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Side Views of the Self

Denis Sampson

Winter Journal, by Paul Auster, Faber & Faber, 240 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-0571283248
Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011, by Paul Auster and JM Coetzee, Faber & Faber, 256 pp, £12.99, 978-0571299270

Paul Auster’s acclaimed career as novelist in the past three decades has been punctuated by a considerable amount of non-fiction work. In fact, it appears that he might never have become a novelist had he not written the two-part memoir The Invention of Solitude. Prompted by the unexpected death of his father in January 1979, he wrote the extraordinarily moving “Portrait of an Invisible Man”, which became Part I, and this was followed by “The Book of Memory”, a reflection on the process of remembering and writing. In other words, after investigating the plain mystery of his father’s life, he realised that he, as son and investigator, was no less mysterious as the inventor of a style and a way of perceiving reality.

In writing these two pieces, he discovered a confident narrative voice, the first part, written in the first person, the second, written in the third person, although the third person subject is referred to as A. He glosses this shifting of point of view in the first memoir and in City of Glass, the novel he wrote immediately after, as follows: “Rimbaud: ‘Je est un autre’.[I is an other] … What it came down to was creating a distance between myself and myself.” Reading Auster, one soon realises that the power of the writing originates in a mysterious zone in which distinctions of person in narrative are fluid, and boundaries between autobiography, biography and fiction are intentionally porous.

The cover of the Faber edition of The Invention of Solitude uses a manipulated photograph, apparently of five Paul Austers sitting around a table; it shows frontal, side and back views of the same image, all looking at each other and, perhaps, conversing. A devotee of Beckett’s work from the beginning, Auster brings the world of the Trilogy into the mainstream, the obsessive-compulsive storyteller now negotiating a more recognisable world, using elements of traditional fictional genres and less austere narrative strategies.

To take one example, the recent novel Invisibility appears to be a narrative that sets out to solve the enigma of Rudolf Born and his role in certain events that took place in Manhattan in 1967. Adam Walker, the first person narrator of Part I, recalls that time when he was a young, aspiring writer befriended by Born, a potential patron who appears to be interested in sponsoring a literary review that Walker will edit. As the two become friends ‑ and Born’s girlfriend has a sexually seductive role in the evolution of the friendship ‑ one evening Born precipitates an assault on a young black man, and when this man is found dead, Walker concludes that Born is responsible. By then, Born has disappeared from New York to Paris, and Walker sets off in search of him, becomes, as it were, not only an aspiring writer but a private eye, and there is no doubt that he is also drawn there by the mysterious sexual figure of Born’s girlfriend. The tension mounts along different narrative paths. Part II opens, and suddenly the reader is disoriented. A new narrative voice is present, referring to Walker in the third person. The voice is that of James Freeman, and the time is now 2007. Walker, an old man living in California, has contacted Freeman, a high school friend from New Jersey. The plotting becomes increasingly complicated over a four-part book, as the narrative shifts settings and time periods as well as witnesses (one – the mysterious girlfriend – producing a journal), all apparently in the interest of discovering what happened in 1967 and in clarifying the true identity of Rudolf Born.

The central narrative interest and the apparent protagonist are increasingly elusive and the truth about him inconclusive. Indeed, the various witness/narrators themselves become unreliable, and are aware of the futility of their own quest for clarity. What begins as an apparent murder story, the first narrator certain of who the perpetrator was, turns into a subversion of the genre of murder mystery. Little in the New York, Paris and California settings is as it appears to be, and the attempt to find out what actually happened in Manhattan on a particular evening in 1967 is constantly deflected. The world appears to be as governed by chance, coincidence and accident as by design or intention. Desire and deception, revelations and concealments drive a fictional style that is hypnotic. In Auster’s world, the writer and the reader are seduced into an addictive verbal performance. Invisibility plays fast with the reader in a shifting blend of genres, the murder mystery absorbing elements of pornography, espionage, memoir, and journal.

Life-stories are inherently seductive once one foregrounds mysterious patterns, and memoir, biography or fiction stimulate this passion for reading on in the spirit of search and revelation. No story is more central to Auster’s work than his own life-story. Telling various versions of that story has been a constant part of his non-fictional projects, but they spill over into the fiction too; while A is the alter ego who is presented in “The Book of Memory”, “Paul Auster” appears in the first novel, City of Glass, and Adam Walker’s biography shares many details with his author’s early life. It is evident that while Auster has little interest in the nineteenth century traditions of the realistic novel per se, and uses them only as a convenient medium, he very deliberately situates himself in twentieth century writing in which autobiography and fiction are closely allied. Joyce/Dedalus, Proust/Marcel, Beckett/Molloy, and many other European artist figures lie behind his American version of this tradition.

Apart from Beckett, the figure who engaged his interest at the beginning of his career was Knut Hamsun and, in particular, the novel Hunger. Auster’s first essay, “The Art of Hunger”, dated 1970, summarises the course of the protagonist’s wanderings around Christiana in a way that foreshadows his own memoir Hand to Mouth, but Auster’s reasons for thinking it a landmark of modern art are more telling. “Something new is happening here,” he wrote, “some new thought about the nature of art is being proposed in Hunger. It is first of all an art that is indistinguishable from the life of the artist who makes it. That is not to say an art of autobiographical excess, but rather, an art that is the direct expression of the effort to express itself.” He sees in Hamsun’s novel the origin of the kind of art practised by Kafka and, then Beckett, and so, as early as his first years as a student at Columbia, he appears to have found his basic aesthetic orientation. For a decade, however, he devoted himself primarily to poetry and immersed himself in twentieth century French poetry with a major project of translation and an anthology of translations.

In Hand to Mouth, a memoir focused on money, Auster tells of graduating from Columbia in the late sixties and spending ten desperate years in Paris and New York trying to make a living while also trying to discover his identity as a poet. This memoir of 1997 is a narrative of failure as a writer, perhaps, or at least the failure to find a way to finance his life so that he could devote his best energies to his writing. The narrative of his personal failure has other purposes, however, for, having achieved considerable success and security at the time of writing, he was able to look back and see how his naivete about financial matters and employment are integral to his better self. He was alienated from the capitalist impulse of American society, and its foreign policy, as in the Vietnam War, and while he made constant efforts as a freelance writer, his best efforts left him living, simply “hand to mouth” or close to starvation. As with Hamsun, hunger is physical and imaginative.

It may be a romanticisation of his failure to say that surviving on the margins of destitution educated him in how many people in America also live on the margins, people of limited education, people with addiction problems, the homeless, and so this memoir is an account of a comfortable middle class New Jersey boy learning compassion and learning how the personal qualities of individuals often transcend the circumstances in which they find themselves trapped. This is a harsh self-portrait in that he depicts the desperation and waste of energy that are debilitating and self-destructive, and he focuses the essay on his youthful self and on the way American attitudes towards success and making money trapped him. Although he has success as a poet, translator and critic during this decade, the memoir tells nothing of this as it is a portrait of the self who came close to destroying his talent and his will.

In an interview of 1989-90, he tells of suddenly writing a piece in January 1979 that he later recognised as a “bridge” from the immersion in French poetry and the “American” prose he began to write immediately thereafter. He returns to that event in Autumn Journal, to underscore its foundational importance for him, and it bears an unusual relationship to both his preoccupation with the body and with the hidden sources of writing in this latest memoir and in The Invention of Solitude.

The interview recounts that in December 1978, he accompanied a friend to an open rehearsal of a new dance piece: “Something happened, and a whole world of possibilities suddenly opened up to me. I think it was the absolute fluidity of what I was seeing, the continual motion of the dancers as they moved around the floor. It filled me with immense happiness.” This experience of seeing bodies in motion led him to work for some weeks on a short piece that would capture its effect on him, but the day he finished he received a telephone call to tell him his father had died. Three weeks later, he began to write the long essay about his father. Towards the end of Winter Journal, Auster describes this event once more in considerable detail, beginning with “The dancers saved you”, and after a rhapsodic account of being mesmerised by the bodies in motion, he ends, “Just as you were coming back to life, your father’s life was coming to an end.” He goes on to speak of his writing as a matter of hearing “the rhythms of the words as you write them in your head”. He finds walking helps this process, and then concludes: “Writing begins in the body, it is the music of the body, and even if the words have meaning, can sometimes have meaning, the music of the words is where the meanings begin … Writing [is] a lesser form of dance.” And so it is that the fortunes of the body and the fortunes of his writing are of concern to him now. He writes to reassure himself that he can go on writing, that his body is well enough to sustain him to the end, for in it he locates his true inspiration as a stylist, a poet.

The “miraculous” events he describes here, the “epiphany” at the dance show and his recovery of the will to write, the emergence of a new style, followed immediately by the death of his father, are not touched on in Hand to Mouth. It is as if there is no connection between one part of his life and the other. This paradoxical pattern, the end of life, the beginning of life, is compounded by the birth of his son, when he is at his lowest ebb, and soon after, the death of his father unexpectedly solves his financial problems for he receives a legacy that supports him for long enough to write The Invention of Solitude. Following the pattern of constant failure, the constantly downward spiral described in Hand to Mouth, Auster appears to have recognised that another, more positive pattern is also governing his life, one over which he appears to have little control. An essay, “The Red Notebook”, appears to be a kind of manifesto, in that in an understated way, in thirteen episodes, he tells stories of extraordinary coincidences. These range from the comic discovery when he was in Sligo that there was a law firm called Argue and Phibbs, to a story of survival in wartime against all odds, to the two phone calls on successive evenings from an unknown caller which gave him the idea for his first novel. These patterns of coincidence and chance are all true stories, he insists, and so he seems to say that this is as much a representation of the world and of his life as any other.

Winter Journal, a new memoir, appeared in late 2012, and, more recently, a correspondence with JM Coetzee has appeared in which Auster’s central conceit of the shifting person appears to have taken on a new kind of reality in a dialogue with the elusive novelist and author of a series of fictional memoirs. Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011 apparently reveals the lives and thoughts of the two novelists when they are off-duty, but, of course, with this pair, one cannot really disentangle “life” and “writer”.

Winter Journal appears to have been written day after day through the winter months of 2011, and hence its title, perhaps, but it is less a record of life in Brooklyn in January and February than an inventory and a book of reflections. Events in Auster’s childhood and early life in suburban New Jersey in the nineteen fifties, and student life at Columbia in the mid-sixties, are woven into explorations of adult experiences in his non-literary life, but the sequence is not chronological, nor does it read like a memoir.

The journal begins: “You think it will never happen to you, that it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the world to whom none of these things will ever happen, and then, one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else.” This is the first entry, opening, apparently, with a challenge to the reader, “You think”, but then we realise Auster is talking to himself, and it is an advice and a reassurance to the reader, perhaps, that this will not be an egocentric or self-indulgent narrative of a life. Although a “journal” may be private, Auster is emphatic about the democratic nature of the central human experiences, most democratic of all the presumption that we are all unique and equal individuals. While on the surface this may appear to be so, and to be the most significant thing about us, yet Auster insists in a very democratic spirit that time pulls everyone into line, whatever the earlier illusions of being exceptional. We read on, nevertheless, to discover what he thinks “it”, “these things” and “they” may represent to him.

On this opening page, the casual reference to “a catalogue of sensory data” and “what it has felt like to live inside this body from the first day you can remember being alive until this one” promise a frankness in presenting a life, the “tell-all” aspect of memoir-writing, especially in America. Recollections and reflections appear to come spontaneously each day, sometimes rather dreamlike, although some are catalogued briefly, time and place specified, while others are dwelled on and expanded over many days. The longest sequences are a report on all the houses and apartments he has lived in (twenty-one “permanent addresses” plus many other temporary stopping places), which becomes an oblique biographical sketch, and an account of the death of his mother, following which he writes a kind of obituary of her. The shortest entries are a paragraph or two, but on the last page there are separate sentences.

There is a rough plan for this stocktaking journal, then, and this gives it a loose shape. He sets out to tell the history of his physical self over the sixty or so years that can be recalled: moments of pleasure and pain, in sports and sex and travel, moments of injury and illness, and the ways in which his body absorbed tensions and traumas. Mysterious reactions in the form of attention lapses and panic attacks have led him to wonder about the secret life, as it were, of his body, and his thoughts often turn to the occasions when he was brushed by the grim reaper: a car accident, accidents in sports, an acquaintance killed by lightning in his presence. In brief, the life of his body is of interest to him now because of his sense of nearing the end of its life, and so the most moving part is the account of his mother’s life and death, an account that parallels his first work, “Portrait of an Invisible Man”.

It is as if Auster used this unscripted investigation of his body to recover or to discover, perhaps by chance, the mysterious sources of the obsessive preoccupations that have shaped his many novels. It may even be that he reread an interview that he had conducted with Edmond Jabès in 1978, when he had been immersed in French literature for a decade: “They say that Nietzsche wrote aphorisms, for example,” Jabès told him, “because he suffered from atrocious headaches that made it impossible for him to write very much at one sitting. Whether this is true or not, I do believe that a writer works with his body. You live with your body, and the book is above all the book of your body.” In the background also is the breakthrough experience at the dance show in late 1978, to which he returns in this journal.

Undoubtedly there is an American quality to Auster’s writing, especially its closeness to non-fictional narratives, and this book might even echo Philip Lopate’s collection of personal essays, Portrait of My Body. For more than thirty years, Auster’s plain and mysterious style has had an aspect of Hemingway, even of Mailer and Roth in this closeness to a prose rendering of American life through reportage, but he is also quite different from them. Roth’s Paternity and The Facts overlap in part Auster’s project, and, indeed, he too was the bright Jewish boy from New Jersey who went away to college and became a writer. He tells that story in many other essays and memoirs, and yet in those same decades when Roth was writing his great fictional series exploring identity in America, Auster’s way of approaching a democratic style was quite distinctive. “Speak now before it is too late,” he urges himself here on the first page, “and then hope to go on speaking until there is nothing more to be said. Time is running out, after all. Perhaps it is just as well to put aside your stories for now.” The echo here is Beckett, and Auster’s lifelong admiration for him, and for the French poetic and philosophical traditions that he also studied in his first decade, is what sets him apart from that Jewish-American literary milieu.

Winter Journal ends “You have entered the winter of your life” and so it is evident that Auster’s main preoccupation is mortality, the eventual frailty of the body and its mysterious and unexpected ways of imprisoning and releasing the spirit before the inescapable oblivion. For almost fifty years, his own writing has been that vital spirit, or that wished-for spirit, the guarantee that he not only continues to be alive but that he is leaving a substantial trace of his passage through the years. There is no great mystery in what happens: “it” and “these things” are what inevitably arrive to buffet one’s fragile hold on life, to diminish expectations of longevity, and the good luck, the accidents, the fortunate chance that shape so much of what happens are all enveloped eventually in the fact of death. And yet mysteries remain. It may appear to be fanciful for Auster to think himself an old man at age sixty-five, as he frequently does in this journal, but in fact, the writing of a journal as a gesture against time and oblivion brings us back to the foundation of his career and The Invention of Solitude, in that case the oblivion he faced being that of his father.

In the light of his governing preoccupation with the zones between self in the world and self as writer, those zones in which the writing finds its origins so that the finished word is beyond this zone and these selves and yet is anchored in them, Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011, his correspondence with Coetzee, is surely a paradox. One assumes, although this may be wrong, that the voices in the letters are as close as we can get to the “real” voices of these two novelists, closer than in their non-fictional projects. But this is a paradox because while Invisibility was the novel Auster had completed just before the correspondence began, Coetzee had just completed Summertime, a remarkable novel/memoir which appears to provide materials for a biography of the deceased novelist “John Coetzee”. The two novels resemble each other in so many ways that it is tempting to think that it was their mutual appreciation of these two books that sparked the correspondence. We cannot draw such conclusions, of course, for there is no editorial material included, and they almost never refer to their work, so that the very fact that they chose to publish the letters at all is puzzling. They appear to be a deliberate subversion of the academic editions of the letters of great figures published after their deaths, but it is impossible to know how the correspondence has been arranged as a reflection of their warm friendship and their commitment to a “private” correspondence in the era of Facebook.

Many speculations are possible as to the place of this work in their two careers, for the personal details provided, the opinions expressed on a range of topics in no particular order, rarely rise above the mundane. For instance, the thoughts of Coetzee are much less developed and poised than those ascribed to him in the novel Diary of a Bad Year or in Elizabeth Costello, a novel in which material originally published under his own name is now included as the work of his fictional character Elizabeth Costello. The letters are of limited interest in themselves, then, but, of course, both authors are keenly aware of readers’ curiosity about the “author”, and so letters are a further fragmentary contribution to the hall of mirrors of selfhood, another side view of the self, as it were, alongside the essays and memoirs and fictions.

Denis Sampson’s ‘Young John McGahern: Becoming a Novelist’ will be issued in paperback by Oxford University Press in November. ‘A Migrant Heart’, a memoir, will come out in 2014.



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