Paul Auster has been one of my favourite authors for many years, but not one whose name would come directly to mind if I were asked to name an author whose books I “liked”. “Liking” is not an emotion that I associate with Auster’s books. It is too friendly and mild a term. Bafflement and fascination, as well as irritation and great admiration, would come closer to the mark. I suspect he is something of an acquired taste and once you have gotten into Paul Auster, you are as devoted as a slavering but somewhat puzzled dog. Whatever his motivation for producing Report from the interior, a very strange bit of self-analysis, I would not recommend it unless you are an absolute Auster fan. Read everything else he has written, yes, do! Absolutely! But this one – I do not know whether I am crazy about it or hated it. It is an oddity that you cannot easily fit into a genre, but it is also an impressive demonstration that humans are, sadly, “on one level, no more than meat; and on the other, no more than fiction.”
Difficult to fit into a genre
Report from the interior is not a travelogue or tale of exploration like the title suggests. It is the story of a boy, probably Auster himself, growing up, so in that sense it is a Bildungsroman – but it is not a novel. In other words, the “interior” is Auster’s own interior, his own feelings and thoughts. I seriously wondered why on earth anyone would write such a thing, when they could write a memoir, or an autobiography, particularly considering how long-lived and famous Auster is. I mean, he would really have something to report on, from his interior, as it were. It is cataloged at the Library of Congress as a ”biography” – which raises the question, a biography of whom? Autobiographies are written by a person of themselves, and are written in the 1st person. A biography, on the other hand, is about someone, written by someone else, sometimes with the help of the subject, usually, 3rd person.
This book has the oddest point of view I have ever read, period: it is written in the 2nd person – “you” in other words. It’s like looking at someone from a distance, someone else, or perhaps yourself, in the sense that you can refer to yourself in the 2nd person, rather than “I” or “one”. But it can also refer to someone else, you over there. Even the footnotes in the book, intended to clarify events, are addressed to “you”, as if this person were looking at themselves from a distance and taking stock;
“It puzzles you that you shared the story of sleeping with another girl with the girl you thought of as your girlfriend.” (my underlining/italics, p.253, note 21)
It is not so distancing as 3rd person “them” or “they”, nor so immediate as 1st person “I” or “me”. It is something other.
And who are you?
Who is this person, this “ you” who is both the narrator and the main character? He has a name, “Paul”, and on the dust-jacket it says that this is Auster himself. But it is the aforementioned distancing and 2nd person narration that made me feel as if he is observing someone else’s life. Supporting this is the fact that he refers to other people in the story only by the initials of their surnames, or by their first names, to protect the identities of real people like writers sometimes do in autobiographies. Once only does he use the full, real names of people, explaining that he has stopped referring to them anonymously because “they are ghosts now, and the only thing that belongs to a ghost is his name.” (p.205, footnote 11).
At the same time, it is deeply, strangely and uncomfortably personal. I cannot imagine that he could’ve gotten so deeply into someone else’s head unless it were his own head. This is not just recounting or describing someone’s life or their growing up. It is the detailed description of someone’s deepest most obscure memories, thoughts and feelings from when they were a small child without any formed ideas, or even words, to when they “grew up”. These are the thoughts of a writer-to-be, deeply involved in reading everything and anything, and his first attempts at writing, and he is deeply ill-adjusted, awkward, introverted and depressed.
If this person were Auster, one can read his biography on Wikipedia or wherever and get some comfort that he did become a writer and a very successful one at that. But all the same, I was really wondering, as I was wading through these turmoiled thoughts while at the same time looking at this person, the “you”, like a bug on a slide under a microscope or as a forensic scientist would dissect a skeleton, why, for the gazillioneth time, would he write this?!
Motivation for the (auto)biography
Firstly, I believe it is something to do with all humans’ need to revisit the past, to look back on their lives. All people do – and as Emma Brockes explains in her essay on “nostalgia fatigue”, it is nostalgia that is “the potent longing that comes from looking back, from not knowing how everything turned out”.
True; trips down memory lane, in books, movies or websites, are based on the notion that triggering old memories makes people feel good. And that is where the wheels come off the theory. Not all memories are good. Nostalgia can lead one up a path to a memory one would rather not have, someone one wishes one would never see again, somewhere one would never want to visit again. Family memories, in particular, can be brutal, and a little bit of nostalgia over old polaroids or a group reminiscence at Thanksgiving can lead to a whole headful of memories of unpleasantness. Nice things yes, but also memories of what life is really like, which is, often, just not so nice. Or less nice than people would care to remember.
Liz Jensen, author of a memoir of a family trauma, Death In the Alps, puts it like this, quoting neurologist Paul Broks:
“Some narratives can be shaped into parables about hope, or about the return of the lost. Not this one. Fiction can heal. But unfinished stories, and our attempts to spin false endings for them in our desperation for narrative order, can kill…In his book Into the Silent Land, the neurologist Paul Broks writes: ‘When we see the brain we realise that we are, on one level, no more than meat; and on the other, no more than fiction.’“
More true than that I cannot put it myself: humans have a desperate urge for “narrative order” while at the same time battling nostalgia, the longing for the past. But the brain is the brain, neural networks are neural networks with their limitations, and the rest we make up as we go along, our own little fictions.
To both provide narrative order to his life story and presumably deal with his nostalgia, Auster has taken to doing a deep analysis of the workings of a developing mind, from this boy’s earliest baby memories, to him as a toddler, to his angst-ridden years as a teenager deeply influenced by other writers, to his time as a confused young adult in Paris and at Columbia University in New York. And goodness, was he ever a wibbling, self-indulgent little weirdo. Sorry, Mr. Auster, but a charming portrait this is not. The blurb on the dust cover rather uselessly touts that Auster is “answering the challenge of autobiography in ways rarely, if ever, seen before.” I agree with the “rarely” part. Rare this is, indeed. The question is again, which challenges of autobiography is he answering? In any case, isn’t this a biography, not an autobiography?
Let’s assume for the moment that the “you” in question is himself – students of his work would know, so would his publishers. I, as a mere reader, would not. He goes into great detail about things that influenced him when he was growing up. He was deeply affected by films – three are described in agonizingly boring detail in the book. The War of the Worlds (1953), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). It seems that these films contributed to his later love of writing screenplays, however, it is very strange indeed to attribute such deep meaning to commercial products – the result of a bunch of writers making up something together. But, having had such strange obsessions myself (meaning watch one movie tens of times, for years), for instance The Nun’s Story (1959), Angélique, Marquise des Anges (1964), and The Great Gatsby (1974), I can understand the inclusion of these pages and pages of descriptions, as well as photos of them at the back of the book.
In terms of addressing nostalgia, the photo section is very much an example of looking back and finding proof that something existed and how it turned out.
So there are pages of photos of historical events, books, films and images that influenced him, but none of him or of his family. Not a single one, unless the cover image of another edition of the book is of him as a boy. The closest you get is a photo of a Beatrix Potter cup he drinks out of, but even that is not actually his cup, it is from a picture collection of the New York Public Library.
From “you” to “I”
He intersperses his life story with extracts from a series of letters addressed to a woman he was involved with, this time writing as “I”. She kept all his letters, for reasons I fail to understand. I had also written love letters to a boy when I was in my teens, hundreds of them. I read them years later and they were so cringe-worthy I got rid of them in a literal “bonfire of the vanities”. Auster’s letters show a hugely self-indulgent and self-obsessed mindset. They are full of literary and political references, but also strange confessions and ramblings. Towards the end of this exhausting and eventually, boring, set of letters, he seemed to be “doing better”. He got arrested during the anti-war student riots at Columbia University in 1968, and that apparently got him out of his funk. Prior to that, though he was supposedly improving after falling apart a bit in Paris, his prose in his letters turned surrealist – so much for the return to rationality:
“The equator hangs over the back of the chair, a limp and withered cudgel. The mailman enters. The mailman is a Fatman who carries a dead dog at the bottom of his sack. He says: ‘Ever since I got so fat I have swung my two-foot keychain in an ever-widening arc. Soon I’ll lasso the globe and eat it as a snack, just as I ate oranges.’ Never has laughter so deflated us. We sit on our toilets, sweating with shame. […] Humpty-Dumpty, your most devoted servant, therefore anxiously awaits your return to this corner of the universe.” (Letter to Lydia, P.246).
Finally he ends the book with a letter to Lydia, and the words “I have written with love and fatigue.” Yes, and the reader has ploughed through this with love and fatigue also. Lots of fatigue. The most loveable words in the book would be the opening paragraphs describing his experience of the world as a very little boy. But even those are tempered with these words: “At least you think you can remember, you believe you remember, but perhaps you are not remembering at all, or remembering only a later remembrance of what you think you thought in that distant time which is all but lost to you now.” (p.4) Right from the start, there is that infernal distancing and denial.
This is an impressive achievement in documenting memories, but it is so hard for the reader to get through it. It is achievement enough just to have regained the memories of a childhood through mementoes, letters, cultural markers, memes, recollections, etc., bearing in mind that brain development of cognitive structures, particularly the amygdala and hippocampus, make autobiographical memory unlikely before the age of three years. Therefore he says he only covers the childhood years up to the age of 12. It is a major achievement to have been able to put to words the confused workings of a developing brain. But the question is why? Why do it? To prove that we are in many ways all like him in our nostalgia and need for a coherent background narrative? To show how a child turns into a writer? Or to show what made Auster the writer that he is? I feel it is actually an “apologia”, more self-justification than self-documentation, despite all the photos.
He says early on: “…exploring your mind as you remember it from childhood will no doubt be a more difficult task – perhaps an impossible one. Still, you feel compelled to give it a try. Not because you find yourself a rare or exceptional object of study, but precisely because you don’t, because you think of yourself as anyone, as everyone.” (p.4) [my emphases]
So it was his stated intention to describe the “human condition”, the state of everyman, as small and young humans. But, Auster is “an exceptional object of study” – despite what he thinks of himself. He, more than many other writers, is justified to write an autobiography. His mind is, like William Shakespeare wrote in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, such a “seething brain, such shaping fantasies that apprehend more than cool reason ever comprehends.”
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare, Act V, Scene I – THESEUS:
“More strange than true: I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.”)
By choosing such a difficult writing style for this book, he has placed barriers to understanding and empathy between him and readers. On the other hand – that’s Auster for you – always a challenge.
About the author
Auster has been a prolific writer, and I became a fan mainly because of these works of his:
- Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story (1990) – Which became Smoke, a 1995 independently produced American film, which was based on the short story and for which Auster wrote the screenplay. It is one of my favourite movies, downbeat, but sweet and subtle and it stars the rough-looking but sexy Harvey Keitel as “Auggie”.
- Mr. Vertigo (1994) – Which has the only truly convincing description of someone defying gravity and walking on air that I have ever read. As of 2007 Terry Gilliam was writing the screenplay of Mr. Vertigo, but currently the project has not gone into production yet, though there are visualizations on the interweb created by enthusiastic fans.
- The Book of Illusions (2002) – Which is like a mystery within a mystery, so that you can hardly figure out what is an illusion and what isn’t.
“A cult writer since the 1980s, he was recognized already in his early creative years as the “main representative of the psychological thriller”, for the labyrinthic, alienating and almost metaphysical portrait of New York in his famous New York Trilogy (1987). [Take the label “cult writer” with a pinch of salt. He might have a fan base but he is neither under-published nor unsuccessful.] Success arrived after ten intense years enriched by experience, enhanced by nomadic journeys through Paris, Dublin, Rome and Madrid, during which he undertook a varied number of jobs, from ghost writer for silent movies to literary critic.
His novels The Music of Chance (1990), Leviathan (1992), The Brooklyn Follies (2005), in addition to those ones of the last decade, such as Man in the dark (2008), Invisible (2009), Sunset Park (2010), confirm Auster as an extraordinary poet of an inexplicable world ruled by chance. In the nineties he dedicated himself to cinema: Smoke and Blue in the Face (1995) are two revelatory movies by Wayne Wang, written and adapted by Auster. He also directed: Lulu on the Bridge (1998), and The Inner Life of Martin Frost (2007). In 2013 Auster and [former South African author J.M.] Coetzee published Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011, a correspondence of intellectual reflections about the most oddly assorted themes. In 2015 Spike Jonze directed Mr. Vertigo, based on the same Auster’s novel (1994). In Italy his books are published by Einaudi.” (Text from Le Conversazione, New York, May 04, 2016)
- His Facebook fanpage is here. (Rtrvd. 2016-09-29)
- His author page on the Macmillan publisher website is here. (Rtrvd. 2016-09-29)
- It says a lot that he has been interviewed by Charlie Rose many times – he is just the type of cerebral author that Charlie likes.(Rtrvd. 2016-09-29)
- Auster has been married to Siri Hustvedt, herself an acclaimed novelist and essayist, since 1982.