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THE INVENTION OF SOLITUDE

Review by Steffan Hamilton

The Invention of Solitude, Paul Auster's first full-length prose work, begins with the untimely, inexplicable death of his father. The suddenness of Auster senior's death was the catalyst for the writing of the book - "If I do not act quickly, his entire life will vanish along with him." What follows is a fragmented autobiography in two parts; the first, an account of his relationship to his father, and the second an introverted look into his own life as a father, and as a pivotal point between those two generations.

What shines in the first half (Book 1- Portrait of an Invisible Man) is Auster's description of his father, an emotional introvert, a passionless creature without appetites of any kind. It is easy to imagine that this insightful account could quite easily have been as flat as the man himself, but it is saved by a series of acute and sometimes humorous observations. Auster's relationship with his father was one of continuing estrangement and frustration, something reinforced by the fragmentation of the prose, a style which nods to the incommunicability of the subject matter. The act of writing the memoir is a concurrent strand throughout both of the books, and serves beyond the needs of the strictly autobiographical to convey a sense of the present, the incompatibility of language to the world inside and around him…the eponymous solitude.

In creating this portrait of his father, Auster crystallises with sharp wit many of the outmoded traits common to a generation. On thriftiness:

At times, his reluctance to spend money resembled a disease … This was bargain shopping as a way of life.

Implicit in this attitude was a kind of perceptual primitivism. All distinctions were eliminated, everything was reduced to its least common denominator. Meat was meat, shoes were shoes, a pen was a pen … The truly fine object was almost to be abhorred: it meant that you would have to pay an extravagant price, and that made it morally unsound. On a more general level, this translated itself into a permanent state of sensory deprivation: by closing his eyes to so much, he denied himself intimate contact with the shapes and textures of the world, cut himself off from the possibility of experiencing aesthetic pleasure.

The narrative of the first book progresses from memories of his father to a thrilling series of revelations about his father's own parents, a true life story of coincidence and deduction, themes that are to become so pivotal to his later fictional writing. I will not give the plot away here.

Towards the end of the first book, we learn that Auster was, in turn, a disappointment to his father, an entrepreneur and creature of toil, a man who found it baffling how a young graduate of Columbia University should take to the high seas as a labourer on an oil-tanker, or lead a pauper's life in Paris like a character from Orwell. As Auster points out though, "some kind of bond" remained between the two. It is one of the most emotive and telling passages in the first book where this bond is illustrated so tragically, reader and writer, father and son confined by familial bond to their own different places of solitude:

Once when I was living in Paris, he wrote to tell me he had gone to the public library to read some of my poems that had appeared in a recent issue of Poetry. I imagined him in a large deserted room, early in the morning, before going to work: sitting at one of those long tables with his overcoat still on, hunched over words that must have been incomprehensible to him.

It was this publication, along with The New York Trilogy, that established the writer's reputation as an 'intellectual' writer, more European somehow than most American writers, and more difficult as a result. While subsequent output showed Auster to be a writer of great humanity, a voice from the heart as much as from the mind, there is an abundance of ponderous discourse in the second book - The Book of Memory - that goes some way to revealing the root of this perception. Firstly, Auster adopts the lugubrious (not to mention coy) convention of referring to himself in the third person - a rather Kafka-esque 'A'. It is probably a sign of Auster's immaturity as a prose writer that constant references arise to a number of his literary mentors, and this stream of allusions to writers like Mallarmé and Flaubert - occasionally bordering on the relentless - may put off a reader who is not familiar with them; it is, after all a, rare reader who will recognise more than a handful of these references.

Much of this is redeemed by a number of interesting passages on the reconstruction of memory and language, and of his relationship with S., a gifted composer fallen from grace, living a garret existence in a minuscule room, a space filled with the physical proximity of thought. The present is also here, and in this instance it is a chronicle of depression, alleviated by some surprising revelations like Auster's encounter with a prostitute. Overall, the subjects touched upon are diverse to the point of destroying continuity, and the ending of the second book describes a circle returning to its beginning - the rather wilfully cryptic "It was. It will never be again. Remember."

It is an oddity that Auster's first novel-length work of prose is one whose reading is now perhaps best left until later in the writer's canon. Some of the situations described bear an uncanny resemblance to their later fictional reincarnation - Auster anoraks will enjoy the phone in his room on Varick Street in Book 2.

It is perhaps fitting that The Invention of Solitude, Auster's first book of prose, is dedicated to the man whose will alleviated its creation. Auster's scanty income from the translation of French poetry had previously left him little time to devote to lengthier writing commitments. It is hard to see it as a traditional autobiography: it is not a chronological history of a life in the traditional sense (a 'bildungsroman' to use the literary term), but a disjointed series of memories used as a framework for philosophical discussion - or as Auster later put it "a meditation about certain questions, using myself as the central character."

Final word: Auster virgins would do much better to start with one of the novels (perhaps not New York Trilogy). Auster fans will already have read it, and undoubtedly many will disagree with this less than ecstatic review. Be that as it may, I don't claim that the work is without merit: to me it embodies some of the inescapable hiccups in the debut of such an ambitious writer, and stands up in its own right as a touching exposé of a man's search for the identity of his father and himself.

(You can e-mail Steffan at steffan@paulauster.co.uk)