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Between Fabulation and Silence: in Search of the Paul Auster Effect American Studies Today Online
Paul Auster © David Shankbone - Wikimedia Commons
Paul Auster © David Shankbone - Wikimedia Commons
In this article, Adriana Neagu examines the key concepts of fabulation, aliterature, realism, idealism, memory, identity, aesthetic consciousness, textuality, space in the writing of Paul Auster, and considers how it is influenced by ideas as disparate as existentialism and silent movies, as well as by the writings of authors such as Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka.

This article was originally published in Constructions of Identity (VI), Rares Moldovan, Petronia Petrar (eds), Cluj-Napoca: Napoca Star, 2011, 239-49.

By Adriana Neagu, Babes Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca

Posted 05-Jun-2013


This article contains a large number of technical terms. Click here for a pop-up thesaurus of the terms used.


1. Once upon a time a Paul Auster Novel: The Fabula

2. Writing for Survival (I): The Mission

3. Writing for Survival (II): The Poetics

4. Writing for Survival (III): The Metaphysics

CODA: Imagination Endless: The Paul Auster Effect



Further reading

I believe that the world is filled with stories, that our lives are filled with stories, but it’s only at certain moments that we are able to see them or to understand them.

(Paul Auster in Irwin 1994)


This article sets out to explore the ethical and aesthetic forces that shape Paul Auster’s profile with a view to contributing an insight into the position of his writing between continental European traditions and North American sensibility. With this end in view, it examines the interplay of identity and alterity, textuality and metaphysics in his prose, as evidenced by both his pre- and post-2000 output. In so doing, it seeks to orchestrate a revealing dialogue between the dynamics of self and other constitutive of his texts. It is premised on the idea that whereas a considerable body of literature has been written on the ‘Frenchness’ of Auster’s profile, the transatlantic cultural memory that his discourse instantiates has remained a relatively under-researched area of his criticism. One of the central theses the essay advances is that Auster’s novelistic practice is illustrative of a mode of writing that intermarries the exemplary, abyssal consciousness of the literature of silence as foregrounded by American critic and poetician Ihab Hassan, as an aesthetic of the limit, and the American ‘fabulatory’ dimension as a quintessential North American quality. Looking at the prevalent motifs and intertexts of Austerian prose, I argue that, European in influences, the New York chronicler imbues  the poetic sensibility of modernism in its ‘aliterature’ form, both at the tropological level, as the manifestation of the compulsion to push the boundaries of language experimentation to originary silence, and at the metaphysical one, his writing voicing that “stream of hieratic despair” Hassan associates with abyssal modernists such as Samuel Beckett (Hassan 1971, x). 

A diurnal raconteur par excellence in the structure of his imaginary, in the sense foregrounded by Gilbert Durand[1], animated by a lifelong love of fairy tales and oral traditions, Auster is possessed of an American sense of unbound possibility, his representation of space being reflective of the coexistence of images of identity as confinement and infinitude, Beckett’s destitute space and Kerouac’s potent, exuberant road journey. Particularising Auster’s textual metaphysics, however is the dramatisation of confinement as fulfilling an empowering role, and conversely, of infinitude as a disabling attribute.  The thrust of my argument is that Auster’s text combines the Beckettian anti-story and the postmodern relish for the story, approaching writing as a felt ultimacy and a mode of being in the world. But whereas voicing the urgency manifest in the Beckettian predicament “that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express,” (Beckett 1958, 103) Auster’s The Invention of Solitudework is premised on a relentless pursuit of a transcendental order. The proposed textual analyses will as a result target the commingling in Auster’s  works of a Quixotic quest for absolutes, the North American picaresque, the radical language consciousness of the modernist tradition associated with Beckett, Camus, Genet, Kafka, Hamsun, Celan, and the mytho-magical drive to conjure up worlds of the North American novel of adventure. In the following, I will observe the writing of the self in Auster’s early as well as his later prose, particularly in The Invention of Solitude (1982), In The Country of Last Things (1984), The New York Trilogy (1985) and The Music of Chance (1990), Travels in the Scriptorium (2006) and Man In the Dark (2008), writings that abound in hypostases of a dialogical, relational sense of identity thematised as metaphors of affiliation and filiation. One of the chief conclusive statements this enquiry formulates is that Auster’s discourse reconciles the metaphysical and the metafictional, readerly and writerly dimensions of the text, valorising principles that inform both mimetic and anti-mimetic representation, in this propelling forward the age-old enquiry into the nature of realism and idealism. Consequently, I maintain, the act of writing Auster projects is a site of polarity, a form of restraint and imprisonment, but also of replenishing possibility, conjoining a lucid auctorial consciousness and a nomadic imaginary.

1. Once upon a time a Paul Auster Novel: The Fabula

It is an enduring quality of Paul Auster’s novels that one story constantly begets another, that when you think it fully developed, squeezed of its generating potential and drawing to a close, it reads as fresh and rich as though it might as well have only just begun. In fact, such is the extent of Auster’s power of invention that the effect that this conveys is that there is a story about to kick off again in every single ending, that the sky is the limit of his novelistic impetus. As well as an intensely visual writing and the interest in the silent film, Auster shares with Beckett, whom he had the chance to meet in Paris, and who exerted a lasting influence on him, the ability to create a story out of the barest of elements. Unlike fellow postmodernist writers who cultivate verbiage and discoursal proliferation, revelling in frenzied semiotic excess, Auster isTravels in the Scriptorium drawn to Beckett’s minimalism, his prose earning from early on a reputation for ascetism and “stylistic austerity” (Bikherts 1989, online article) An integral part of the poetics of silence, formal scrupulosity is one the most immediately apparent of Auster’s affinities with Beckett. The Beckettian struggle to articulate the nonword, the Irishman’s relentless tapping into the cruelty of language, infiltrate Auster’s prose from early on. Thus from the early exploits in The Invention of Solitude (1982) and The Music of Chance (1990) to Travels in the Scriptorium (2006) and Man in the Dark (2008), ontological nothingness haunts the Austerian subject, Auster’s protagonists constantly clinging to writing for an antidote to death, meaninglessness, chaos. Angst and the urgency of the quest for an Adamic, unadulterated language align Auster with the tradition of silence identified by Hassan in authors such as Hemingway, Kafka, Genet and Beckett, “who exemplify, in some hieratic order of despair, the sovereignty of the void” (Hassan x). However, the “hieratic despair” traversing Beckett’s writing translates in Auster’s pen into a form of unlikely plenitude, in Auster’s rendition, the struggle to express the inexpressible being constantly redeemed by fear of annihilation. A natural born fabulator, Auster celebrates limits, his writing being suffused by a diurnal type of imagination. Regardless of how precarious the effort, the modes of writing Auster’s texts instantiate are credited with a cathartic, transcendental function. In Hassan’s aesthetic logic, his is a “silence of fullness”:

The literature of silence encloses a silence of fullness and another of vacancy. Against Blake, Rimbaud, Whitman, Lawrence, Breton, and Henry Miller, say, stand Sade, Mallarmé, Valéry, Kafka, Genet, and Beckett. (These arrays, superficial and perhaps superfluous, suggest merely this: a constrast in the effects of language rather than a discrimination of forms or themes)” (Hassan 1971, 7)

Beckett’s abyssal aesthetics can be traced throughout the Austerian fictional universe. From Ghosts (1986) and The Locked Room (1986), two of the novels comprising his New York Trilogy, to his more recent Travels in the Scriptorium (2006) and Man in the Dark (2008), Auster schematises to an extreme, constantly laying bare his characters’ writerly functions. As with Beckett, the scene of writing is thus emptied of all extra-representational “material”, supporting roles eradicated, the object-world dissolves, only the story remains. In the first book of Beckett’s trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable, a presumed private detective by the name of Moran is hunting Molloy acting on the orders of an enigmatic master, Youdi. Ghosts, the second book of Auster’s trilogy, features a private eye by the name of Blue, trained by Brown, who is investigating a certain Black for a client named White. Like Molloy, Blue depends on writing for survival and is forced to produce written reports in exchange for money. Whereas not always taking the form of an act enforced upon the character, as in Beckett’s trilogy, the predicament of writing, text-production as imposition figures prominently in both the early as in the more recent Auster novels. Gradually, the contours of Black’s and Blue’s identities blur as Blue becomes increasingly enmeshed in the life of Black.

Whereas in Auster’s early prose the process of writing veers between the Beckettean effect of claustrophic encasement and the vagrant, indeed empowering sense of fabulatory freedom, in the latter texts this dialectical tension seems to be giving way to the condition of adlinguisticity. Thus, the writing of the self in Travels in the Scriptorium is subject to the endless New York Trilogydeferral of meaning and self-begetting textuality foregrounded in The New York Trilogy. While not entirely reducing his protagonists to disembodied narrative voices, Auster typically blurs and collapses ontological barriers, a sense of radical uncertainty running through Travels in the Scriptorium and Man in the Dark. Strongly evocative of Kafka and Beckett, these texts evidence the imbricated, metaphysical-metafictional dimension in Auster’s thematisation of the act of writing. In Travels in the Scriptorium, Auster’s most self-referential novel to date, an amnesiac Mr Blank -a character suggestive of Beckett’s Krapp- awakens in a shuttered-windowed room with a series of pictures and a manuscript as the only material traces of the external world. The image in the title appears to have preoccupied Auster long before the drafting of the novel, the syntagm featuring in The Book of Illusions (2002) with reference to a secret film made by the protagonist, a silent movies comedian. Literally, a “place for writing,” associated with monastic manuscripts, in the title novel, the scriptorium represents an enactment of the situation of writing, allegorical of the very process of fiction. Confined to his room, Mr Blank is bound to sift through the given clues, in a desperate effort to reconstruct plausible versions of his past existence, painfully aware of the elusive nature of the enterprise. A captive in the prisonhouse of language, indefinitely under the “obligation to express,” he is condemned to writing, forced to “go on with the story […] map out the tale to its conclusion” (108). To the hypostasis of writing as morally and metaphysically binding, exemplarily dramatised in The Invention of Solitude and Moon Palace, Auster adds the conventional postmodern valence of the therapeutic function of the narrative, completing the story-within-the-story being part of Mr. Blank’s treatment. Unable to signify outside the room indeed to write himself out of his chamber, Mr Blank, whose mission statement, ”to restore harmony to a broken universe” (106) is reminiscent of Peter Stillman Sr.’s prelapsarian quest in City of Glass, is arrested in a Beckettean pose of stilled motion, cast in the same script, forced to perpetuate the same gestures, and signify within the only knowable world, that of his room, for ”the room is his world now” (129). Incarcerated in this autistic universe , Mr. Blank thus carries a burden not unlike Sisyphus’, waking up each day to be manoeuvred and acted upon, duped into thinking it is his own script he is writing, the novel closing with the image of the character claustrophobically enKrapped in the mind of a pseudo-creator:

It will never end. For Mr. Blank is one of us now, and struggle though he might to understand his predicament, he will always be lost […] The room is his world now, and the longer the treatment goes on, the more he will come to accept the generosity of what has been done for him. Mr. Blank is old and enfeebled, but as long as he remains in the room with the shuttered window and the locked door, he can never die, never disappear, never be anything but the words I am writing on his page […] But for now it is still the day it has always been since the first word of this report, and now is the moment when Anna kisses Mr. Blank on the cheek and tucks him in, and now is the moment when she stands up from the bed and begins walking toward the door. Sleep well, Mr. Blank. Lights out. (Auster 2006, 129-130)

Whatever pretence to verisimilitude Auster may appear to claim for the stories-within-the-stories populating the Scriptorium, it is dispelled in the end by the reinstatement of the incontrovertible artificiality indeed the fictitiousness of fiction. The question arises, what will have prompted a like demise of make believe on the part of Auster, at this stage in his writing? The answer lies in part at least in the intertextual levels underlying the structure of the novel. In what has by now become classic postmodern fashion, Travels in the Scriptorium reiterates an entire panoply of Austerian characters, ranging from Daniel Quinn, Peter Stillman and Fanshawe of City of Glass and The Locked Room, to Anna Bloom and Samuel Farr  of In the Country of Last Things, Marco Fogg (Moon Palace) and John Trause (Oracle Night). Rather than yet another exercise in self-reflexiveness, this comes across as a quintessentially Austerian effect, that of a meta-novel or ”Auster-in-a-nutshell” version, in which Auster sits back and recaps essentials of his poetics, recalling on stage his principal recurring strategies, motifs and characters. For beyond the auctorial stunt Auster pulls on his novice, uninitiated reader, the novel reads as a direct tribute paid to Beckett upon the centennial of the master’s birth hence the emphatic déjà-vues and circular characters, stripped to the narrative bone of mere character parts, the resurfacing of core themes and motifs, the sense of utter unknowability of reality, truth, identity. Insofar as it interrogates the idea of writing as a form of difficult liberty, Travels in the Scriptorium is equally Auster’s way of paying homage to the legacy of French existentialism. Sanguine interpretations of the book as betraying signs of an aging Auster’s burntout syndrome, miss the ostensible artefact-like nature of Auster’s project here, one galvanised by his deep affinity for Beckett’s poetics. As though on a quest for self-transcendence, Auster seems to be reviewing core issues regarding the novelistic function of his writings, operating with meta-characters or dramatis personae. The cameos gravitating around Mr Blank are thus but mouthpieces for the many fictional masks and roles constitutive of Auster’s output. As well as reiterating hallmarks of Auster’s work – memory, loss, recovery, the room, the doppelgängerns, the quest, in its interweaving narratives, the novel allegorises the process of fiction itself, captured between its metaphysical limits and infinite hermeneutic possibilities; hence the ostentatious stagy effect at the end, the character manipulation, the standstill.  

2. Writing for Survival (I): The Mission

Prophesizing, contemplating or condoning endings proved a compulsive vocation of the ‘terminal’ past and post decades of the twentieth century. Fuelled in part by poststructuralist theory, in part by what came to be referred to as the ‘millennial syndrome’, the eschatological mood pervading contemporary sensibility turned the exercise in projecting paroxysmal scenarios onto the world into a habitual template. Postmodernism, as a prevailing fin-de-siècle sensibility, has been a constant catalyst to this ‘litany of loss’ mood. Beyond the indelible formative imprint of the Beckettian legacy, apparent in the themes of loss, exile, despair, absence, and nothingness permeating his writing, the author of the New York Trilogy has learnt from Beckett the temerity to delve deep into what Steven Connor in a keynote lecture calls ”radical finitude”:

Beckett is drawn to the endingness of things in general. Where an ordinary reader might wonder 'what happens next?', Beckett always defaults to the question 'what happens last?' or 'how will the last thing of all happen'? It is in this sense that Beckett is a secular or vernacular eschatologist, inclined always to the eschaton.  (Connor 2008)

Against the backdrop of our immunisation to apocalyptic pronouncements and diagnostic necropsies, it is crucial to distinguish the strain of finitude underlying Beckett’s acts of language from the rhetoric of endings traversing postmodern thought. It is a measure of Beckett’s protean stature that his forays into finiteness are not confined to the avant-garde drive, that is to the compulsion to instantiate a total rupture with conventions. The manifold dimensions of finitude that he grapples with - the finitude of mortality, of sociality, indeed of language and the very self, touch upon such fundamentals of the subject that, disruptive of humanism though his work may be, it cannot but outlive the avant-gardes as an unparalleled affirmation of the human project. It is what situates Beckett in the privileged position of a perpetually avant-garde figure, that no anti- or retro-, post- or after-humanism movement can displace.

Samuel Beckett
Samuel Beckett

Deeply indebted to Beckett, Auster’s own enquiries into strands of finitude, sublimate the postmodern textualist idiom in various significant ways, stemming as they are from a confluent aesthetic and ethical logic. But whereas Beckett approaches finitude as a mode of confronting the inescapability  indeed the insurmountability of limits, the sense of endings in Auster’s writings is - at least in his early prose- a mere developmental stage, one yielding to new beginnings and a whole new realm of probability and possibility. Where Beckett, in his fascination with the anatomy of words, their physical and material form, dismantles language in an exemplary effort to strip it back to its originary symbolic function, Auster is content to celebrate the elusive condition of writing with parsimonious, albeit richly textured, verbal economy. Beckett of course sought to articulate silence and in so doing reproduce the elemental registers of vocabulary at the very level of sentence structure. It is a gesture that transcends the preoccupation with formal experimentation, emulating the objectivity and precision of a clinician’s practice. His is a descent into the very medium of imagination destined to capture form in the process of disintegrating itself. His regressive journeying into the uncreated is a mode of enacting the birth of speech, Beckett’s texts dramatising memorable scenes of origin. Insofar as it exposes language impotence, the change Beckett attempted to effect on language humbles our notion of homo narrativus. In this, Beckett’s excursus transcends the realm of art and enters that of cultural anthropology, as it touches upon the very data matrices of imagination.

While informed by the perplexities at work in the condition of "Imagination Dead Imagine," Auster’s writing is possessed of an enabling faculty through which the ‘lessness’ story transmutes into an unlikely form of plenitude. In a postlapsarian linguistic order, faced with the anxieties that mar the postmodern horizon of representation, Auster’s protagonists embark upon a series of constructive, prelapsarian quests. It is especially the case in City of Glass (1985), the first book of his New York Trilogy and Auster’s most canonical text to date, a parable of logocentrism written by the deconstructionist textbook. It comes as little surprise that Auster should owe his reputation as innovator to the Trilogy, for this is Auster at his most experimental, adopting the position of an Ur-deconstructor, tracking the proto-language before the Fall. Peter Stillman, Sr. in City of Glass is caught in a bound-to-fail project of absolute amplitude --the endeavour to ‘rehearse’ the biblical scheme in search of Adam’s universal grammar. The enormity of the primordial task Auster ascribes to his allegorical character - Stillman’s effort of restructuring the process of signification and restoring Ursprache - incorporates a veritable lineage of Quixotic and Beckettean traditions of failure. In the Austerian vein, however, it is the sublimating valence intrinsic in the endeavour to “ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” (Beckett 1983, 103) that gains prominence.  Auster’s thematic predilection for the parable Father-Divinity (hence sacred and symbolical language, closure, completeness of creation) is already noticeable in the pages of The Invention of Solitude. S, the champion of universal causes, learns humility in the process of composing what reads like a Dodecalogue.

3. Writing for Survival (II): The Poetics

In both City of Glass and the dystopian fantasy In the Country of Last Things (1987), Auster engages the paradoxes embedded in the postmodern urgency to record the present against the past in an attempt to salvage it from its own City of Glassobsolescence. By virtue of their metaphysical substratum and of his capacity for emplotment, Auster’s exploits here read like a lot more than ingenious variations on the postmodern theme of the extinction of forms. The tension that Auster builds with his typical, pithy brevity is channelled into the multi-layered narrative, whose structure he deploys with an artisan’s meticulousness. In fact, the crisper and more frugal the style, the more elaborate and convoluted the plotline. In a sophisticated decreative-recreative architectonics, Auster’s New York novels in the trilogy project a discursive vision of the metropolis coached in the form of meta-mystery, writing-reading allegories, spiced by a proliferation of alembicated Dőppelgangerns. Doppelgangers as well as the ghostly-ghastly analogy, a common ingredient is the Todorovian interpretive model author: reader=criminal: detective, which surfaces and resurfaces in Auster’s scenario of crime and clues, fact and fiction. In Auster’s metaphysical detective stories, however, grounding the space-text allegory is an ontogenesis that subsumes the hermeneutic process to the quest for a full restoration of the innocent undivided Adamic tongue. In the introspective, meditative overtones, the Austerian text veers between existential récit and a postmodern ‘classic’, allegorising the perpetually deferred signifier. In its ‘unreality’ and alienness, New York city appears as a dismembered world, the spatial representation of the loss of a rationally ordered universe. The derelictness in space parallels the disjunctive, drifting away of the signifiers from their original signifieds. Landscapes of a desecrated Manhattan (City of Glass) and Brooklyn (Ghosts), living by a profane time , signal the need to retrace or re-invent Derridean presence in order to reinstate a theological order. Peter Stillman Sr. defines his enterprise in these very terms:

My work is very simple. I have come to New York because it is the most forlorn of places, the most abject. The brokenness is everywhere, the disarray is universal. You have only to open your eyes to see it. The broken people, the broken things, the broken thoughts. The whole city is a junk  heap. It suits my purpose admirably. I find the streets an endless source of material, an inexhaustible storehouse of shattered things. Each day I go out with my bag and collect objects that seem worthy of investigation. My samples now number in the hundreds –from the chipped to the smashed, from the dented to the squashed, from the pulverized to the putrid. (Auster 1985, 78)

Itineraries and routes in the Trilogy are thus explicitly associated with the pursuit of an ultimate referent, of the natural Edenic language by which alone the alienation between object and referent can be undone. In his pacing up and down the streets of New York, as well as in his collecting of broken objects, Stillman performs a ritual act of rebuilding “a world in fragments” (Auster 1985, 76), of making restitution of a fallen language:

A language that will at last say what we have to say. For words no longer correspond to the world. When things were whole, we felt confident that our words could express them. But little by little these things have broken apart, shattered, collapsed into chaos. And yet our words have remained the same. They have not adapted themselves to the new reality. Hence, every time we try to speak of what we see, we speak falsely, distorting the very thing we are trying to represent. (Auster 1985, 77)

4. Writing for Survival (III): The Metaphysics

Perhaps the most immediately and transparently Beckettean in influence, The Music of Chance (1990) is implicitly one of Auster’s most unsettling, absurdist narratives, blending a quintessentially American longing for space as a total, uncompromising expression of freedom, and the European notion of space as self-bound locality. Although accommodating the mystery embodied in the tradition of the picaresque, wandering in the novel is a function of ethics and signification. It is an illustration of the typical Austerian pursuit of ”confinement and vagabondage-open space and hermetic space” (Irwin Music of Chance1989, online article).  Auster often comments on the paradox embedded in the maximum freedom contained in the enclosed space of a room and the incarceration the subject experiences when confronting vast expanses of space. Absolute confinement in his books more often than not translates into absolute freedom. The interplay of movement and stillness here evokes various scenes of slow motion in Beckett, spatial representation being one in a series of parallelisms Auster’s text invites. From the presence of tramps as protagonists, to the game, the symbolism in the character names, the ludic, to the elliptical tone, everything reminds of Waiting for Godot and Endgame. The chance encounter between Nashe, a former Boston fireman who hits the road in his red Saab to leave his past behind, and Pozzi, nicknamed “Jackpot,” an inveterate gambler, leads to a concatenation of uncanny events. Lacking the parodical self-awareness of Beckett’s characters, Auster’s protagonists are subjected to several forms of (self-)imprisonment. Naming evinces Auster’s predilection for the literal (a literalisation carried to an extreme in Travels in the Scriptorium and Man in the Dark.. Minimum language play points to the ’ashes’ and “Lucky” connotations in Nashe’s and Pozzi’s names, respectively to organic and inorganic matter in Flower’s and Stone’s, the names of the eccentric millionaires that the two vagrants set out to outsmart in a poker game. Much in the novel can be circumscribed to a line in Auster’s poem, “White Spaces,” “Nothing happens. And still, it is not nothing” (Auster 1980, 14). As well as a haunting, metaphysical tale of representation and itinerancy, Auster creates here a dark parable of the New World, indeed of freedom and money, central to the American dream. As Irwin underlines, Nashe experiences both an “escape from and for freedom,”[1] imprisoned in his own desire for what he construes to be a notion of freedom” (Irwin 1989, online article), of which the wall he and Pozzi are forced to build is symbolic.

Reading – at least until the publication of Man in the Dark (2008)- as uncharacteristic of Auster’s output, In the Country of Last Things (1987) is the ultimate expression of the writer’s propensity for ‘thinking of and at limits’. Consequently, Beckett’s poetics of exhaustion provides a consonant reading of Auster’s text. It is a dystopian piece that condenses a vast panorama of sites of finitude, pre-natal and post-mortem reminiscent of Beckett’s dilapidated space and of the impersonal, disembodied voices inhabiting it. Originally subtitled Anna Blume Walks through the Twentieth Century, the novel is an Orwellian, and yet, very much Austerian text effacing in postmodern fashion the demarcation between genres, and absorbing elements of science fiction, fable, the mystery novel and negative utopia. Blume, a Scheherezade-like, life affirming ‘martyr of truth’, journeys to an unnamed city in search of her disappeared brother. Like Quinn, the explorer of this ‘last things’ townscape records the story of her ramblings in a notebook that survives its author’s meanderings, sent across the ocean as a message in a bottle. The writing of the notebook, as in Quinn’s case, is an act of desperate urgency enforcing itself upon the writer with the velocity of a rapidly collapsing world. Written in the face of this impending maelstrom, the notebook acquires the significance of the last recorded evidence of a devastated world, and, as the pages run out, Blume, like Quinn, confronts herself the inevitability of the never-ending enterprise, calling to mind Quinn’s final entry in the red notebook: “What will happen when there are no more pages in the red notebook?” (Auster 1987, 183). Blume’s monologue condenses one of the qualities that Auster touches upon recurrently in his essayistic prose on Kafka, his most revered master along with Beckett: the pressures of lucidity as the most tormenting of feelings.

I’ve been trying to fit everything in, trying to get to the end before it’s too late, but I see now how badly I’ve deceived myself. Words do not allow such things. The closer you come to the end, the more there is to say. The end is only imaginary, a destination you invent to keep yourself going, but a point comes when you realize you will never get there. You might have to stop, but that is only because you have run out of time. You stop, but that does not mean you have to come to an end. (Auster 1987, 183)

Ostensibly rooted in the post-apocalyptic postmodern imaginary, the book combines futuristic and existentialist traits, distilled in a manner that renders it, as in the case of The Trilogy exemplarity and iconicity. What distinguishes it primarily from other texts of the genre is the strain of tragic consciousness running through Auster’s writing, which renders a shattering significance to the strange account of Blume’s tribulations in search of her brother. Her scavenging for objects in an unnamed city, her mission of extricating the past from rubble and waste is, like the writing in the notebook, an act of preserving a dismantling, self-destructing world. The eschatological imagery, the chaos and disorder dominant in In the Country of Last Things echo strongly the sense of entropy in Beckett’s texts. Fittingly, this is one of the few Auster novels in which principles of coincidence, randomness and chance fail to sublimate loss and despair, and hence, to lead up to the typically Austerian sense of interconnectedness. The estrangement and urgency of Blume’s and Stillmann’s predicaments --a galvanising feature of Auster’s pre-2000 fictions-- open up dimensions in Auster’s work that imbue an entire European continental sensibility. Along with The Invention of Solitude, these early pieces feature Auster as continuous with “hunger artists” such as Kafka, Camus, Sartre, Hamsun, owing a tribute of debt to Modern Jewish traditions, particularly as manifest in the writing of Edmond Jabès. In more ways than one, Auster’s, like Beckett’s, is the type of écriture blanche which Adorno saw as the single befitting representation of post-Auschwitz humanism. Owing to the very acuity and poignancy of Auster’s apocalyptic paradigm, in 1994, In the Country of Last Things was adapted for the stage and performed in Bosnia by the Sarajevo Festival Ensemble, with Vanessa Redgrave in the role of the Narrator.

One of the pieces in which the metaphysical Austerian effect is most intimately interlaced with the metafictional, acclaimed as one of his finest to date, The Book of Illusions (2002) brings in unison Auster’s cinematic and novelistic projects in a poematic transposition of truth and identity in fiction. Of the numerous illustrations of the interpenetration of these dimensions, the character-narrator ambivalence is perhaps most telling. The story is narrated from the perspective of David Zimmer, (a character that first appears in Auster’s 1989 novel, Moon Palace), a literature professor at a liberal arts college in Vermont, who sinks into despair, seclusion and alchoholism after losing his wife and sons in a plane crash. Zimmer feels irremediably lost to isolation and deep depression, when a typical Austerian chance encounter ignites a semblance of purpose in his life. The flash that triggers Zimmer’s process of recovery is a series of clips from a documentary featuring Hector Mann, a silent film comedian gone into an act of mysterious disappearance at the peak of his career in 1925. Mann’s charisma on screen stirs emotion in Zimmer, breathing new life into an otherwise totally meaning- depleted universe. As a result, Zimmer embarks upon the writing of a monograph on Mann, The Silent World of Hector Mann, designed as an art- rather than life-oriented, comprehensive study of a talented ’gagman’, of his sparkling, short-lived career and filmography: 

It didn’t matter what the project was or what I hoped to get out of it. Any choice would have been arbitrary by then, but that night an idea had presented itself to me, and on the strength of two minutes of film and one short laugh, I chose to wander around the world looking at silent movies. (Auster 2002, 13)

In the ultimacy, indeed extreme urgency of the quest, Zimmer’s is an attempt to write into being not dissimilar with the The Invention of Solitudeexemplary acts of writing dramatized in The Invention of Solitude and Moon Palace. And whereas, as Zimmer delves deeper into the mystery of Mann’s secret life, the meta-referential invariably seems to take over the ontological project and the hyposthesis of Mann having authored his own story gains contour, it is the therapeutic, ethical stance of writing for survival that Auster’s discourse foregrounds. Yet to this ontologically binding hypostasis, Auster opposes the predicament of invisibility indeed the dissolution of the self in the absence of the trace left in the other. To this points, Hector Mann’s ontological project of making movies never to be shown to audiences. Indeed it is instantiations of ’writing degree zero’ such as this, often transposed in moments of an expanded, extra-ordinary writerly consciousness that differentiate Auster’s position from that of fellow contemporaries:

We all want to believe in impossible things. I suppose, to persuade ourselves that miracles can happen. Considering that I was the author of the only book ever written on Hector Mann, it probably made sense that someone would think I’d jump at the chance to believe he was still alive. But I wasn’t in the mood to jump. Or at least I didn’t think I was. My book had been born out of sorrow, and now that the book was behind me, the sorrow was still there. Writing about comedy had been no more than a pretext, an odd form of medicine that I had swallowed every day over a year on the off chance that it would dull the pain inside me.  (Auster 2002, 5). 

Thriving in instances of performance and storytelling, exploring to the fullest the limits of verisimilitude, The Book of Illusions profiles itself as an emblematical Austerian text, metaphorical for the whole of Auster’s writing. As well as reiterative of Auster’s chief thematic dominants and defining techniques, the novel imbues a deep sense of iconicity, reading as a stylistic matrix of the author’s imagination.  Above all, it is representative for the simultaneous suspension of belief and disbelief that Auster’s fiction invites in its dexterous, effervescent narrativity and intense, parsimonious poeticality. For it is in the constant game of motion and stillness, of writing as at once ethereally absent and materially present that the power of ‘illusionism’ constitutive of the Paul Auster effect lies. Much like an illusionist, able to materialize and dematerialise objects in a flash, Auster, the quintessential ‘fabulist’, assumes the role of a magician, at first conjuring up a believable, desirable universe of happening, which he then unmakes, and carries to a vanishing point; in his infinitely capable pen, worlds emerge and evaporate, happen and come about, only to melt away and change into vapour. Reading Auster is an experience comparable with that of witnessing an illusionist act; whether a dazzling escape or a card routine, it both reinforces and undermines one’s capacity for make believe. Doubtless, the Auster effect is most alluring as it dwells in the realm of possibility, for with every new story-within-the-story Auster performs a demonstration of what writing can do. No sooner does the demonstration reach a climax than, as if by an abracadabra formula, one is thrown back to starting point, a sense of volatility takes over, and a new story begins. It is a position similar to that of a juggler conjuring tricks hence the seductive hold Auster’s writing has over the reader’s imagination.

CODA: Imagination Endless: The Paul Auster Effect

As the enquiries into the ethics and poiesis of Auster’s writing have tried to illustrate, while an author deemed “ascetic,” Auster creates a fulfilling and mesmerising impression on the reader, one equally reinforcing and escapist, reassuring and disquieting. The fables of identity he conjures up go beyond the ‘high postmodernist’ exercises in deconstruction, dwelling on the transferrential and transactional nature of the process of writing, constantly pointing to the plenitude in the effort to speak the unspeakable. In this as well as in the depth of his explorations of writing as a site of alterity, Auster strikes a rather singular note in contemporary American fiction. For all its delving into the illusory, his ‘spinning of yarns’ transcends the stereotypical postmodern game of narcissistic self-mirroring. And whereas endings and endpoints may dominate his novelistic discourse, the narrative capital Auster invests in consolidating the reality of his fictions is matched only by the poignancy with which he uncovers their elusiveness. While his ethic is one of dialogism and plurality, Auster’s poeticity is the effect of an at times singular, disconcerting simplicity, the substance of ethereality. In that and every other sense, the Paul Auster master-effect is that his novels never end.


Auster, Paul. White spaces. 1980. New York: Station Hill.

Auster, Paul. The New York Trilogy. 1985, City of glass; 1985, Ghosts; 1986, The Locked room, Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press. London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1987.

Auster, Paul. In the Country of Last Things. 1987. New York: Viking Penguin Inc.

Auster, Paul. Moon Palace. 1989. New York: Viking Penguin, Inc.

Auster, Paul. The Music of Chance. 1990. New York: Viking Penguin, Inc.

Auster, Paul. 2002. The book of illusions. New York: Faber & Faber.

Auster, Paul. Travels in the scriptorium. 2006. New York: Faber & Faber.

Beckett, Samuel. 1958. "Proust and three dialogues with Georges Duthuit." London: Calder and Boyars.

Beckett, Samuel. 1955. Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable. New York: Grove Press.

Beckett, Samuel. 1960. Krapp’s last tape and other dramatic pieces. London: Grove.

Beckett, Samuel. 1965. Imagination dead imagine. London: Grove.

Birkerts, Sven. “Postmodern picaresque: Moon Palace by Paul Auster.” 1989. The New Republic, (accessed 19 January, 2010).

Connor, Steven. 2008. ‘On Such and such a day…in such a world’: Beckett’s radical finitude, An International Centenary Symposium, Tokyo, 1st October 2006. .” In Borderless Beckett / Beckett sans frontiers, Samuel Beckett Today/ Aujourd’hui, 19: 38-50.

Durand, Gilbert. Les Structures anthropologiques de l’imaginaire : Introduction à l’archétypologie générale (Paris : Bordas, 1960).

Hassan, Ihab. 1971. The Dismemberment of Orpheus: toward a postmodern fiction. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Irwin, Mark. 1994. Memory’s escape: Inventing the music of chance—A conversation with Paul Auster. Denver Quarterly 28 (3): 109.

Lévinas, Emmanuel. 1972. Humanisme de l’autre homme. Montpellier: Fata Morgana.

Scholes, Robert. 1967. The Fabulators. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


[1]In Les Structures anthropologiques de l’imaginaire: Introduction à l’archétypologie générale (Paris: Bordas, 1960), French philosopher, sociologist and anthropologist Gilbert Durand, a disciple of Gaston Bachelard and Carl Gustav Jung, constructs a typology of the narrative imagination construed as the meeting place of the individual and the collective / social imaginary. Building on Jungian theories of archetype and the collective unconscious, Durand identifies a diurnal and a nocturnal regimen of the literary imagination, which he traces to the medieval, Renaissance, classical, etc periods.

Further reading

If you are interested in Paul Auster, you may also be interested in Jonathan Lethem. You can read an interview with him here.

Why all the marsupials? An Interview with Jonathan Lethem conducted by James Peacock. Jonathan Allen Lethem is a novelist whose work is a genre-bendingh mixture of detective and science fiction. In 2005 Jonathan Allen Lethem received a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called "genius grant." This interview with James Peacock took place on 25 May 2009 in Brooklyn.



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