‘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.

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.

30 May
"Squeeze Play" by Paul Benjamin

“Squeeze Play” by Paul Benjamin. First edition. Avon Books, 1982

In the summer of 1978, Paul Auster had set out to write a mystery novel.  He had spent the previous decade working a series of unusual freelance jobs – among them translating French surrealist poetry, swabbing the decks on the oil tanker the Esso Florence, and answering phones at an art gallery (where he crossed paths with John Lennon) – but his luck had started to run out.  His bank account dwindled, his marriage had faltered, and he lost out on several teaching jobs.  Down on his luck, Auster wrote a straightforward detective novel that followed the template found in the pulp fiction he had taken up reading.  In his “memoir of early failure” Hand to Mouth, he spoke of his admiration for novelists working in this genre: “I had developed an admiration for some of the practitioners of the genre.  The best ones were humble, no-nonsense writers who not only had more to say about American life than most so-called serious writers, but they seemed to write smarter, crisper sentences as well” (237).  A fit of insomnia led Auster to a plot twist that reversed a common denouement to many of these novels.  “One piece of the puzzle kept fitting beside the other, and by the time I drifted off to sleep, I had worked out the bare-bones plot of a mystery novel” (ibid).

Squeeze Play depicts the curious case of George Chapman, a onetime third baseman for the fictional New York Americans.  Chapman’s near-superhuman baseball abilities, combined with his charitable work and gorgeous wife, give him a John F. Kennedy-like aura.  Five years after a debilitating car accident caused the baseball hero to retire from the game, he expresses an interest in running for office.  This act brings an unsavory “friend” out of the woodwork to “put the bite” on him.

Enter Max Klein, a former employee in the NYC DA’s office who struck out on his own.  Unlike George Chapman, Klein’s struck out in recent years.  His principled stance on the racially motivated murder of a teenager landed him on the outs with his previous job, and his marriage had run its course.  Before Chapman enters his office, Klein holds him in high regard – he, too, played the “hot corner” (albeit on his team at Columbia), and his failure spiral coincided with Chapman’s glorious single season.  However, Chapman’s belligerent attitude towards the gumshoe and unwillingness to participate in the investigation show the dark side of a major-league hero.

Up to the twist ending, the novel follows the noir template to a fault.  You’ve got your flashbacks, your crusty DAs, your thugs, and – in George’s wife Judith – a femme fatale whose behavior quite literally fulfills that title.  Auster writes in a clipped rhythm familiar to readers of 1930s crime novels, and a talent for stretching similes without pulling them apart or shattering them. (“His private office was roughly the size of Rhode Island, and by the time you got halfway to his desk, you almost expected to see a sign announcing a Howard Johnson’s a mile up the road.”)

I read this after reading a few other novels by Auster.  While it definitely reads like a one-off work for the belles lettrist, some of his trademarks come through on the page.  The multiple copies of Brugel’s Tower of Babel that hang in Max’s office foreshadow Peter Stillman Sr.’s biblical scholarship in City of Glass.  He begins working with characters – in this case, bit players – of diverse racial backgrounds in this book.  While his perspective on these characters is one of a man who’s aware of his privilege (as in the “Noah’s Ark” passage in Chapter 4), he at least tries to incorporate a more diverse cast of characters than many writers in his position.  Through Max’s own sarcasm towards anti-Semitism, we also see how bigotry affects our protagonist.

The relationship between Max and his ex-wife Cathy has a distinct autobiographical tilt.  At the time he wrote Squeeze Play, Auster had separated from his wife, and the little time he was able to spend with his toddler son, Daniel, had a huge impact on him.  In some ways, one could see the companionable bond between Max and Cathy as a kind of fictional wish fulfillment for how he hoped his relationship with his first wife would resolve itself.  After reading “The Book of Memory” – the second half of Auster’s autobiographical debut The Invention of Solitude – the scenes between Max and his nine-year-old son Richie have a poignant quality about them.

Like much of his work in the late 1970s, Squeeze Play beat a hard path from Auster’s Olympia to the bookshelves.  On its completion, Auster was unable to get it published due to a lack of representation and little interest in crime novels among his demimonde.  An independent publishing company had done a small press run of the book, but the book barely got released when the publisher lost its distribution.  Eventually Avon Books picked it up for a paperback run.  In the end, the book Auster had hoped would help him earn an honest day’s pay netted him less than $1000.

Many writers disown their early works, the ones they write only for the money.  Auster is no exception.  On the release of his 1996 memoir Hand to Mouth, Auster looked back on his first novel with a healthy sense of perspective: “The book was an exercise in pure imitation…but just because I wrote it for money doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy myself” (237).  In a 1999 interview with the Guardian, he sounded a more ambivalent note: “I did it to make money, that’s all. It’s not a legitimate book.”  Its lack of legitimacy has not kept it out of print.  He included Squeeze Play as an appendix to Hand to Mouth, and Faber and Faber reissued the book in 1991.

City of Books

30 May

It was a literature capstone that started it, the novels sticking out from dystopian and pornographic volumes like a pair of rubies in a handful of rubble.  Later, when she was able to think about the books that she had read that semester, she would conclude that these volumes had made the semester worthwhile.  But that was much later.

 

As for Spear, there is little that need detain us.  Who she was, where she came from, and what she did are of no great importance.  We know, for example, that se was a non-traditional student.  We know that she had studied English and that she had given her summer reading over to the work of an important, enigmatic novelist.  To be precise, she would be reading all of Paul Auster’s published fiction and writing about it on a blog that bears these facts: the Summer of Auster.