‘The Invention of Solitude’: The Book of Memory

6 Jun

In my private journals, I’ve been asking myself, “Who am I in my Summer of Auster posts?”  I’m reading these posts at too fast a clip to look at them as scholarly responses to Auster’s body of work.  In my attempts to remain an impartial reviewer, I have turned out a few run-of-the-mill book reviews that place Auster’s early work in a biographical context and rattle off plot points.  As I move into ‘The Book of Memory’, the second half of Auster’s early memoir The Invention of Solitude, it’s become harder and harder for me to maintain an objective point of view.

You see, my father died on my twentieth birthday.  Somewhere in my belongings I have a scrap of paper with my father’s thoughts and impressions of one of Auster’s works.  While I would have loved Mr. Vertigo and Timbuktu without knowing this, the fact that my father thought highly of Auster sustained me as I imbibed those texts over a few weeks.

My father was drawn to artists who depicted the pains and pleasures of the working-class experience.  In particular, he had great admiration for those writers and musicians who were able to not only write about the blue collar life, but who were able to get out but to not forget their past.  (Bruce Springsteen, for example.)   In Auster, Dad may have seen a contemporary and a peer.  Both men grew up in the Northeast in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the elder sons of second-generation American parents.  (Auster’s from Vienna, Dad’s from County Cork, Ireland.)  Their fathers were both remote men who had profound misunderstandings of their sons.  They both rejected the religious cultures of their families and steeped themselves in American pastimes like baseball and rock and roll.  They both eked out a meager existence through verbiage, Dad as a sportswriter and Auster as a critic and translator.

Most significantly, both men were parents in the early ‘80s, and both of them divorced their wives when their children were still young.  As I read Auster’s description of the tiny room in which he lived on 6 Varick Street in Chinatown, my mind travels to the seemingly infinite number of junkshop cars in which my dad slept as he waited for the divorce to become final.  I see Dad folded up in the back seat of his car, resting his head on the rear axle on the passenger side and his left foot tapping against the driver’s-side axle.  His right ankle rests on his left knee, and he holds the book open in his lap.

Bill Murray in 'Moonrise Kingdom'

Like this.

While “Portrait of an Invisible Man” looked head-on and without sentimentality at the death of Samuel Auster, “The Book of Memory” takes a much more diffuse approach to the subject of fatherhood.  Auster eschews the immediacy of the first section for a third-person perspective, referring to himself as “A.” The central theme in this section of the book is about the act of fatherhood, rather than what it meant to be a son.  He looks at this subject through his travels to Paris and Amsterdam and through literature, most notably through Carlo Collidi’s fairy tale “Pinocchio” and its Disney adaptation.

What does it mean to be a father?  Auster has no clear, specific answer.  His son, Daniel, was only three at the time he wrote this, and in writing “The Book of Memory” he seems to be figuring out an answer to this question.  The allusions to “Pinocchio” and to Jonah and the Whale give Auster the opportunity to understand his son’s perspective on aging and growth.  The themes of reunion also allow the writer to reflect on his long absences from his son.  Reading about the ways Auster connected with his son through reading and sharing stories had a poignant immediacy.

Admittedly, some of the allusions to literature flew right over my head.  I consider myself well-read, but I’d never even heard of many of the writers and translations that Auster mentioned in this essay.  The fact that many of these books are out of print or otherwise impossible to find made “The Invention of Solitude” an exercise in frustration.  It also had a humbling quality to it, as though Auster was saying, “You with the shiny new English degree!  You think you’re smart?”

What also intrigued me, after reading Squeeze Play within such close proximity to The Invention of Solitude, was how both books covered similar ground.  Looking as Squeeze Play as a work of nonfiction would be a mistake.  That said, both books portray a recent divorce with a young son and an ex-wife with whom they have an ambivalent relationship.  We only see Auster’s first wife in passing, which I assume was a conscious decision.  (This makes the book more personal – focusing on where Auster went wrong – and more diplomatic towards his former spouse.)  As I read a passage in “The Book of Memory” about Auster’s attempts to reconcile with his wife, the chapter in Squeeze Play in which Max blunders into an ill-advised tryst with his own ex-wife kept coming back to me.

My thoughts returned to my father as I completed “The Book of Memory”.  I think my dad admired Auster in part because he got out on his own terms.  My dad wasn’t so lucky.  He worked until the last day of his life at jobs that made Hank Chinaski look like Gordon Gekko.  While he continued writing, his lone novel got rejected by several publishing houses and ended up burning in a garbage bin.  I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do with this blog,  but on some level I see it as a long letter to a father I won’t see again in this lifetime.  Since Dad’s missed out on all of Auster’s novels since Mr. Vertigo, I feel a responsibility to read them for someone who can’t.

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