4 Jun

Samuel Auster, 1940s. From ‘The Invention of Solitude’.

Paul Auster’s father died suddenly of a heart attack not long after he completed Squeeze Play.  Samuel Auster was a man of many contradictions, and the elder and younger Austers had a fraught relationship rife with misunderstandings and a lack of shared values about art and commerce.  “Portrait of an Invisible Man”, the first half of Auster’s memoir The Invention of Solitude, depicts his frame of mind in the wake of his father’s death, and his attempts to understand and put into perspective his father’s life and death.

After reading “Portrait of an Invisible Man” all the way through twice, I was struck by how perfectly Auster was able to put onto the page the perspective of someone who has just lost a parent.  My initial instinct was to describe the essay as “stream of consciousness”, but that isn’t quite right – while the work as a whole has a structure I would describe as free-flowing, the individual paragraphs and sections of the book cohere in a different way than most novels that fall into the stream-of-consciousness heading.  “Digressive” comes closer to accurately describing the way Auster has assembled the essay.  In long sections that might otherwise be chapters, he looks at different facets of Sam Auster and his relationships with his wife, his children, his siblings, and his tenants.

The image that emerges from this series of observations reveals a series of contradictions within the senior Auster.  “Mr Sam” (as his tenants described him) comes off as a generous landlord and employer, and a loyal friend whose friends would call on him in times of crisis.  “A car stuck somewhere in the middle of the night, and my father would drag himself out of bed and come to the rescue” (55).  At the same time, he held his immediate family – his wife and children – at arm’s length.  As a child, Paul Auster rarely saw his father during the day, and his father’s absence in his life was palpable to the child: “From the very beginning, it seems, I was looking for my father, looking frantically for anyone who resembled him” (17).

Samuel Auster rewarded his son’s longing with a greater sense of distance.  Remembering his father’s remote qualities during his childhood, Paul Auster had hoped to see his father extend a paternal affection towards his infant son, Daniel.  Much to his disappointment, Auster the senior’s interaction with his grandson lasts only a handful of seconds.  The only words the elder says of the new member of his family are “A beautiful baby.  Good luck with it” (15).  Paul Auster makes his disappointment with his father’s inattention palpable first by describing what he had hoped for in his father’s initial meeting with his grandson, and then by depicting the actual interaction in the sparest language.  Reading the straightforward account of Sam Auster’s uneventful meeting with his grandson, we are even more aware of the impact this had on the younger Auster than we would have if he had written it in an emotional, histrionic manner.

After establishing his father’s remote qualities, Auster looks at how a man becomes so absent from the world.  One is not born, but rather becomes, “a block of impenetrable space in the form of a man” (5).  The elder Auster grew up as the youngest son of a family forced into a kind of nomadic existence.  The central parts of “Portrait of an Invisible Man” describe at great length the circumstances under which the Auster family of Kenosha, Wisconsin came to leave their hometown and eventually settle in North Jersey.  This motivating factor – namely, Auster’s grandmother’s murder of her husband – occurs within the narrative as a slow shock.  We are eased in with mangled photographs and with a series of explanations for Harry Auster’s early death, before a coincidence allows Paul Auster to learn the truth of his grandfather’s fate.

Auster trots out a number of newspaper articles that not only describe the murder in the overheated, melodramatic way associated with turn-of-the-century yellow journalism, but also shows the strange fascination that Victorian-era Midwesterners had with the Auster family’s Jewish background.  Speaking as a New Englander who grew up at the tail end of the 20th century, this section of the book held a negative fascination for me.  In my community, Judaism seemed as mundane as Catholicism or Protestantism.  My high school neighbored a synagogue, and the only thing that differentiated the Jewish kids from their gentile counterparts was the two absences at the start of the school year.  These reporters’ observations on the Auster family’s Jewish heritage and their “leering, condescending tone” (32) has a shocking quality at this historical point.

Many critics – myself included, it seems – try and reduce Paul Auster’s memoir of his father to a series of plot points, as one might do with a work of narrative fiction.  The way that Auster depicts his perplexed emotions after his father’s death struck me as especially true to how one thinks when one is in mourning.  I could identify with the ways in which quotidian details about Samuel Auster floated back to his son seemingly at random.  The younger Auster relates to the world through words and narrative, and in his writing he addresses the ways in which even these things can fail him: “When I first started, I thought it would come spontaneously, in a trance-like outpouring.  So great was my need to write that I thought the story would be written by itself.  But the words have come very slowly so far” (26).  Auster’s frequent metacommentary on the progress of his story makes the impact of his death more palpable.  The ways in which his thoughts seem to leave him only to return again hit me where I live.  I recognize Auster’s thought process and his attempts to make sense of his father’s death, and I really wish I didn’t.

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