was also a rather stingy man, who tried to do all the repairs himself, even where he was not really qualified to do so. Auster sees the house as mirroring his father’s inner world and the indescribable blankness or emptiness at the centre of it.
.. although he kept the house tidy and preserved it more or less as it had been, it underwent a gradual and ineluctable process of disintegration. He was neat, he always put things back in their proper place, but nothing was cared for, nothing was ever cleaned.
As he delves deeper into his father’s life, he finds it seems to be all about appearances, that there appear to be no depths – deliberately so. This is a man who seems to find life tolerable only by staying on the surface of things – his relationships with women, with his children. It’s all about preserving that superficiality, not having to reveal himself, waiting hat at the ready and walking stick in hand, ready to escape at any given time. After describing some of the typical disappointments of his childhood, and how he felt unseen and unappreciated, Auster concludes that:
…even if I had done all the things I had hoped to do, his reaction would have been exactly the same. Whether I succeeded or failed did not essentially matter to him… Like everything else in his life, he saw me only through the mists of his solitude, as if at several removes from himself. The world was a distant place for him, I think, a place he was never truly able to enter…
The reason for this aloofness and solitude is revealed when Auster finds an old family portrait amongst his family belongings. His father is the baby in the arms of his mother, surrounded by an older sister and three brothers. He notices that the photograph had been torn and stuck together again, as if a certain person (his grandfather, he later realises) had been taken out of the picture. One of his cousins finds out by coincidence the real story about his grandfather’s death and the family’s subsequent life. A traumatic episode which certainly must have contributed to his father’s sense of insecurity and transience, ‘no enduring points of reference’, his conviction that no one is to be trusted, that you cannot expose your vulnerability by loving someone, that it is best not to want anything too much.
As he attends his father’s funeral, as he tries to cling on to a few of his objects, Auster finds his father slipping away from him again, becoming invisible once more. Except now he has started to understand him, perhaps even forgive him, as he struggles with the challenges of fatherhood himself. I had somehow missed this book when I was going through my Auster phase, I only read his fiction, but I found it oddly moving and quite understated.
I’m not sure if I will have time to read the other books this week (Winter Journal and Timbuktu, in case you are wondering). I also think that taking Paul Auster in smaller doses is probably more sensible at my age. These days, I also think I prefer the writing of his wives, Lydia Davis and Siri Hustvedt. But thank you, Annabel, for reminding me of his existence!