The Invention of Solitude

Paul Auster’s memoir is a double feature of two components: Portrait of an Invisible Man and The Book of Memory. The first, Portrait, is a beautiful and savage look at his father’s life in the weeks and months after his death at age 67. “Like the house that was well ordered and yet falling apart from within, the man himself was calm, almost supernatural in his imperturbability, and yet prey to a roiling, unstoppable force of fury within. All his life he strove to avoid a confrontation with this force, nurturing a kind of automatic behavior that would allow him to pass to the side of it. Reliance on fixed routines freed him from the necessity of looking into himself when decisions had to be made; the cliche was always quick to come to his lips (‘A beautiful baby. Good luck with it.’ [the phrase he utters when meeting his grandson for the first time]) instead of words he had gone out and looked for. All this tended to flatten him out as a personality. But at the same time, it was also what saved him, the thing that allowed him to live. To the extent that he was able to live.”

Turns out Paul’s father Sam witnessed the 1919 murder of his father by his mother, causing all sorts of psychic damage. Also poignant are the descriptions of Paul dealing with the fallout of his father living so long in their old family house, mountains of junk having to be dealt with post-death, the neighbor child pretending that his father was calling on the phone, Paul winding down memory lane to peel away acceptable moments to hold onto before his father fades into nothing. The items retrieved and held onto as a reminder: “At first I thought it would be a comfort to hold on to these things, that they would remind me of my father and make me think of him as I went about my life. But objects, it seems, are no more than objects. I am used to them now, I have begun to think of them as my own. I read time by his watch, I wear his sweaters, I drive around in his car. But all this is no more than an illusion of intimacy. I have already appropriated these things. My father has vanished from them, has become invisible again. And sooner or later they will break down, fall apart, and have to be thrown away. I doubt that it will even seem to matter.”

The second piece of this memoir is The Book of Memory, a dull meandering bit of filler to puff out the book to proper publishing length. His father is dead, his marriage collapsed, he bemoans not being able to see his son every day as he paces around a tiny unheated room on Varick St. in NYC. His maternal grandfather falls ill, dies. He reminisces about his time in Paris translating, writing poetry. He gets a blow job from a woman after he “accidentally” goes to a topless bar. There are few and far between good bits, like this definitive cry for why travel is futile: “The world has shrunk to the size of this room for him, and for as long as it takes him to understand it, he must stay where he is. Only one thing is certain: he cannot be anywhere until he is here. And if he does not manage to find this place, it would be absurd for him to think of looking for another.”

Disturbing description of a woman had a teenage crush on, years later: “It had been several years since their last meeting, and now he found it gloomy, almost oppressive to be with her. She was still beautiful, he thought [OMFG!!! seriously, Auster?], and yet solitude seemed to enclose her, in the same way an egg encloses an unborn bird. She lived alone, had almost no friends. For many years she had been working on sculptures in wood, but she refused to show them to anyone. Each time she finished a piece, she would destroy it, and then begin on the next one. Again, A. had come face to face with a woman’s solitude. But here it had turned in on itself and dried up at its source.” Yikes, dude. Get a grip. She probably is bummed about having to spend time with you and doesn’t want to show you her art. Who could blame her? “Dried up at its source” could be another way to say that she found you repellent, my friend.