Monday, 2 April 2012

Travels in the Scriptorium

Travels in the Scriptorium - Paul Auster

It's been a while since I've read anything by Paul Auster (at least 10 years) but I won't leave it as long until the next time. Mazy games, precision and absolute imprecision, stories that may or may not be stories, it's familiar Auster territory to me.  Mr Blank, at times a stand in for Kafka's K(The Trial), at times Flann O'Brien's Mr Trellis(At Swim Two Birds), is in a room. He awakens without any memories of how he got there and cameras and microphones are recording his every twitch and fart. (sorry if that's a little rich(ard)) In fact the camera shoots one frame per second so we can visualize Mr Blank moving like a stop motion animation of a man, or like in an early silent film, perhaps starring Auster's hero Beckett's hero Buster Keaton.

The room might be in a hospital, or a prison, or a nursing home. He might be a victim or victimizer.  Each object, even the wall and floor, has its name written on it on a piece of tape. There is a desk with piles of photographs and sheets of paper. People come in, there are desultory interactions and some memories are re-awakened (or suggested?) There is sex, drugs and food. The pile of paper includes the opening chapter of a freshman literary piece from Mr Trause (There's an a, u, s, t, e & r in that name) which Mr Blank must finish.

The story is suggestive of the nineteenth century massacres of the Native American population and it's connection to Mr Blank and the gaps in his memory and his journey into this room are tenuous. It takes place at "the edge of the known world". He is undergoing 'treatment' and finishing the story is part of this. The idea of treatment as a written treatment hovers over this, perhaps written on a floating piece of tape. When he first starts to read the typescript, Mr Blank is overcome with fear. "Why this fear should have taken hold of him is something he cannot account for. It's only words, he tells himself, and since when have words had the power to frighten a man half to death?"

The adventures beyond the edge of the known world seem to cause less anxiety to the characters than Mr Blanks efforts to make it to his desk - "the desk itself is responsible for these oppressive thoughts - not the desk as desk, perhaps, but the photographs and papers piled on its surface.." In the story within the story the main character is asked to write down his experiences says, obliquely referencing 1001 Nights "If I keep him sufficiently entertained, perhaps he'll let me go on writing forever, and bit by bit I'll be turned into his personal clown, his own jester-scribe scribbling forth my pratfalls in endless streams of ink."

Circles circling circles. This is a book made of words on paper about a world made of words on paper. Flood, a policeman says: "My life is in ruins, Mr Blank. I walk around the world like a ghost, and sometimes I wonder whether I even exist. Whether I've ever existed at all."

In the story of the confederation Graf sees the Confederation as "a dream that each person carried within himself." This takes the self-reflexivity of the novel and throws it back into the world. We label our past, our desires, our future, our beliefs. What are they all but words. As the first thing Blank read said "Viewed from the outermost reaches of space, the earth is no larger than a speck of dust. Remember that the next time you write the word humanity."

Characters are recycled from older Auster novels, Blank has sent them on missions, they exist only because of him. They have names because "It's always more interesting when characters have names." This novel carefully wipes itself clear as it progresses but the journey is thought provoking and amusing. Makes me even more determined to fit in a re-reading of his classic New York Trilogy soon.


  1. Provocative and lyrical, Auster can be a frustrating yet challenging writer; the existentialist conceits can be wearying. I prefer his narrative based novels: particularly Moon Palace, The Music of Chance, Leviathan and The Book of Illusions. His protagonists are invariably lonesome elders, on the edge of, or recovering from, disaster. These wounded souls often face familiar abandonments, but invariably endure (not always intact) with grace and humour; his finales are often severe, startling and, oftentimes, profoundly moving... he writes about what is is to be human, to suffer bad luck and about (in his wife's words) "the strangeness of being alive.' I'm reaching for 'Sunset Park'...

    1. I've read The Music of Chance and Moon Palace (which I got signed at a reading) and have Leviathan and The Book of Illusions on my shelves so now that I have come back to Auster I may tackle some more in the near future.
      I have to admit to a weakness for existential conceits, though.

  2. I'm with Trev - i'm more of a sucker for the stories although some of the more conceptual books are interesting if a tad frustrating reads. The fact he is so prolific helps i think as if you are disappointed by one then you know another will be along next year!

    Book of illisions is fantastic

    1. Must get around to The Book of Illusions soon.