The invention of solitude
So…lots of literary awards last week last week as both the Nobel (cue accent on Romanian born writer by the Romanian press) and the Booker (when I first heard historical novel, I was a little put off, but the prospect of Oliver Cromwell? That is strangely enticing.) were awarded. [I had a link on the peace prize Nobel too, but I figured staying out of politics is just wiser 😀 ]
And this morning I finished JM Coetzee’s Disgrace – of which I will write in a future post, since I haven’t yet had a chance to write about Paul Auster’s The invention of solitude. I picked this up running around in a Paris airport, looking for something to read when The Road ended. It wasn’t much of a choice, really – among the dan browns of the world, I went straight to this. I can’t say I’d ever given much thought to Paul Auster the man except acknowledging that he lives in Brooklyn and most of his characters roam about the same neighborhood. Plus, the usual author photo at the back of some of his books made me expect a man with a secret, a dark and brutal past and a cynical sense of humor – I think it must be the eyes. But, while sometimes too longwinded, it has been a pretty enlightening and gripping memoir.
The first part, The invisible man, is triggered by his father’s abrupt death. While rummaging through all the things he kept in the house where he had spent the last 15 years of his life alone, Auster reminisces on his father’s days as a landowner (slumlord, Auster says) and as a mostly absent father – perhaps not physically absent, but seemingly never particularly interested in his children’s lives, and thus not leaving behind the emptiness that a parent’s demise should leave. Coming to terms with his life, trying to understand him seems futile after death, but it’s a good exercise for the left behind son. His family’s history, very tabloid-like, with his grandmother shooting his grandfather in front of one of the sons and the ensuing trial is revealed through a coincidence, and a ripped photo that now has an explanation finds it way on the first page of the book. The coincidence and the significance of seemingly unrelated events – something invariably found in Mr. Auster’s novels, might have roots in this personal history; the same goes for the shady past of most of his characters. There’s something…noiresque about this whole story, although the grandfather wasn’t much of a leading man, nor was the grandmother a femme fatale.
The second part, The Book of Memory, though still autobiographical and written while dealing with divorce and separation from his own son, is written in the 3rd person, with the author referring to himself as A. While at first slightly annoying and pretentious, eventually you slip into the rhythm and stop focusing on this detail. This time it’s not a straightforward narration, but seemingly unconnected paragraphs with subtitles like Second return to the belly of the whale or Further commentary on the nature of chance. Once again, coincidences, a subject matter very close to Auster – and the one that sticks out for me was the story of the young man who lives in Paris, in a small chambre a bonne. When he writes to his father about his lodgings, he finds out it’s the same room where his father his during WWII, before emigrating. Auster gives a lot more meaning to events such as this – he sees a greater picture than most of us, sees things repeating themselves endlessly. Another favorite subject broached is Collodi’s Pinocchio, vs. Disney’s Pinocchio (vs. Jonah and the whale) – the boy as image of the author, the depths missing from the onscreen adaptation (namely the explicit motivations found in the second) etc. Comments of prophecies and false prophets (Cassandra, Jonah in Ninive), on Van Gogh, on Hölderlin’s poetry – you can find them all here. Plus, scenes from his life in Paris, scenes from his child’s life, and even more coincidences. It may seem disjointed and scattered, but in the end, it’s the book of memory and memories are nothing if not disjointed.
The Times review – here.