An American Excursion into French Fiction
An American Excursion into French Fiction
The Book of Illusions
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter addresses the widespread claim that Paul Auster is the most French of American novelists by demonstrating various ways in which he has borrowed from French literary and cultural practices. This is one of the first detailed attempts to give intellectual substance to the claim that Auster is really quite different from his American counterparts because of the strong Gallic influence on his work.
Ideas have a much shorter life in France than in the United States.
Auster is an American entirely oriented toward Europe.
(Pascal Bruckner, cited in Dennis Barone, Beyond the Red Notebook, 31)
My stories come out of the world and not out of books.
(Paul Auster, cited in Aliki Varvogli, The World that is the Book, 6)
Our lives are no more than the sum of manifold contingencies.
If there is one solid and non-negotiable principle in the American novel, it is that something must happen.
(Warren Motte, 73)
Cherokee marked a departure from the frequently voiced fear that traditional French cultural practices had been severely weakened by the influx of American pop culture. Jean Echenoz demonstrated in his text that French (p.180) literature was perfectly capable of absorbing and transforming American influences, then incorporating them into the contemporary French novel. Paul Auster’s writing, here represented by The Book of Illusions, also challenges overly facile assumptions about American cultural dominance by providing a different perspective on Franco-American literary relations, and the balance of power between the two nations in these areas. Initially, this may appear a surprising claim, since The Book of Illusions is set entirely in the United States, and there is no mention of France or anything particularly French. Yet French literature and culture are assumed by many critics on both sides of the Atlantic, but particularly in France, to have been a major, if not the principal influence on the American author. This reverses the more common tendency to see the United States as playing the predominant role in cultural exchanges between the two countries. Since the Gallic presence in Auster’s work is often proclaimed, and then justified, with the airiest of arguments, one function of this chapter will be to pinpoint, in the course of analyzing the novel, specific elements in The Book of Illusions that reflect the influence of French literature. In the concluding paragraphs, I will speculate concerning a possible reason why French critics stress the importance of French elements in Auster’s work. To better create a context for this discussion, it will first be necessary to describe two moments in Franco-American cultural history where forms of French theorizing had a powerful, albeit controversial, effect on the American intellectual/academic landscape, and undoubtedly, in one form or another, played a role in the Francophile Paul Auster’s intellectual development.
In 1966, a conference entitled “The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” was held at Johns Hopkins University. It was destined to create a major upheaval in the American intellectual and academic landscape. The guests of honor figured among France’s intellectual luminaries and included Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, and Tzvetan Todorov. Gérard Genette and Gilles Deleuze had also been invited; they could not attend but both sent “un texte ou une lettre dont les organisateurs font part aux centaines d’auditeurs” (Cusset, 39). This conference marked the triumphal arrival in the United States of post-structuralist theory, which rapidly became known simply as “French theory.” As such, it became an American cultural phenomenon.1 For about a twenty-year period, varieties of critical approaches to literary texts, associated at times loosely with the ideas of the participants at the 1966 (p.181) colloque, became the dominant forms of literary analysis, pushing, at least temporarily, more traditional forms of exegesis (Marxist, psychological, contextual, etc.) into academic limbo.
This is not the first time in the twentieth century that French theorizing had a consequential impact in American universities. The frenzy and controversy surrounding the American reception of French theory recalls the enthusiasm, and often heated disputes, connected to the arrival of the nouveau roman on the American academic scene, primarily but not exclusively in French departments. Looking briefly at these two cultural phenomena will provide a context for evaluating the commonly expressed, yet rarely examined, critical assumption that Paul Auster is the most French of contemporary American novelists.
Both the French desire for new fictional forms and the American enthusiasm for French innovations were, at least in part, reactions to warfare. For the French, it was World War II, with its revelations of genocide, coupled with the terror bombing on both sides and the dropping of the atomic bomb, that made more traditionally humanistic approaches to the writing and studying of literature appear woefully inadequate and outdated. To a large degree, the nouveau roman would be a reaction to this dissatisfaction and impatience with older literary formats. For the Americans, the growing disenchantment with the Vietnam War, particularly among students, contributed to the enthusiasm for new French critical practices. If, as François Cusset argues, after 1970 the brutal repression of student dissent made the possibility of radical social change seem no longer possible in the States, the appeal of a dramatically new way of analyzing their culture and literary artifacts constituted something of an alternative for young Americans (65). At the same time, a desire to renew critical methodologies was growing in the professorial ranks:
A commonly held view on the success of French theory in America is that it provided a new generation of young professors and graduate students radicalized by the political upheavals of the sixties … with an interpretative method that infused the canonical reading protocols of the New Criticism with the ideological dimension it had lacked in the conformist atmosphere of the Eisenhower era.
What was desired by the “French theory” enthusiasts were new approaches (p.182) which would potentially offer better ways of understanding both the literary text and, perhaps also, the complex fabric of American society.
The terms nouveau roman and “French theory” provided what appeared to be quite straightforward categories for what were really very complex creations. The expression nouveau roman signaled one of the great marketing successes of Jérôme Lindon’s Les Éditions du Minuit. Ably seconded by the novelist/polemicist, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Lindon managed to package a disparate group of writers (Samuel Beckett, Claude Simon, Nathalie Sarraute, etc.) under the rubric of nouveaux romanciers. The most apparent similarity among the nouveaux romanciers was that they were all published by Minuit. These novelists were certainly not the only ones writing somewhat innovatively in France but, due in large measure to the grouping and publicity Minuit provided, they soon became synonymous with all that was really new and exciting in contemporary French fiction.
Just as the term nouveaux romanciers provided the semblance of similarity among artists who were often quite different, under the umbrella of “French theory” were assembled a very diverse array of thinkers, philosophers (Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault), literary critics (Barthes, Georges Poulet), sociologists (Lucien Goldman), and psychologists (Gilles Deleuze) who might have had little in common beyond a desire to forge new intellectual tools to explore the contemporary world. Also, for a time at least, “French theory,” like the nouveau roman during its heyday, became the code word in American universities for all that was exciting and progressive in contemporary thinking about literature and culture.
The enthusiasm created by the nouveau roman in American academic circles was primarily of the intellectual sort, but it also permitted beleaguered humanities departments, particularly those involved with foreign languages, to reassert their relevance and prestige in a modern university increasingly dominated by the sciences. “French theory” had a comparable effect on American universities in the 1970s and 1980s. Menaced, as always, by the encroaching academic power of the sciences, literature and language departments seized upon the new French import, which supplied analytical approaches often based on linguistic theory. Thus, for many it was more objective, less impressionistic or subject to individuals’ personal prejudices. While certainly not a hard science, this critical orientation had a scientific aura about it. It also possessed the additional merit, from an American perspective, of being applicable in a (p.183) number of relatively new academic disciplines, such as cultural studies, gay studies, and religious studies. Finally, in terms of ideological benefits to the more traditional academic departments (English, Modern Languages, History, Psychology), Michèle Lamont maintains that humanities programs saw in these new theories a way to “reaffirm the distinctive features on which their prestige was based, that is, high culture” (614).
A major difference between the nouveau roman and “French theory” was that, while the former was a rethinking of the French novel that American scholars in the 1950s and ’60s were eager to investigate, the latter was to a large degree an American invention, as scholars in the United States often decontextualized French ideas and appropriated them to their own needs, disciplines, and intellectual interests. This process was not without its ironies. Among the most prominent of the French intellectuals associated with “French theory” were Foucault and Derrida, who were philosophers by trade; while American analytic philosophers displayed little interest in their work, literary departments and related programs were quick to see the ways in which essentially philosophical ideas could contribute to literary and cultural analysis.
An ironic similarity between the nouveau roman and “French theory” is that they maintained a forceful presence in American universities even after French interest in this postwar conception of fiction had begun to diminish, and the reputations in France of thinkers associated with “French theory” had started to wane: “au moment où Foucault, Lyotard et Derrida devenaient incontournables dans l’université américaine leurs noms connaissaient en France une éclipse systématique” (Cusset, 32).
As a student at Columbia University in the 1960s and then early 1970s, Paul Auster was coming to intellectual maturity during a period when “French theory” was much discussed in departments of literature. He interrupted his studies in the late 1960s to spend several years in France, where he perfected his knowledge of the French language and developed a strong interest in French culture. He has translated prominent French poets, and translations of his own work into French regularly sell extremely well in the Hexagon.2 Writing in Livres-Hebdo, Laurence Santantonious reports that “l’écrivain new-yorkais … [a] les ventes en France qui avoisinent 100,000 examplaires” (“Un Auster qui se narrent,” 23). In 1992, the French government made Auster a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and in 2005, he was promoted to the rank of Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Although there can be (p.184) no question about Auster’s close ties the Gallic world, it remains to be determined just how this proximity is reflected in his work.
This question is quite important since, for many people, what distinguishes Paul Auster from his fellow contemporary American novelists is the allegedly “French,” or at least “European,” quality of his writing. Tom Theobald quotes a reviewer for the London Times referring to the American author as a “Francophile existentialist” (7), and Sven Birkerts boldly asserts that “the premises in [his] novels are resoundingly French” (Theobald, 9), without explaining the nature of these premises. French reviewers have certainly encouraged the idea that Auster has been greatly influenced by their country. Jean-Philippe Mestre is typical of many critics when he writes that Auster is “le plus français des écrivains américains” (Le Progrès, 21). Others, such as André Clavel, have expanded the scope of Auster’s cultural importance beyond the Hexagon, “le phénomène Auster … un phénomène … plus européen qu’américain” (Le Temps, 17).
Just as a reader might be forgiven for wondering what a “Francophile existentialist” or “French premises” are, a slight befuddlement might be extended to “le plus français des écrivains américains.” This is not to say there is no truth in this latter statement, but it stands in need of clarification.
Pascal Bruckner likewise enlarges Auster’s geographical parameters to include the Old World when he concentrates on the novelist’s themes: “Auster is an American entirely oriented toward Europe. But this proximity is misleading … Auster, deeply anchored in the New World, does not write European books in America; he enriches the American novel with European themes” (31). While Bruckner’s argument has the merit of providing a more specific answer to the question of Auster’s relation to Old War culture, his response remains unsatisfactory. What are European themes? Surely American literature treats love, sex, politics, war, and peace while occasionally reflecting on the more theoretical issues of the nature of fiction and the role of the artist. For that matter, what are European books? If they are works written in Europe, how then might one characterize Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus, composed in the most un-Germanic setting of Southern California between 1943 and 1947. Or, if a European book is a work written by a European, how does one classify Lolita, published in Paris in 1955, then in the United States in 1958, and written in English by a polyglot Russian residing in upstate New York? All that said, while Birkets, the unnamed Timesman, and Bruckner’s responses raise more questions than (p.185) provide answers, they are certainly correct to discern a certain European, I would say primarily French, atmosphere in Auster’s texts.3
The most striking element in more scholarly engagements with Auster is that, while the French influence is often alluded to, almost nobody makes the role of French culture clear in their analysis of the novelist’s texts. An exception is Bernd Herzogenrath in An Art of Desire: Reading Paul Auster. This study provides a detailed examination of Auster’s fiction published before 1999 from a Derridian and, to a lesser degree, a Lacanian perspective. Herzogenrath makes a compelling case for approaching the novels in this manner without ever claiming that Auster has extensive knowledge of either Derrida or Lacan; he seems less interested in arguing that Auster has read these theorists’ work than in demonstrating that their frames of reference can provide an enlightening approach to this American author’s fiction. He notes that Lacan’s “psychoanalysis … lends itself as a useful and relevant background for the type of fiction which negates the idea of the autonomous individual” (5–6). While Auster’s characters, often beneficiaries or victims of chance, rarely seem autonomous, much the same can be said about characters who appear in other novelists’ work. Herzogenath’s methodology would presumably not be limited to Auster’s fiction.
The most extensive effort to place Auster in the context of French thought has been Tom Theobold’s Existentialism and Baseball: The French Philosophical Roots of Paul Auster. Theobald seeks to analyze French intellectual influences on Auster’s writings by focusing primarily on four texts: The Invention of Solitude (1982), The New York Trilogy (1987), The Music of Chance (1990), and Leviathan (1992) and then “tracing the influence of surrealism, the existential philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, and the literary philosophy of Maurice Blanchot” (9) on these works. Theobald argues his case with enthusiasm and erudition, but since his study stops short of The Book of Illusions (2002), aside from providing concrete markers of a French presence in Auster’s work, it is of limited direct use to my analysis. Yet limited use is not no use. Although Theobald recognizes the potential presence of Derrida in The New York Trilogy, he is clearly more at home dealing with early and mid-twentieth-century French influences (Surrealism, Sartre, Blanchot). Concerning the relationship between Auster’s work and that of his contemporary colleagues, Theobald makes a suggestion that may initially seem curious: “Paul Auster … appears closer to compatriots like Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth than to the postmodern (p.186) generation” (10). Theobald locates Auster’s engagements with American and French influences more in the modern than the postmodern period. I agree and think that, despite Auster’s obvious awareness of “French theory,” in The Book of Illusions a considerable amount of his involvement with French culture seems rooted in a quite un-postmodern period. In addition, I believe the most inherently Gallic presence in The Book of Illusions is more structural than thematic, with even one of the novel’s major themes, chance, having structural ramifications. However, before addressing the thematic and structural dimensions directly, I would like to show that the American novelist’s debt to French culture can sometimes take a playful form.
Mythologies is probably Roland Barthes’s most popular book, not simply for its radically contemporary theory of myth, but also for its striking vignettes, which display the everyday functioning of myth in today’s world. Normally Barthes begins with a description of some modern phenomenon (wrestling, the launch of a new car model, the popular mystique surrounding a movie star) and then shows the ways this event or person has altered, however slightly, our sense of reality. Something comparable occurs in The Book of Illusions.
The subject is the on-screen presence of the silent film actor Hector Mann, specifically the way the movie camera adds dimensions to his appearance which otherwise might not be noticed. The focus is on his mustache and facial expressions. Due to the camera’s close-up,
the mustache appears to be moving on its own … the mouth curls a bit at the corners, the nostrils flair ever so slightly, but … the face is essentially still, and in this stillness one sees oneself as if in a mirror, for it is in these moments that Hector is most fully and convincingly human, a reflection of what we all are when we are alone with ourselves.
This passage reads like a pastiche of one of Barthes’s vignettes in Mythologies. A relatively common occurrence, in this instance the use of a movie technique, is described in such a way as to become a reflector of broader social/cultural issues – specifically, in this instance, the ways in which technology alters our ways of seeing and thinking. In passing someone like Hector Mann’s character in the street, one would not have enough time to look closely and see one’s humanity in his face. The movie camera permits this to occur.
(p.187) A more significant indication of a French presence in Auster’s work involves his most recurrent and commented theme: the concept of chance. Chance always plays an important role in his fiction. To cite just a few examples from The Book of Illusions, David Zimmer’s family is destroyed and his life at least temporarily wrecked by a plane crash; he is in turn rescued from suicidal depression by a chance encounter with the films of Hector Mann. Hector himself finds himself through pure happenstance in Sandusky, Ohio, a place he claimed to have lived in some of his Hollywood-inspired hagiographies but never has. Now that he is there, he enters into an arbitrarily chosen bank when an attempted robbery occurs. He thwarts the hold-up but is severely wounded. He is nursed back to health by a woman who just happens to recognize him since she is a fan of his now old movies.
The concept of chance played a central role in French intellectual and literary controversies in the twentieth century. Theobald has discussed Auster’s debt to Surrealism and that movement’s fascination with chance. Yet another twentieth-century group also had a strong interest in chance but in a way diametrically opposite to the Surrealist position. I am referring to Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle).
For the Surrealists, chance was to be applauded; it could function as a means of circumventing the power of the conscious mind and tapping into the wealth of inspiration lurking in the unconscious. Through techniques such as the cadavre exquis (a haphazard assemblage of words or images) or automatic writing, the surrealist artist attempted to break through the barrier of consciousness and create radically different works which could reveal new and startling truths about the human condition. Chance could also occasionally function as a theme. In his only novel, Nadja (1928), André Breton provides a fictional illustration of an unanticipated encounter with a mysterious woman and its effect on a young writer.4
Chance is viewed in a diametrically opposed fashion by the members of Oulipo, who stress the carefully constructed nature of a work of art. Hazard has no place in an Oulipo creation. While artists are certainly creators, to be part of Oulipo, they must also be thinkers, capable of carefully planning and crafting their art. For Oulipians, the more complicated the creative task, the greater the finished work’s potential for greatness or at least to constitute itself as an impressive achievement. In terms of minute planning and execution, Georges Perec’s La Disparition (1969), a novel of about three hundred pages in which the vowel “e” never appears, is the most famous (p.188) example of an Oulipo effort to formulate a difficult literary problem and then resolve it.
While Auster must have been aware of Oulipo, and of the novels of its most famous member, Georges Perec, he chose not to follow their lead in rejecting chance. It remained central to his fiction but used in a way very different from its treatment by the Oulipians or the Surrealists. Auster’s fiction reflects chance as a motif which affects human beings in the conduct of their lives. For the Surrealists and the Oulipians, chance is primarily a theoretical concept associated with the nature of artistic creation. For one group chance is an asset; for the other it is anathema. Broadly stated, Surrealists write; Oulipians rewrite. Auster’s use is much more practical than theoretical. Chance plays various roles in life. It can affect individuals’ comportment for good, for ill, or can simply provoke curious, unanticipated occurrences of little consequence.
Although chance is a major motif in the novel, the predominant French contribution to The Book of Illusions lies in the ways Auster structures this text.5 In order to best explain the structural strategy Auster employs, I must resort to some generalizations about French and American fiction. There are certainly numerous exceptions to the patterns I will describe, and it is not my goal to be essentialist. Instead, I wish to show how The Book of Illusions reflects a tendency to favor reflection over action, the psychological over the physical – hallmarks, I maintain, of many of the finest examples of French literature. Auster follows a pattern consistent with a very traditional form of French fiction, one that in a broad sense separates the French from the American novel. This is also a structure that has famously drawn the ire of one very prominent postwar French literary theorist and nouveau romancier who considered it unsuited to the needs of contemporary French fiction.
The American novel in general prioritizes action, something Deleuze seems to endorse when he “attributes the ‘superiority of Anglo-American literature’ over the French literary tradition to its constant use of mobility, flight, and exile, an endless process of uprooting or ‘deterritorialization’” (cited in Mathy, Extrême-Occident, 187). Warren Motte puts the matter quite succinctly: “if there is one solid and non-negotiable principle in the American novel, it is that something must happen” (73; emphasis original).
This is not to say that the American novel lacks thought or that it is devoid of ideas. To take a single prominent example, Thomas Pynchon’s work teems with reflections on all sorts of intellectual and political matters, (p.189) but they are integrated into the ceaseless, indeed chaotic activity characteristic of his fiction. The French novel was quite different at least until the post-World War II era.6 Action seems to have functioned as a tool for thought, of the psychological or philosophical variety. The traditional French novel was often quite cerebral, and an occurrence would immediately provoke lengthy reflections. If the foregoing statement, despite its generalized nature, seems accurate when applied to a work like La Princesse de Clèves (1678), it is equally pertinent to novels by Balzac, Flaubert, Gide, and Camus. Traditionally, the French novel is hardly devoid of action, but the activities of the main characters, no matter how dramatic, have usually remained secondary to reflections about what has occurred, will occur, or to the ideas/remembrances they engendered.7 This is a pattern which has existed in French fiction for a long time; French readers are used to it and appreciate it.
In the postwar heyday of the nouveau roman, it is precisely this sort of novel that Alain Robbe-Grillet decried for its frequent excursions into what he considered to be outdated psychological or philosophical labyrinths at the expense of describing in a straightforward manner the events which were transpiring. In “Une voie pour le roman futur” he laments that:
La sacro-sainte analyse psychologique constituait, déjà à cette époque [celle de Mme de La Fayette], la base de toute prose … Un ‘bon’ roman, depuis lors, est resté l’étude d’une passion – d’un conflit de passions, ou l’absence de passion … La plupart de nos romanciers contemporains du type traditionnel … pourraient recopier de longs passages de La Princesse de Clèves ou du Père Goriot sans éveiller les soupçons du vaste public qui dévore leur production … Tous [ces romanciers] avouent, sans y voir rien d’anormal, que leurs préoccupations d’écrivains datent de plusieurs siècles. (15–16)
Obviously Alain Robbe-Grillet does not believe that such outmoded patterns can do justice to the contemporary world.
Despite Robbe-Grillet’s rejection of this type of fiction as distinctly unmodern, The Book of Illusions conforms to the schema he decries. An incident takes place and then is immediately subjected to an extensive analysis, which only pauses due to the occurrence of another incident, but then the reflections continue, as the second incident normally leads to an extension and development of the thoughts stimulated by the first. The bulk (p.190) of The Book of Illusions unfolds not in New England, nor in New Mexico, but in David Zimmer’s mind. This predominance given to thought over action differentiates Auster’s work from that of his contemporary American colleagues and has contributed to his popularity in France. If American readers are sometimes confused by, or impatient with, this paucity of anecdote and the extent of the reflections in Auster, a French audience is much more at ease with this structure.
Nevertheless, while Auster partakes of a longstanding French tradition in the structuring of his novels, he remains a contemporary writer in a way that authors like Dan Brown or Marc Lévy are not. The difference is in the realm of ideas and themes. Brown and Lévy generate bestsellers by offering a compelling story that rarely challenges their readers either stylistically or conceptually. Essentially, they package their stories in an easily accessible format, containing titillating or shocking scenes, or bizarre ideas, which nonetheless do not push readers beyond their intellectual comfort zone.
It is just the opposite with Auster. In Le Vent Paraclet (1978), Michel Tournier makes a comment about his own fiction which is also applicable to Auster’s work: “Mon propos n’est pas d’innover dans la forme, mais de faire passer au contraire dans une forme aussi traditionnelle, préservée et rassurante que possible une matière ne possédant aucune de ces qualités” (190). Paul Auster presents his novels in a well-known format (to the French at least), but then what he has to say is far from typical. This combination of the traditional and the subversive suggests why Auster “has frequently been compared to authors ranging from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Alain Robbe-Grillet” (Barone, 1). At some points Auster’s novels read like well-known works, but these passages are interspersed with sections that challenge the reader’s intellect and even his credulity.8 In The Book of Illusions, these seemingly conflicting elements, the traditional and the contemporary, are particularly apparent in three major aspects of the novel: the omnipresence of “chance,” the surprising similarities between David Zimmer and Hector Mann, and the atypical treatment accorded to “illusion.”
A writer who allows chance to play a crucial role in his fiction needs a good bit of artistic courage. Chance is a reality of everyday life, where bizarre things can happen without apparent cause. They can lead to crucial developments in a person’s life or have no significance at all. Yet, in literature, a seemingly gratuitous event can appear contrived and upset (p.191) the narrative flow, undermining an otherwise sophisticated development. Worse, a seemingly clumsy intrusion into the text suggests an effort on the author’s part to move the story out of an impasse. As a result, what had been evolving in a coherent fashion can suddenly appear artificial or strained. Incorporating the aleatory into a literary text risks destroying, however briefly, the illusion of verisimilitude, which a writer like Auster labors to project.
Chance is clearly more than a clumsy device for creaking the narrative forward in The Book of Illusions. Auster uses it consciously and extensively; it is of major importance for him because it is an integral part of reality, one that is admittedly difficult for fiction to convey effectively but essential to his art since “My stories come out of the world and not out of books” (Varvogli, 6). To write about the world as he perceives it requires Auster to give considerable space to chance, since its erratic appearance and the pain it can generate illustrate for Auster that, “in many cases, reality is far more terrible than anything we can imagine” (interview with Joseph Mallia, cited in Smith, 29). Auster practices his own version of realistic fiction, precisely by confronting chance, rather than attempting to elide it, just as Jean Echenoz’s empty symbolism in Cherokee constitutes a form of realism by encouraging a reflection on the contrived nature of literary techniques.9
If chance can play an important role in life, it can also be misleading by suggesting that something is quite important when in fact it is not. A chance message from a friend precipitated David’s work on his Chateaubriand translation, which then leads to the seemingly obvious paralleling of Chateaubriand and his book with David and his. Chateaubriand had wanted Mémoires d’outre-tombe to appear after his death, but financial exigency forced him to publish parts of it during his lifetime. In what reads as a quick aside, David makes clear when his Book of Illusions will be available: “If and when this book is published, dear reader, you can be sure the man who wrote it is long dead” (318). We can therefore assume that David has indeed died and that his book is posthumous, just as Chateaubriand intended his to be. Both men are also writing intellectual and psychological autobiographies.
Yet upon closer examination this parallel quickly begins to wear thin, and what emerges is really how different these men and the worlds they inhabited were. Chateaubriand led a rich and at times contradictory life. Politically active, he had little difficulty switching sides as his interests and (p.192) political reality dictated. A man with a religious and romantic temperament, he had many loves and relationships, including one with God. His title, Mémoires d’outre-tombe, speaks to his religious convictions, which allowed him to be confident that life had a purpose and that there was another, better world.
All these factors separate the two men. Where Chateaubriand very consciously wrote for money, David has no financial worries due to the settlement associated with the plane accident. He can write what he wants, when he wants. David’s life, when compared to Chateaubriand’s, seems rather narrow. Were it not for a great personal tragedy, he would have lived, presumably happily, the life of a family member, teacher, and scholar. David is a Jew but has neither a religious affiliation nor a particular interest in questions of faith. Chateaubriand, a Christian, was engaged with religious issues all his life, and his title, Mémoires d’outre-tombe, reflects a belief in a better world after death. As such, it stands in contrast with the one David proposes for the translation: Memoirs of a Dead Man, whose starkness conveys no sense of an afterlife.
In contrast to Chateaubriand’s active existence, David’s is sedentary. If anything can be learned of David’s political engagements, it is through the titles of the books he has written: “The first one, Voices in the War Zone, was a study of politics and literature … The second one, The Road to Abyssinia, was a book about writers who had given up writing, a meditation on silence” (14). David’s study of Hector Mann’s films appears to concentrate on individuals’ aspirations and foibles and engages little with social or political issues. The pattern in these three monographs indicates a slow, consistent withdrawal from the sociopolitical sphere into an increasingly personal realm.
In contrast to Chateaubriand’s highly emotional involvement with politics throughout his life, David retreats more and more into isolation, breaking ties with colleagues and friends and choosing to live alone in the country. David’s fourth work, The Book of Illusions, concentrates on his life since the death of his family and the subsequent suicide of a woman he loved. Finally, little is known of him after The Book of Illusions. Like the figures he treats in The Road to Abyssinia, the latter part of his life is presumably “a meditation on silence.” David Zimmermann may well read Chateaubriand with pleasure and translate him with interest, but the two men live in very different worlds.10 The fact that he happened to be thinking about Chateaubriand when he received the offer to translate the (p.193) French author is certainly fortuitous, but its role in the unfolding of the plot remains limited.
That is not the case with David and Hector Mann, who were also brought together by chance. Although ultimately a very important difference between them will emerge, they have many things in common. Their similarities are implied in the novel’s first, deliberately ambiguous, sentence: “Everyone thought he was dead” (1). By using a masculine pronoun instead of a name, Auster leaves the reader briefly uncertain who is being referred to, and while the confusion dissolves in the second sentence, this initial ambiguity foreshadows the situation common to Hector and David. Neither man is in fact dead, but both give the impression that they have disappeared from the earth. As David begins to write the book, his friends are wondering if he is still alive, since he was so shaken by his family’s death that he has fallen out of sight. His academic career ended as abruptly as did Hector’s cinematic one, both due to tragic deaths. Yet, in each instance, circumstances would rejuvenate the two men. David began the book on Hector Mann to preserve his sanity, and probably his life, after the airplane crash, and Hector returned to film and filmmaking after the death of his son, Taddy. The common thread here is that both men needed some form of creative activity, be it artistic or scholarly, to cope with their unbearable sense of loss.
While chance events abound in The Book of Illusions, and constitute an important theme, they also function as a structuring device. This use of chance is brought to readers’ attention by what seems to be an impatient remark about Mann made by David: “What made no sense was that he had popped up in Sandusky, Ohio, but the truth was that most things made no sense” (198). From this perspective, chance, as mercurial as it may be, can nevertheless play a major role in the unfolding of a human life; it can link events and people in the most arbitrary manner. Rather than recoil at the obvious dangers of making transitions appear clumsy and forced, Auster seizes this aspect of chance to emphasize the haphazard nature of reality, whose unfolding is subject to no particular laws. What can happen, may happen; to a degree logic and plausibility can play roles in art, but life has no such restraints. Chance is an inscrutable, but nevertheless significant part of reality, and Auster places it at the center of his novel. In The Book of Illusions, chance is not limited to the occasional mundane or bizarre occurrence; it is a device to join one encounter with another. Thus, because Hector turned up in Sandusky, because he went to an arbitrarily (p.194) chosen bank, because he thwarted a hold-up and thereby saved the life of the woman he would marry, the novel is propelled forward, giving meaning, however transitory, to the lives of Hector, and even David, since the latter’s interest in meeting Hector got him out of the funk that followed the publication of his monograph on the actor/director.
In The Book of Illusions, chance is the motor that drives David’s narrative forward; it is the hinge that joins one series of events to another and facilitates the novel’s development. The airplane accident initiates the action; the discovery of Hector Mann’s movies draws David out of his despair; Alma’s discovery of David’s monograph leads her to go to New England and then him to New Mexico. Presumably it is Alma’s rather arbitrary suicide which permits him to finish his manuscript. In the fictional world of The Book of Illusions, chance is at once the recognition of the unpredictable in life and, somewhat paradoxically, a means of giving a heightened coherence to the novel.
Early in The Book of Illusions, David laments that “We all want to believe in impossible things … to persuade ourselves that miracles can happen” (5). In more distant eras, it might have been possible for a work of fiction to develop through a series of miracles, but the religious beliefs required to make such a structure possible are no longer viable today. Auster, a man of an age where instability and uncertainty are rampant, chooses to bolster the coherence of his text through an element that reflects instability and uncertainty, the chance occurrence. Chance encounters in The Book of Illusions, unforeseen and unanticipated events which can shatter or develop characters’ lives, also function as structural devices which propel the narrative forward.
The goal of David’s writing and Hector’s moviemaking constitutes the most compelling and important similarity between them, a similarity that has to do with the nature of illusion which they strive to attain through creative work. In the title, “illusions” is in the plural and indeed there are several forms of illusions in the novel. The young Hector Mann becomes a star in the twentieth century’s newest form of illusion, the cinema. Later, he makes a good living having sex with a female partner before an audience which can fantasize about their playing the male or female role. Hector’s numerous, largely invented identities at the beginning of his film career allowed his fans to imagine all sorts of things about him. What these illusions have in common is that they are directed at an audience. The form of illusion he shares with David is otherwise.
(p.195) The importance of illusion in this novel has little to do with the audience’s experience. Illusion is the desired state of the author, be he a writer or a filmmaker, who seeks, in the process of creation, an escape from the painful reality that has come to dominate his life. In The Book of Illusions, the need for this illusory state is more pronounced, or at least more prolonged, for the artist than for the scholar. One assumes that when David finished the book we are reading as The Book of Illusions, he must have exorcised his demons, since there is no mention of creative activity subsequent to his completion of the text after Alma’s suicide. Hector, on the other hand, seemed to have needed to continue making movies until he became too ill to work.
Yet a salient quality they both share is that neither David nor Hector has any interest in the ultimate fate of his creations. Whether their works will figure as “major” contributions to art or culture or be totally unnoticed is a matter of indifference to them. The question of glory through the production of great works has no meaning for them, since in Hector’s case his films will be destroyed at his death – “He would make movies that would never be shown to audiences” (207) – and David will be dead before his book is published, if it is published at all (318). What they seek is access to an alternate universe by means of the process of creation; the act of making a film or writing a monograph provides them with a form of escape, protection from an intrusive, hurtful world. The creative process shelters them from the events and memories that poison their existence in the everyday world. That protection is of greater importance than what they produce.
Early in the novel, David remarks that “when a man has nothing to look forward to, he might as well be dead” (9). Finding that something that gives life some degree of meaning is not easy. Family might have proven to be a long-term option for David, but now he will never know. Translating was a stop-gap measure; it was never a strong enough interest to release David from his torment and provide life with a purpose, however temporary or delusive: “I wasn’t really alive. I was just someone who pretended to be alive, a dead man who spent his days translating a dead man’s book” (102). Translation requires knowledge, hard work, and a degree of imagination but, for David at least, it is not sufficiently creative, which is to say protective. Writing of his personal experience did, however, provide the needed stimulation and shelter.11
David says that Mann’s films got him out of a seemingly endless depression by making him laugh. That was the inspiration for his (p.196) monograph. Yet it rapidly becomes apparent that what began to deliver David from his lassitude was less his subject, the films of Hector Mann, than the need to research and write, activities which allowed him to lose himself in what he was doing without any thought to the outcome or the practical benefits of his efforts: “I did not question whether any of this was worth doing” (19). The issue is less the value of the project than the simple fact that he could escape reality by working on a book; while a subject of interest provided the initial stimulation, what matters now is the act of writing itself, which permits him to push aside his guilt, fears, and concerns for the future. Writing moves David into a different world, an alternative universe which will endure until the completion of the project: “I wasn’t really in Brooklyn … I was in the book, and the book was in my head, and as long as it stayed inside my head, I could go on writing the book” (55). David’s aim was to remain within his head and involved in his project because there he found protection from the pressures threatening to destroy him. Writing the Mann monograph constituted a safe harbor for a time but, after its completion, he sank back into depression and returned to a life of isolation. When Alma finally tracks him down, he is pursuing a cranky existence miles away from his fellow human beings. With the inception of his Book of Illusions, David was able to address deeply personal themes with more discipline than just memory: his once-burgeoning career, the tragedy that ended his professional life and nearly killed him, the role which Hector Mann’s films played in controlling his sense of loss and lack of purpose, and his effort to try to love again. The creation of the book ushered David into an illusory world where the terrible memories plaguing him were to a large degree held at bay by his efforts to get them onto paper. His focus was more on the act of writing down his memories than on the memories themselves.
David says that when the young Hector was a rising star in Hollywood, he projected many, often contradictory, images of himself (83). His real identity was a mystery to others and possibly to himself. James Peacock suggests that “no qualitative difference [existed] between the ‘real’ Hector and the roles he plays as a silent actor” (154). I do not think that is quite right. As a young man and actor, Hector had no real identity. His talent was so natural, his success so certain, that he could live happily on the surface of life, just floating along with the seeming nonchalance of his various screen identities. Just as David was thrust out of a happy and complacent existence by tragedy, Hector’s life is also shattered by the unintended (p.197) killing of one of his girlfriends. However fake his numerous Hollywood identities were, he now must adopt a series of truly false ones as he flees possible prosecution. This is the first time in the novel that Hector seems vulnerable as himself and not as one of his screen creations. What allows him to survive at first is the discovery of an art more substantial than what is displayed in his Hollywood movies: the art of literature. Great books now accompany him in his darkest hours and make his life at least intermittently bearable: “Never more lost than now … never more alone and afraid – yet never more alive … I talk only to the dead now. They are the only ones I trust, the only ones who understand me” (147–148; emphasis original).12
This awakening to literature is the beginning of his ability to cope with his guilt. It is a helpful start but will not prove sufficient. The next stage in his movement back toward the world of the living comes when he foils a bank robbery and protects Frieda Spelling. This may be a redemption of sorts, as the life he saved will, to some degree, balance the one he helped take. Shortly after his recovery, he and Frieda marry and move to New Mexico. Their lives seem quite ordinary until their son’s death, at which point the only thing that will keep Hector functioning as a human being is to return to the cinema, this time as a director rather than as an actor. He will make movies that have little in common with his Hollywood efforts. These works are darker, much more ambiguous in their characterizations and meanings, and, if The Inner Life of Martin Frost is typical, lacking in closure. That is, the issues raised are never fully resolved. As such, they may well reflect Hector’s state of mind, for what is important to him is not what the movie might mean but the ongoing process of making it.
Until now I have insisted upon the similarities between David’s and Hector’s need to maintain themselves in an illusory state induced by creative activity, whatever form it takes. Yet there is crucial difference between David and Hector. This difference emerges in their answers to the question of whether it is possible to escape the endless cycle of needing the illusion induced by creative activities in order to function to some degree in the real world. The Inner Life of Martin Frost suggests strongly that, for some people at least, escape is impossible.
This short film starts with a writer, Martin Frost, coming to stay at Frieda and Hector’s house in their absence. He awakes one morning to find next to him in bed, inexplicably, a beautiful girl of mysterious origins who says her name is Claire Martin. After some initial tension between them, they become lovers. Frost had been suffering from writer’s block, (p.198) but his relationship with Claire restores his creativity. Yet the more he produces, the weaker Claire becomes. Eventually, he realizes there is a sinister correlation between his success as a writer and the decline of her health. In desperation, Frost tears up his manuscript and miraculously Claire’s health begins to improve.
At first, nothing seems special about the heavy irony of this reversed Pygmalion story. That is, until the very end when, as Frost destroys his work, Claire tells him “you can’t do this, it’s not allowed.” As he persists, Claire just repeats, “What are we going to do … Tell me, Martin, what on earth are we going to do?” (368).
Claire knows something Martin Frost does not. Namely, that if, for the moment, he is a lover ready to sacrifice everything for his beloved, this emotional intensity will not endure. He will be always driven to create, and eventually he will come to regret his impulsive decision to destroy his manuscript. He may stop loving her, or his passion might wane, but the creative impulse will always be there and must be sated. Claire knows that despite his current total involvement with her, these feelings are to some degree transient, whereas Martin’s creative urge is permanent, and to a degree destructive to others, as Claire’s failing health attested. Hector seems to have a premonition of the disquieting truth that real-world relations could never completely satisfy him. Shortly after he married Frieda, “he knew … that the life they were about to build for themselves was founded on an illusion” (287) but not an illusion strong enough to shelter him for a long time.
The Inner Life of Martin Frost was made by Hector and concerns his own needs. As an artist, he requires illusions in which he can more or less hide, or at least lose himself. The silent films provided one form of illusion, where he could simply be someone else. The discovery of literary classics provided him with an alternative world, as, at first, did marriage to a woman who loved him deeply. All these illusions had their value and sustained him at stressful moments in his life. But they were not enough. At one point, David implies that while Taddy’s death was the immediate cause of Hector’s return to filmmaking, it was not the unique factor that led the artist back into the studio. He just had to be working on films: “Make films, yes. Pour every ounce of your talents and energies into making them” (278). There is no mention here of marketing, pleasing an audience, or garnering praise. Despite the traumatic experiences of his life, in the end Hector made films because he really had no choice. The making of them was all that mattered: (p.199) “Make them as though your life depended on it … once your life is over, see to it that they are destroyed” (278). Hector’s primary audience was himself. He was not concerned about what others thought; once the film was finished and in the can, it was no longer of interest to him; it was time to begin another one. This is not at all David’s situation.
David’s need for illusion is quite different. What prompted him to write his book was not exclusively the loss of his family, his frustrating trip to New Mexico, or the death of Alma. It was all of these things at once. The process of writing his Book of Illusions saved his sanity and perhaps his life. Once he had purged himself of all this anger, frustration, and guilt, he was a free man, so liberated from his painful past that he had no need even to see his story in print. Just as the making of a film was a goal in itself for Hector, the process of telling the story was what motivated David. Where Hector’s temperament requires a constant involvement in an illusory world, for David the writing of The Book of Illusions served a twofold purpose: composing it provided him access to a world whose intensity protected him from a too-threatening reality. Finishing it liberated him from the potentially destructive nature of his memories. The past does not change, and some memories never die, but David found a means of coping with both. This might explain the brief passage toward the end of the novel where he mentions his hope of one day discovering some of Hector’s films, which, despite everything, may well have survived (321). As a movie goer and a late-blooming cinema scholar more or less returned to a normal life, he would just like to see these films.
The Book of Illusions is an extended meditation on different approaches to creativity, an examination of circumstances that can provoke the need to create, a consideration of the goals of the creative act, and finally a recognition that while some people need to persist in the effort to continue to produce, others can abandon the effort all together. To indulge, yet again, in a generalization which certainly will have exceptions, such cerebral considerations are rarely found at the center of an American novel but are common in the French novel, where the mingling of the philosophical and the fictional has often been the marker of serious writing. Yet if action is a stable of American fiction, it is often handled clumsily in The Book of Illusions (compare the first meeting of Alma and David), where it serves primarily as a background for a study of the workings of the mind. All these factors appear broadly typical of the French fiction that Robbe-Grillet decried. The very cerebral treatment of the role of illusion in the novel as an (p.200) end in itself, a means of both controlling and escaping from a meaningless and painful world, also seems more Gallic than American. The same might be said for the insinuation that art, like life, has no intrinsic value but that the former can make the passage through the latter a lot easier.
Even given that there are similarities between Auster’s novels and relatively typical aspects of French fiction, what remains unexplained is why the French express such enthusiasm for this American author that he seems to be more appreciated in France than in his native country? Annick Duperray raised this general issue in her opening remarks at a conference on Auster: “l’œuvre de Paul Auster connaît en France plus de succès que partout ailleurs; On lit souvent que l’affirmation peut paraître abusive si l’on songe à la dimension internationale de notre colloque” (9). Auster has had success and gained a following in many places besides France, yet it remains the case that the French connection often appears the most prominent.
Undoubtedly, France has played a major role in Auster’s artistic and intellectual development, and to a degree this is the most forthright explanation for his popularity there. French readers can find in his texts elements which remind them of their own, very distinguished cultural traditions. Yet, without wishing to denigrate Auster’s artistic talent, I would also like to suggest that more complicated, sociological factors have also played a role in the excellent reception his works have found in the Hexagon.
In the nineteenth century it was clear that France was the West’s cultural arbiter. However, French cultural authority has declined markedly in the face of the insurgence of American popular culture, and many critics do not share Echenoz’s confidence that French literature will transform this new influence to its own ends. Whatever one might choose to think of the interloper’s influence, American clothing, movies, fast food, marketing, and television series have become imposing forces in France.
According to François Cusset, if “French theory” marked the highpoint of France’s intellectual prestige in the States, it also was its swansong. He argues that in the immediate aftermath of World War II, French culture invaded the New World in the forms of “le surréalisme d’école, l’existentialisme sartrien et l’histoire des Annales” (27; emphasis original), which were then followed and pushed into the shadows by “French theory.” Cultural influences are rarely absorbed without being altered by the host culture to some degree, so it is not particularly surprising that the American enthusiasm for Surrealism usually fell short of a commitment to radical political positions. Yet it would appear that the general orientation (p.201) of Surrealism, Existentialism, and the Annals School survived the Atlantic crossing more or less intact.
This was not the case with “French theory,” which became so far removed from its Gallic origins, and thus so different from what was happening in France, that in trying to describe this cultural phenomenon Cusset felt compelled to give an English title – French Theory – to a book written in French in order to stress that this new cultural event was essentially an American creation, one for which there was no true verbal equivalent in the French language. “French theory” was something quite other than a collection of theories emanating from the Hexagon. France had plenty of approaches to philosophy, sociology, and literature, but nothing similar to the American transformation of several lines of intellectual inquiry into one broad, albeit unstable, category. This transformation initially involved turning a small group of French intellectuals, mostly philosophers, into oracles whose methods and goals found little resonance in American philosophy departments but were eagerly seized upon (and contested) in other academic disciplines. For a time “French theory” so dominated the intellectual discussions and activities in the liberal art sections of American universities that not to be doing some form of “French theory” was not to be truly active in contemporary scholarship. Yet what is most striking about this phenomenon is less its Gallic origins than the changes which French ideas underwent in order to serve the differing needs of a variety of academic disciplines. American scholars were certainly influenced by their French counterparts, but they did more than just echo or reflect what they had learned. They turned theory into practice and forged from it research tools supple enough to function in a number of different domains. The end result was a very American product presented in French packaging. “French theory” was only to be found in the United States.
Whatever its hybrid origins, “French theory” was new and stimulating (in both a positive and negative sense) for American intellectuals. Lauded by some and decried by others, “French theory” initiated debates on the nature and goals of critical practices in particular disciplines and their relevance, if any, to American society. To the extent that intellectual discussion of important matters is always valuable, this was an exciting period in American cultural history. During the same time in France, this was not the case. When Jean-Philippe Mathy rather provocatively asserts that “Ideas have a much shorter shelf life in France than the United States” (French Resistance, 36), he is claiming that while ideas need longer (p.202) to take root in the States, “the size of the intellectual market and the relative autonomy of the various theoretical subcultures allows them to flourish long after they have wilted on the Left Bank” (36). He contrasts this with France, where he sees new ideas as having a rather circular existence; they arrive to considerable enthusiasm, have their moment of glory, but then eventually decline, only to return in a repackaged form. In Paris, intellectual assumptions and theories are constantly mutating but not really changing, since “crops of ‘new philosophies’ … are often nothing more than fifty-year old ideas everyone has been busy forgetting” (36).
Cusset has a similarly dour view of the state of French intellectual life marked by “l’inexorable déclin de l’influence intellectuelle française dans le monde depuis l’apogée de la théorie française – déclin auquel la France ‘pensant’ n’a pas l’air en mesure de remédier de si tôt” (324). Although both Mathy’s and Cusset’s views contain a fair measure of hyperbole, they do reflect an increasingly widespread opinion that France’s cultural importance is diminishing. If the Americans can usurp aspects of French intellectual life and transform them into an indigenous creation called “French theory,” Echenoz notwithstanding, French intellectuals have generally found it harder to do the same with American cultural imports.
America’s cultural emergence and France’s perceived decline may well be factors contributing to the French enthusiasm for Paul Auster. One might wonder whether recognizing Auster as a major talent whose work has been strongly influenced by French literary tradition allows French critics to maintain that their country’s literary culture still influences not simply other countries but also the world’s supposedly major power. I earlier quoted a variety of critics vaunting the allegedly Franco-European qualities inherent in Auster’s work. Didier Decoin provides a somewhat different dimension when he writes in Le Magazine littéraire that “Que Paul Auster soit le meilleur romancier américain d’aujourd’hui … était déjà flagrant” (66). On first reading, such a statement seems excessive. Proclaiming any novelist the finest in the nation is at best a personal opinion, and at worst rhetorical overkill – as is, to be sure, the adjective flagrant. What is apparent to one person is not necessarily obvious to another. Yet, if placed in the context of Franco-American culture wars, the statement possesses a certain coherence. By praising an American writer so deeply marked by France as the best of his generation, Decoin is implicitly saluting French culture for having so greatly contributed to Auster’s ascendancy in his own country.
(p.203) Paul Auster’s popularity in the Hexagon constitutes an implicit affirmation that France’s capacity to stand up to the American behemoth in the cultural domain remains to some degree intact. By the end of the twentieth century, the Americanization of France had altered the country’s lifestyles with a plethora of fast-food restaurants, clothing styles, movies, and music. American television series and conveniences had become integral to French home life. American novels had invaded les librairies grandes et petites with great success. Paul Auster was among these new American literary voices, yet what separated him from, say, Jim Harrison, Richard Ford, Toni Morrison, or Thomas McGuane, was a sentiment common among French critics that his work drew inspiration from French literary and cultural practices. Whether or not one shares Didier Decoin’s assessment of Auster’s place in the hierarchy of American letters, his French connection remains unassailable and speaks to the enduring vitality of an artistic heritage that had become a source of national concern. In a time of widespread insecurity concerning France’s standing in the contemporary world, the importance of France and the presence of its literary tradition in the work of a prominent American author could well be a source of national pride.
(1) As François Cusset convincingly demonstrates in French Theory, the craze associated with its expansion throughout the United States affected the realms of popular as well as high culture. For the purposes of my argument, I will concentrate on the importance of these ideas in the context of the American university.
(2) The fact that he is photogenic and handles himself well on French television has also helped enhance his career in France.
(3) Like most scholars who choose to comment on Paul Auster, I feel there is something distinctly French about his novels, particularly The Book of Illusions. By emphasizing “French” rather than “European,” I am first of all trying to remain within the parameters of this study. However, there is a more significant reason for avoiding the use of “European.” Both categories, French and European, are quite general, but while I believe it is possible to demarcate structural aspects of Auster’s work which seem to reflect, mutatis mutandis a well-known French literary pattern, the term “European” strikes me as simply too vast to be applied in a meaningful manner to any work of (p.204) literature. Kundera, for example, is certainly European, but what is gained by using his European identity as a critical tool? Would it not be more helpful to speak of his homeland, Czechoslovakia, as a source of certain experiences and influences, and his adopted country, France, as contributing others? Also, is British literature European literature and, if so, in what sense? I believe affixing the adjective “European” to an artist’s work, if something other than a broad geographical location is meant, raises more issues than it resolves.
(4) Theobald treats the Surrealist concept of chance and its relation to Auster’s work in great detail, although he says nothing about Oulipo.
(5) The structural pattern I am about to describe can be found in his other novels as well.
(7) Since my reflections at this juncture in the chapter remain on a general level, a comment attributed to the actress Sophie Marceau concerning the “typical” French movie seems to me to be also applicable to the “typical” French novel: “Annie sleeps with Daniel and Jérôme sleeps with Claude, then Daniel sleeps with Claude and then they discuss it all in a restaurant” (cited in Morrison and Compagnon, 37). The act is the catalyst for the subsequent extended discussion.
(8) In a well-known critique of Paul Auster that initially appeared in The New Yorker under the title “Shallow Graves,” James Wood complains that “80% of typical Auster proceeds in a manner indistinguishable from American realism – the remaining 20% does a kind of postmodern surgery on the 80%, often casting doubt on the veracity of the plot” (274). Percentages aside, Wood is correct to sense a disequilibrium in some of Auster’s texts. I think this is due to the extensive analysis of the events within the novel, which can appear to hinder the development of the plot.
(9) Auster plays occasionally with symbolism rather like Echenoz does. Is Homer’s Hector in any significant way like the Greek hero? Frieda Spelling’s first name is shared by D.H. Lawrence’s wife. Is that important since Lawrence and his Frieda were in New Mexico, as were Hector and Frieda? I think in every case the answer is, “No.”
(10) Hector’s early adventures, his activity in a new art form, his chaotic personal life, his involvement in a killing, his disappearance, and his eventual reinvention of himself would appear to be much closer to Chateaubriand’s lifestyle than anything David ever did.
(11) Situating The Book of Illusions is a twofold task. It is the name of a novel by Paul Auster but, in the context of this fiction, it is a memoir by David Zimmermann of a very difficult period in his life. If Zimmerman’s work were to have a title different from that of the Auster novel, his suggestion for (p.205) his translation of Chateaubriand, Memoirs of a Dead Man, would be quite appropriate.
(12) A major thesis in Mark Brown’s Paul Auster is that the novel “meditates on the relative values inherent in the practices of the film maker and the writer” (118) and that “the novel stands as a testament to both the power of storytelling and the primacy of the form” (118). I must take issue with this. I do not think there is any literary-visual hierarchy in the novel but rather that readers are invited to assume a major distinction between Mann’s early films and his more substantial, darker, later ones. David and Hector need their respective ways of creating illusions for themselves. What matters is that each achieves his goals through the form of expression he adopts.