The first time I became of Paul Auster was around 2005, through a friend’s (who I won’t name) then girlfriend in Brighton, who I discovered had a mutual interest in silent films such as the comedies of Harold Lloyd and very early Laurel and Hardy and the gothic horror /early Science Fiction / Fantasy such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Metropolis of Nosferatu.
She sent me over a copy of The Book of Illusions, by an American novelist called Paul Auster. I had never heard of the book or him, but the blurb on the back hooked me completely.
The book is described as:
One man’s obsession with the mysterious life of a silent film star takes him on a journey into a shadow-world of lies, illusions, and unexpected love. After losing his wife and young sons in a plane crash, Vermont professor David Zimmer spends his waking hours mired in grief. Then, watching television one night, he stumbles upon a lost film by silent comedian Hector Mann, and remembers how to laugh . . .
Mann was a comic genius, in a trademark white suit and fluttering black moustache. But one morning in 1929 he walked out of his house and was never heard from again. Zimmer’s obsession with Mann drives him to publish a study of his work; whereupon he receives a letter postmarked New Mexico, supposedly written by Mann’s wife, and inviting him to visit the great Mann himself. Can Hector Mann be alive? Zimmer cannot decide – until a strange woman appears on his doorstep and makes the decision for him, changing his life forever.
I don’t remember how long it took me to read this book, although I suspect it was fairly quickly, but it clicked with me straight away and not just because of the topic – looking behind the camera of silent film makers. It had a crisp dialogue and a tinge of eeriness, fantasy and humour, which rarely clicks with me in novelists, and it got to the stage where I started going through the rest of his novels, then his non-fiction and poetry and even the films he has been involved.
Auster’s work has recurring themes such as coincidence, frequent portrayal of an ascetic life, a sense of imminent disaster, an obsessive writer as central character or narrator, loss of the ability to understand or loss of language. The Book of Illusions is fascinating. As the obsessive writer in this book, Zimmer is given the chance to meet one of his heroes and from there is dragged into a world that turns his life upside, not as much as a normal thriller, but an emotional thriller with a lyrical style I hadn’t come across before.
The Washington post described his work as:
“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.”
This reflects in my other favourite book of his, Winter Journal.
Winter Journal is described as:
“In Winter Journal, Paul Auster moves through the events of his life in a series of memories grasped from the point of view of his life now: playing baseball as a teenager; participating in the anti-Vietnam demonstrations at Columbia University; seeking out prostitutes in Paris, almost killing his second wife and child in a car accident; falling in and out of love with his first wife; the ‘scalding, epiphanic moment of clarity’ in 1978 that set him on a new course as a writer.”
Winter Journal is not an autobiography as such, and is seen through the history of his body and written in the second person as if he is addressing himself as a stranger. For me, this came at an important time in my life and writing when I was dealing with the after effects of getting Diabetes and needed to deal with it in my writing. Reading a piece of non-fiction told about somebody’s life told in the second person left me stunned.
There was a section in the book where Auster wrote in detail about every place he had lived throughout his life in this same tone. All twenty one of them, and it caused me to reflect when my life was in turmoil. Where I had lived in all of my life up to that stage was nowhere near that number. Through that looking backwards, enabled to me to then look forwards and has proved a major influence on my work ever since.
Andy N is the author of four full length poetry collections, the most recent being The streets were all we could see.
He also is the host / co host of Podcast series as varied as Spoken Label, Reading in Bed, Comics Unity, Wrestle Up and Koll, Andy and Amanda and does ambient music under the name of Ocean in a Bottle.
His official blog is: onewriterandhisplc.blogspot.com
Paul Benjamin Auster is an American writer and film director. His notable works include The New York Trilogy (1987), Moon Palace (1989), The Music of Chance (1990), The Book of Illusions (2002), The Brooklyn Follies (2005), Invisible (2009), Sunset Park (2010), Winter Journal (2012) and 4 3 2 1 (2017). His books have been translated into more than forty languages
His Website is http://paul-auster.com/