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Monday, 2 November 2009

Travels in the Scriptorium Part II

Sciptorium sans horse

I have spent my life in conversations with people I have never seen, with people I will never know and I hope to continue until the day I stop breathing. - from Paul Auster's acceptance speech for the Prince of Asturias Prize for Letters

If you have not read Part I then here is a link. You may not want to read this at all afterwards.

Paul Auster is an American writer, based in Brooklyn, New York. He was born in Newark, New Jersey to Jewish middle class parents of Polish descent and grew up in South Orange, New Jersey. As well as prose he has also written poetry, screenplays, essays, memoirs and an autobiography in addition to editing collections and translating other people's work. Before the publication of The New York Trilogy, three existential detective stories, Auster was best known for having edited the Random House Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry and for having written several insightful literary essays – not the stuff best sellers generally grow from. He married his second wife, writer Siri Hustvedt, in 1981. Previously, Auster was married to the acclaimed writer Lydia Davis. He is the father of Daniel and Sophie.

His writing style has been described as “finely-wrought, self-reflexive, filled with doublings, coincidences and mysteries.” Most critics would label him as post-modern (occasionally post-apocalyptic) with a fondness for metafiction; characters migrate from one novel to the next, as do props (a red notebook, the same kind in which he writes, in particular) and he occasionally inserts himself into the narrative, sometimes as the pseudonymous 'Mr Trause', sometimes as 'Paul Auster'.

Michael Dirda puts it this way:

Auster has perfected a limpid, confessional style, then used it to set disoriented heroes in a seemingly familiar world gradually suffused with mounting uneasiness, vague menace and possible hallucination. His plots—drawing on elements from suspense stories, existential récit and autobiography—keep readers turning the pages, but sometimes end by leaving them uncertain about what they've just been through. – 'Spellbound', The New York Review of Books, Volume 55, Number 19 · December 4, 2008

Auster wrote Travels in the Scriptorium whilst trying to raise funding to film his screenplay, The Inner Life of Martin Frost:

I was on the phone all day every day to producers, getting nowhere. Finally, Siri said: 'You have to get out of the house. Go to work in your office (he writes in a Spartan rented room near his Park Slope home). Go doodle, you noodle!' she said. 'You can't keep knocking your head against a brick wall.' Siri was right – always is! – so I wrote Scriptorium... – Jackie McGlone, 'A voice in the darkness - Paul Auster interview', The Scotsman, 1st August 2009

Beckett sitting on bed Now I don't know about you but when I think of “a Spartan rented room” two things jump immediately to my mind, the empty room – empty bar an upright piano and stool – where Stravinsky wrote The Rite of Spring and the various rooms that Samuel Beckett has written in throughout his life. The photograph on the cover of my copy of Travels in the Scriptorium shows such a room, a room that also appears in many of Beckett's later television plays (e.g Eh Joe, Nacht und Traúme and Ghost Trio) and his only film.

There is a stronger connection with Beckett than that though. Auster edited the recent 4-volume Grove edition of Beckett's (almost) complete works. I never really thought about it at the time nor did I wonder why he gets a chapter in Beckett Remembering – Remembering Beckett since at the time he was just a name to me and no more. As it happens he was a friend of Beckett's although he admits not a close one; perhaps had he continued in France he might have become on. They first met when, as a young man of twenty-four living in Paris, he chanced his arm and wrote Beckett a letter asking to meet him. Three days later he received an invitation to meet with him at La Closerie des Lilacs. Over the years they shared correspondence – Auster would send him copies of his work – and Beckett was very supportive when Auster got the job of editing the Random House Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry and contributed translations of Apollinaire, Breton and Eluard. Auster admits that as a young man his love of Beckett's work “bordered on idolatry” and it's easy to see Beckettian influences in his work. Reading reviews and articles about Auster Beckett's name crops up frequently. But, is there a stronger connection yet?

In the book that follows Travels in the Scriptorium, Man in the Dark, Auster makes quite obvious nods towards him as with this little quote which combines thoughts from Waiting for Godot, The Unnamable and Worstward Ho:

Concentration can be a problem, however, and more often than not my mind eventually drifts away from the story I’m trying to tell to the things I don’t want to think about. There’s nothing to be done. I fail again and again, fail more often than I succeed, but that doesn’t mean I don’t give it my best effort.

In Travels in the Scriptorium he draws inspiration from other writings. The protagonist here is one that features in a great deal of Beckett's writing, an old man:

The only fact that can be set down with any certainty is that he is not young, but the word old is a flexible term and can be used to describe a person anywhere between sixty and a hundred. We will therefore drop the epithet old man and henceforth refer to the person in the room as Mr. Blank.

Sounds like a character from Watt. We learn later from a woman called Sophie who is described as being “somewhere in her late forties or early fifties” that Mr. Blank is “a lot older” than she is but we never learn his exact age nor do we ever learn his first name.

Like many of Beckett's characters he is struggling with issues of identity and memory; the man in That Time is a good example. Like him Blank is dependent on external forces to generate memories. The first comes when he sits in the chair at the desk. He gets a wave of pleasure from the experience especially when he discovers that “an invisible spring mechanism … allows him to rock back and forth at will”. This brings back a childhood memory of a “rocking horse that sat in his bedroom when he was a small boy … whose name was Whitey and who, in the young Mr. Blank's Krapp mind, was not a wooden object adorned with white paint but a living being, a true horse.” The next comes when he looks at one of the photos on the desk; a picture of a young woman conjures up the name “Anna” and a feeling of “overpowering love” The image is not a million miles away from Krapp sitting at his desk wallowing in his own past.

Then a phone call from one James P. Flood, “a minor character”, at least that is how he describes himself, who wants to visit him. From Flood he discovers that he is being cared for by a woman named Anna, who, Flood tells Blank, “[o]f all the people involved in this story, she's the only one who's completely on your side.” Is this the same Anna in the photo? For some reason he thinks she might be dead and that he is somehow responsible for her death.

Apart from the photos there are also pages, some handwritten, others typewritten. The typed pages appear to be a story, a report actually, written by a man in a cell in the garrison town of “Ultima: the westernmost tip of the Confederation, the place that stands at the edge of the known world … overlooking the unmapped expanses of the Alien Territories. The law says that no one is allowed to go out there. I went,” the man writes, “because I was ordered to go and now I have returned to give my report.”

So, what is this? Is this an allegory? Is the room, as in Endgame, the inside of a human skull? Are these characters in a story? Have the lunatics taken over the asylum? Or is this set in a strange future? Is the Confederation friend or foe? Has the world been invaded by aliens? Who are the “shadow-beings” that invade his thoughts when he closes his eye? Did he write the story he's been reading? Is it a story or an actual report? He sounds like Moran after writing his report of Molloy's disappearance – in the book of the same name – and wondering if Molloy really existed. So many questions.

Anna arrives with his breakfast but she is not the same woman as in the photo; she has aged and could be anything between forty-five and sixty; the photograph apparently was taken thirty-five years earlier. She encourages him to breakfast before the meal gets cold but first his pills which he stubbornly only agrees to take if she gives him “a real kiss” which she does without squabbling with him. The pills make him twitch so badly that he can't feed himself; Anna takes over.

Afterwards she wants to know if he needs to use the bathroom and whether he requires any assistance. Yes, he does and no, he doesn't. Nothing is glossed over:

The pyjama bottoms fall to his ankles; he sits down on the toilet seat; his bladder and bowels prepare to evacuate their pent-up liquids and solids. Urine flows from his penis, first one stool and then a second stool slide from his anus, and so good does it feel to be relieving himself in this manner that he forgets the sorrow that took hold of him just moments before. Of course he can manage on his own, he tells himself. He's been doing it ever since he was a little boy, and when it comes to pissing and shitting, he's as capable as any person in the world. Not only that, but he's an expert at wiping his ass as well.

Beckett, of course, never shied away from the scatalogical. The novella The End springs to mind here. Blank cannot get his pyjama bottoms back up and Anna has to help him. He wants to bathe but agrees to a sponge bath instead. The woman's ministrations cause him to have an erection:

We're feeling frisky today, Mr. Blank, Anna says.

I'm afraid so, Mr. Blank whispers, his eyes still shut. I can't help it.

If I were you, I'd feel proud of myself. Not every man your age is still . . . still capable of this.

It has nothing to do with me. The thing has a life of its own.

With that and without fuss or further discussion she relieves Mr. Blank of his problem. This recalls Beckett's short story 'Enough' although the method of release differs. Did you notice no inverted commas around the speech? Another Beckettism.

Afterwards Anna provides Mr. Blank with some more tantalising clues. He had apparently sent her on a dangerous “mission” (his word) which she barely survived; she was once married to a man called David Zimmer who has now died, something Blank is only indirectly responsible for. And yet she is clearly devoted to the old man, above and beyond the call of duty. He apologises for everything he's put her through:

I'm sorry

Don't be. Without you, I never would have met David in the first place. Believe me Mr. Blank, it isn't your fault. You do what you have to do, and then things happen. Good things and bad things both. That's the way of it. We might be the ones who suffer, but there's a reason for it, a good reason, and anyone who complains about it doesn't understand what it means to be alive.

She helps him dress – all in white, “a special request . . . [f]rom Peter Stillman” – and then leaves. Mr. Blank, all dressed in white, now that's got to be a clue for us and not him.

At this point we're 25 pages into a 130 page novella. I haven't got a clue what's going on but my head is buzzing with ideas.

106817_542 Did you ever watch Masters of Science Fiction when it was on? There was one episode called 'A Clean Escape' that's very similar to this, a man in a room who can't remember. It's based on a short story by John Kessel. The man happens to be the president of the United States, the very president who finally pressed the button. Outside, although in the safety of his bunker he is unaware of it, a nuclear winter is raging. The problem is he can't retain memories for more than forty-five minutes. The whole episode revolves around a female psychiatrist's efforts to get him to remember so that he can be held accountable for his actions.

Was something similar happening here? Is that why Flood wants to see him? Is that why Auster goes to pains to point out that he's an ex-policeman? Are there no more policemen?

In the previous post I mentioned that the Guardian said that “[f]ans wouldn't be able to resist consuming [this book] whole” but what I didn't realise was that there's a clue here, the word “fans”. I think most people would agree that if you're going to start reading Beckett then The Unnamable should probably not be your first port of call. The book's intertextuality would miss you. Names like Molloy, Watt and Murphy would be simply that, names, however “fans” of Beckett's writing would recognise these as important touchstones – each of these three has their own book for starters – and it's the same with the world Auster has created for Mr. Blank, it's populated with names (or is it characters?) from his previous books: Peter Stillman is a character (actually two characters, father and son) in City of Glass, the first book in the New York Trilogy; David Zimmer is the main character in The Book of Illusions; James P. Flood appeared first in Moon Palace and In the Country of Last Things Auster describes the odyssey of nineteen year-old Anna to find her brother in a post-apocalyptic vision of New York, told to a childhood friend in a letter that will never be read. There are more. I won't list them all. But what connects all these disparate characters? Mr. Blank, that's who. And who is he?

Fans will pick up on more subtle stuff. The story that Mr. Blank begins to read about the Confederation, “why does the prose sound like something written in the nineteenth century?” Perhaps because the American transcendentalism of the early to middle nineteenth century is a major influence in him, specifically authors like Hawthorne and Melville. The subtle inside jokes and a-ha moments like this are endless. For example, a character called Fanshawe makes an appearance later in the book too. Fanshawe is a novel written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. A certain Mr. Trause also pops his head in too.

There is a precision to Auster's writing that suggests Beckett's mature prose where he meticulously covers all options in painstaking (and sometimes painful to read) detail. The language is stripped down (shades of the mature Beckett again) and reads like a report which we are told at the start of the book this is. In an interview Auster had this to say:

It's stripped-down because it's the language of the report. That's the form of the novel; it's a report. So it doesn't read necessarily like a piece of fiction. So much the better, as far as I'm concerned.

Paul Auster photographed by his son This is a fascinating read but the ending may well frustrate many because much is not answered. People who love shows like Lost where we're drip-fed clues will get caught up in this book right away but woe betide the network if that last episode doesn't answer all their questions. Auster does provide us with an answer if you've not worked it out yourself. No, Blank's not the president and, no, aliens haven't landed on earth. Having read a great number of reviews of the book I can tell you that not everyone was pleased with how things get wrapped up. And some of these were “fans” too. But there are fans and there are fans. I'm the kind of fan of Beckett's who spends six weeks researching Waiting for Godot and who gets silly-excited when I discover some nibblet of information that I never knew before.

I wouldn't go so far as to say: “Don't read this book,” because you don't need to know his entire canon by heart to get where he's coming from. In the same interview he says:

People who come upon this book not having read anything of mine before will read it in one way, and I'm hoping that there's enough in it so that it will be compelling. That's the gamble I've made. People who are familiar with my work will get more out of it, I think. But I don't think not knowing is going to make for a bad experience. At least, I hope not.

How do I feel about Auster after reading this book? I want to read more and soon. I've already ordered a copy of The New York Trilogy from Amazon. At 1p plus postage, what's there to lose?


John Ettorre said...

An enormously interesting writer whom I haven't delved into nearly enough. But I expect I will now. I do love that book title. It's uniquely resonant.

Elisabeth said...

Paul Auster came to Melbourne last year in the company of his wife, Siri Hustvedt. Auster is the more well-recognised of the two and his writing is superb, not that I've read much of it. Have you seen his little illustrated book about his typewriter? I'm still more taken with Auster's wife's work. She has written a book of essays called A Plea for Eros, which I love.

They make a terrific couple, at least in their public persona.

I need to re read your posting here now, to get a better feel for Auster and maybe consider reading him.

Thanks for this as ever brilliant review. I love the way you combine the writer's efforts with your own experience of reading him.

Jim Murdoch said...

I agree, John, and the sad thing is that that there are so many writers that I have never looked at. I've just finished my first V S Naipaul for example. The copy I bought is an old, discoloured Penguin edition, the kind I was buying en masse in the seventies and the size of book I like to hold in my hand – books have gotten awfully big in recent years – anyway I can remember considering him way back then and the reason I allowed myself to be put of was the crappy watercolour on the cover and that is such a shame because the man can write and he's such a considered writer too. At least I've found him now. Now all I have to do is find the time to read more. I immediately ordered another Auster as soon as I finished Scriptorium but Christ knows when I'll get to it; it certainly won't be this year.

And, Elisabeth, I'm afraid Auster's wife is quite unknown to me. I did look her up when researching the article but I've forgotten it all. I couldn't have told you her name if you'd asked me and if you ask me tomorrow I probably won't be able to remember it either. All I can say was that I was completely absorbed by this book. I read books all the time. A lot of them are a chore but this particular book I simply did not want to a) put down and b) end. The trouble is, being so short, it ended all too quickly whereupon I immediately wanted to sit down and write my own version of the book: is that praise enough?

Rob said...

I'm a big fan of Paul Auster. Loved the New York Trilogy, but also most of his other books (and I've read nearly all of them).

Jim Murdoch said...

Well, Rob, I think I might well become a big fan too. As I mentioned above as soon as I'd finished this book I ordered the New York Trilogy and it's now sitting on my 'to read sometime this lifetime' shelf.

Ken Armstrong said...

Came upon this missed post via Stumbleupon as stumbled it, as I do.

Have I mentioned elsewhere that I love the New York Trilogy. You should have a go at it.

Jim Murdoch said...

First thing I did after finishing this, Ken, was order myself a copy of the New York Trilogy which is quickly getting buried in review copies but I'll get to it. I've also ordered another since but I forget the name of it. I just wish to hell I was a quicker reader.

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