Book of the dead
The third in a trilogy of books I’ve read by Paul Auster recently – following ‘The Music of Chance‘ and ‘Mr Vertigo‘ – ‘The Invention of Solitude’ is a markedly different work, an autobiographical account divided into two parts: ‘Portrait of an Invisible Man’ and ‘Book of Memory’. The former is a raw outpouring of reflections on the character of his recently-deceased father, an apparently impenetrable, aloof and stubborn man. The latter is a collection of loosely-connected writings on the subject of fatherhood, solitude, memory and chance, that seems to be rooted (though not explicitly) in the author’s complex emotions regarding his father’s death. Anecdotal and sometimes itself a little oblique, it encompasses literary and artistic criticism, and musings on the nature of memory, all written in the third person under the abbreviated pseudonym of ‘A’.
In ‘Portrait of an Invisible Man’ we find the author at his most emotionally honest, describing the act of writing about his father and their relationship as more painful than cathartic:
“There has been a wound, and I realize now that it is very deep. Instead of healing me as I thought it would, the act of writing has kept this wound open”
Elsewhere Auster reveals his frustration at the slowness of his progress in describing his father, expressing a
“feeling of moving around in circles, of perpetual backtracking, of going off in many directions at once … No sooner have I thought one thing than it evokes another thing, and then another thing, until there is an accumulation of detail so dense that I feel I am going to suffocate. Never before have I been so aware of the rift between thinking and writing”.
Despite the rawness in parts of ‘Portrait of an Invisible Man’, Auster still succeeds in unpeeling layers of symbolism or significance from everyday objects in his typically concise prose. At one point he describes the picture that haunts the front cover of my edition of ‘The Invention of Solitude’,
“a trick photo taken … during the Forties. There are several of him sitting around a table, each image shot from a different angle … as if they have gathered to conduct a seance … as if he has come there only to invoke himself, to bring himself back from the dead, as if, by multiplying himself, he has inadvertently made himself disappear. There are five of him there, yet the nature of the trick photography denies the possibility of eye contact. Each one is condemned to go on staring into space … but seeing nothing, never able to see anything. It is a picture of death, a portrait of an invisible man”.
While here and elsewhere in ‘Portrait of an Invisible Man’ we are treated to the Auster we know from his fiction – the deceptively simple prose, simultaneously fluid and philosophical – the ‘Book of Memory’ is more frustrating. The lucid portrait of Auster’s rather unknowable father is powerful and compelling, and while written in an evident outpouring of complex feelings, is never less than tangible and heartfelt. Thus the more affected, knotty literary devices employed in the ‘Book of Memory’, coupled with its more various thematic concerns, have a rather unbalancing effect on the reader. While many of Auster’s mini-investigations are engaging in their own right, they don’t pull together as well as they could, and create an incongruity when taken in tandem with the first part.
Auster’s critique of Pinocchio is particularly interesting, enabling him to make powerful illustrations on the nature of fatherhood and the loss of childhood to memory. Equally compelling are Auster’s writings on Vermeer and Van Gogh, but he struggles to pull these disparate tangents into a homogenous whole. It is clear he is passionate about many of the subjects, and could write a great deal more on each, but he often fails to make the transitions between these essays count for the reader. While they evidently connect, it is not always clear why, or at least the leap from one to the other is not always as illuminating as it obviously is to the author. So, while ‘The Book of Memory’ remains a personal journey, it is not one as easy to share as ‘Portrait of an Invisible Man’.