Archive | July, 2012

Paul Auster, ‘Ghosts’ (1983)

21 Jul

In retrospect, I’m glad I read “Wakefield” before passing my eyes over the pages of Ghosts.  Reading the first few pages of Auster’s novella felt like watching a narrative atom split.  In the first few pages, we learn of a detective, Blue, who must take on a case that involves spying on a mysterious man from an apartment across the way.  We also learn of a man, Gray, who absents himself from his fiancée while suffering from amnesia, and of how his memory continues to fail him.  I could have appreciated this collage of absence and memory without reading “Wakefield”, but knowing Auster’s point of departure has helped me appreciate the opening.

A theme of literary pastiche runs through Ghosts.  Blue, the character with whom we experience the story, reads Walden, and the theme of a solitary, ascetic lifestyle reverberates through the story.  When Blue’s path finally crosses with Black, the man he’s been paid to watch, the pair sit on a curb in Brooklyn and discuss the eventual fate of <a href=http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/deja_vu/2012/06/brain-pickers.php>Walt Whitman’s brain</a>.  Even in parts of the story that don’t directly address other works of literature, my mind went back to the stories that had inspired Auster.  For example, a scene in which Blue runs into his fiancée on the street after he leaves her company recalled Wakefield’s speculation about what would happen if he revealed himself to his wife.

I was also impressed with how Auster creates a very specific place and time in Ghosts.  As opposed to the “any place/any time” (prior to the internet, at least) in City of Glass, Ghosts takes place in New York in 1947.  He describes the streets and apartments and the cultural goings-on of the day in a manner that evokes the city in the post-war era.  While others may find the references to baseball games skimmable, reading about the racial strife in the major leagues or Blue’s identification with Robert Mitchum (for example) helped put me in the right frame of mind for the era.

Like City of Glass, Ghosts has an open ending.  One aspect of the story has been resolved (or at least explained), but Blue’s fate remains unknown.  Unlike City of Glass, this not-knowing has a strangely adventurous quality.  In spite of all the misadventure Blue experiences in the span of 90 pages, you don’t despair for him at the novel’s close.

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“Wakefield”, Nathaniel Hawthorne

16 Jul

I’ve been tripping myself up overthinking how to write about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Wakefield”.  Auster has cited Hawthorne’s short stories, this one in particular, as an influence on Ghosts, the second book in the New York Trilogy.  Because of how important Hawthorne was to Auster’s development as a writer, I saw it as my responsibility to read his short stories “Wakefield” and “Fanshawe” before I started Ghosts and The Locked Room, respectively.  Unlike “William Wilson”, these Hawthorne stories seem to have a level of renown among scholars that writing even a cursory blog entry seemed like a task of no small intimidation.

 

“Wakefield” traces the experience of a man who departs his wife’s company for twenty years.  He takes up residence in an apartment within visible distance of his old home, dresses in a ragged disguise, and watches his wife from his bedroom window during the time he has absented himself from her.  He even passes her on the street, and she almost seems to recognize him.  Long after she has assumed he is dead, sold his belongings, and taken up the life of a widow, he returns to his homestead.

 

This might amount to a huge spoiler, except that Hawthorne reveals all of this in the first paragraph of the story.  In the next 25 pages, he explores the man’s experience apart from his wife, watching her with a sense of longing and taking on disguises to avoid discovery.

 

Though Hawthorne reveals the story’s full trajectory at its start, the conclusion has a sense of ambiguity, as Wakefield stands on his doorstep awaiting his wife’s reaction when she sees him for the first time in twenty years. Wakefield’s ascetic, solitary existence touches upon a theme running through Auster’s work.  Additionally, one line in the story – “He would look on the affair as no more than an interlude in the main business of his life” – reminded me of Auster’s observation about his father’s married life in “Portrait of an Invisible Man”, that Sam Auster was a lifelong bachelor with an interlude of family life.

 

I found “Wakefield” for free in the Amazon Kindle store.   It’s also available online in several places, including Project Gutenberg.