Paul Auster, The Book of Illusions

Holderin, Chateaubriand, and much more

Paul Auster: "I think people become writers because they love reading as children."
  • Paul Auster: "I think people become writers because they love reading as children."

The Book of Illusions

Henry Holt, 2002; 321 pages; $24

FROM THE DUST JACKET: Six months after losing his wife and two young sons in an airplane crash, Vermont professor David Zimmer spends his waking hours in a blur of alcoholic grief and self-pity. Then, watching television one night, he stumbles upon a clip from a lost film by the silent comedian Hector Mann. Zimmer’s interest is piqued, and he soon finds himself embarking on a journey around the world to study the works of this mysterious figure, who vanished from sight in 1929.

Who was Hector Mann? An Argentinean-born comic genius, with a signature white suit and fluttering black mustache, a master of “backpedals and dodges...sudden torques and lunging pavanes...double takes and hop-steps and rhumba swivels.” Presumed dead for 60 years, he had flashed briefly across American movie screens, tantalizing the public with the promise of a brilliant future, and then, just as the silent era came to an end, he walked out of his house one January morning and was never heard from again.

Zimmer’s research leads him to write the first full-length study of Hector’s films. When the book is published the following year, a letter turns up in Zimmer’s mailbox bearing a return address from a small town in New Mexico — supposedly written by Hector’s wife. “Hector has read your book and would like to meet you. Are you interested in paying us a visit?” Is the letter a hoax, or is Hector Mann still alive? Tom between doubt and belief, Zimmer hesitates, until one night a strange woman appears on his doorstep and makes the decision for him, changing his life forever.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Paul Auster was bom in 1947 in Newark, New Jersey. He received his B.A. (1969) and M.A. (1970) from Columbia University. He has been husband to two writers— Lydia Davis, from whom he was divorced in 1979, and to his present wife, Siri Hustvedt, whom he married in 1981. Mr. Auster and Ms. Hustvedt live in Brooklyn.

Author now of ten novels, Mr. Auster is also a translator, translating prose and poetry from French to English. He has edited several volumes, including The Random House Book of 20th-Century French Poetry and the more recent NPR National Story Project anthology, I Thought My Father Was God. He has written several film scripts, including those for Smoke and Blue in the Face.

A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: On the day that we talked, early afternoon in California and late afternoon in Brooklyn, I asked Mr. Auster from where the name Zimmer came.

“Zimmer, of course,” said Mr. Auster, “means room in German. One of my very favorite writers is Holderlin, the German poet. In The Invention of Solitude I wrote about him at some length. After Holderlin went mad, a carpenter in the town of Tubingen built him a little tower in his house. That carpenter’s name was Zimmer. My Zimmer grew out of that name, as someone who shelters an unfortunate friend or person. That’s where it comes from."

Holderlin wrote a short poem for Zimmer:

For Zimmer

The lines of life are various.

Like roads, and the borders of mountains.

What we are here, a god can complete there,

With harmonies, undying reward, and peace.

As I read The Book of Illusions, David Zimmer seemed familiar, and 1 did not know why. I asked Mr. Auster if Zimmer had been in another of his books.

“He was. He was in Moon Palace [published by Viking in 1989], He was Marco Stanley Fogg’s good friend. Have you read that book?”

I had, but I had not remembered that Zimmer was Fogg’s friend. “It’s like running into someone from your past and not remembering where you met them,” I said.

“Well, 1989, that’s a long time ago. Zimmer was Fogg’s roommate when they were freshmen in college, and they remained very dose friends. Zimmer is the one who finds Fogg in the park with Kitty. And then brings him into his house. His apartment on Bank Street. That is Zimmer. Later on in the book, Fogg mentions how, many years later, he ran into Zimmer and his wife and two kids on the street, by accident, in New York, and that in a way that was what inspired him to start writing his own book. And, if you notice carefully, one of Zimmer’s children in The Book of Illusions is named Marco.

“Which is Fogg’s name, of course. So Zimmer has been with me for a long time. He’s also, if you can remember, in Moon Palace. Zimmer is waiting around for a letter from a girl named Anna Blume, and Anna Blume is the letter-writer in the novel The Country of Last Things. So Zimmer has been around for a while, 1 just haven’t made him the center of a story until now. But very mysteriously, if you ever go back and look at the passages about him in Moon Palace, you will notice that he’s described as being rather short, and he gets taller in the new book; in fact, he’s grown about six inches. I can’t really explain it. It’s just that the new Zimmer is physically somewhat different than the old Zimmer.

“It is weird when I think about it, but I had no intention when I was writing Moon Palace ever of writing a book with Zimmer as the hero. But Fogg mentions what Zimmer does, and he gets it all wrong; it’s that he’s a professor of film studies and that he has written a book about French movies. It’s so odd. And then later on Zimmer comes back, and he knows nothing about movies at all but then informs himself in the course of this new book So there shall I put it?...inconsistencies as well. But it is basically the same character.”

Because Mr. Auster puts Zimmer to work on a book about Hector Mann’s films, Zimmer must watch these films, and because Zimmer must watch these films, Mr. Auster must write films for

Zimmer to watch. I asked Mr. Auster how he “made up” Hector Mann’s films.

“I don’t know,” he said. “They just came to me, and I saw them very vividly in my mind, just as if they were real films. The job was to write a kind of prose that had enough visual detail in it so the reader could actually see what was going on. But, at the same time, I needed to give a certain speed to the prose as well, so that you’d feel as if you were watching a film. Things move quickly in movies, so too much detail and you begin to bog down, and not enough detail and you wouldn’t see anything. So it’s just a matter of trying to find the right balance in all those passages. There was a lot of writing and rewriting that went into it. But while you’re doing something like this, you’re inside it, and you’re not thinking about whether it’s difficult or not; you’re just doing it.” “It’s a zany, crazy, wonderful idea, the reader reading Zimmer as Zimmer watches Hector’s films.”

“I’m sure people have done this before, but I’m not aware of it. But I can’t be the first one who’s written down imaginary films on paper. I can’t be.”

“Imaginary silent films,” I sighed, “whose star is a mustached man in a white suit.”

“Novelists have strange imaginations.”

“The white suit is wonderful.” (Mr. Auster writes, about the suit, that it “embodies [Hector’s] relation to the social world, and with its cueball brilliance shining against the grays and blacks that surround it, it serves as a magnet for the eyes. Hector wears the suit in every film, and in every film there is at least one long gag that revolves around the perils of trying to keep it clean. Mud and crankcase oil, spaghetti sauce and molasses, chimney soot and splashing puddles — at one time or another, every dark liquid and every dark substance threaten to smudge the pristine dignity of Hector’s suit. That suit is his proudest possession, and he wears it with the dapper, cosmopolitan air of a man out to impress the world.”)

“Good, good. I’m glad you like that too. Hector appeared to me that way — white suit and mustache — oh, probably 12 years ago. And I always wanted to write about him. I didn’t know who he was at first. He was just this silent comedian. My original desire was simply to write the films that he had done. Actually, thinking about it now, Robert Coover wrote a book a number of years ago called A Night at the Movies, and he describes films in his book, but I think they’re real movies.” I said that the mustache was poignant — heartrending and funny and sad and silly. (Mr. Auster writes, about the mustache: “Before the body, there is the face, and before the face there is the thin black line between Hector’s nose and upper lip. A twitching filament of anxieties, a metaphysical jump rope, a dancing thread of discombobulation, the mustache is a seismograph of Hector’s inner states, and not only does it make you laugh, it tells you what Hector is thinking, actually allows you into the machinery of his thoughts. Other elements are involved — the eyes, the mouth, the finely calibrated lurches and stumbles — but the mustache is the instrument of communication, and even though it speaks a language without words, its wriggles and flutters are as clear and comprehensible as a message typed out in Morse code.”)

Mr. Auster responded to my praise of Hector’s mustache, saying, “A mustache was not an uncommon attribute in those days, but, still, the mustache is the central means of expression, I suppose, for Hector. He was a good comedian. He had his own style. He might not have been completely original, but he was distinctive nevertheless.”

Earlier in the day, before Mr. Auster and I chatted. I’d talked with a friend who’d also read and admired The Book of Illusions. I told Mr. Auster that my friend had said that, given the book’s intellectual razzle-dazzle, it could have been very dry and cerebral and merely charming but that Zimmer’s terrible grief at the loss of his wife and sons and the terrible grief borne by other characters in the book brought it all down to earth and made The Book of Illusions deeply affecting.

“It’s a book,” Mr. Auster said, "about emotions. It emerges out of emotion. It’s not, it’s not at all a clever book about illusion and reality. It’s a book about lived experience and terrible suffering, terrible suffering. And if you had to define what this novel is in one word, I suppose it’s a novel about grief and how people cope with terrible loss.”

The Book of Illusions’ epigraph comes from the 19th-century French memoirist Chateaubriand: “Man has not one and the same life. He has many lives, placed end to end, and that is the cause of his misery.” Zimmer accepts as an assignment the translation from French to English of Chateaubriand’s 2000-page Memoires d’outre-tombe, a title Zimmer translates as Memoirs of a Dead Man.

I said that I noted that Chateaubriand was 80 years old when he died of old age on July 14, 1848.

“A big year, 1848,” Mr. Auster said, “in Europe. Of course, Chateaubriand was not for the revolution. He was more conservative, what you would call today a liberal, but not a revolutionary. And so he went into exile. He went to England. He got out during the bad years of the Terror and saved his skin that way.”

“You had to be awfully healthy in that day and age to live that long, didn’t you? To live to be 80 years old?”

“Yes,” said Mr. Auster. “And awfully lucky too. But some people did live to very old ages. Goya, think of him. Goya lost his hearing probably when he was about 45. But he lived way into his 80s.”

“Why,” I asked, “did the Chateaubriand book so greatly appeal to Zimmer?”

“First of all, there’s the immensity of the project, the idea of spending a couple of years, or maybe three years, translating 2000 pages of French into English appeals to Zimmer because he’s looking for a project to, as he says, ‘drown himself in.’ Now, the fact is it’s true what 1 say in the book: the only complete translations of those memoirs were in 1849 and 1901. It hasn’t been done since. But it’s perfectly plausible that someone would commission a new translation of this book.

“In fact, I secretly know that enough people will read my novel that some editor somewhere will get the crazy notion of Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand (1768-1848) commissioning a translation, which would be very nice. I think there’s the fact of Chateaubriand’s intense intelligence and his gift for very sharp phrasing and poetic thought, and plus, there's the amazingly rich life that he lived as a writer, as a politician, as a traveler. I think Chateaubriand is probably the only man who met both George Washington and Napoleon. As a young man, he came to the United States and wrote about Niagara Falls. He may be the first person who described the falls for a European audience.

“Then, of course, there is that amazing story about the traditions under which the book eventually was published, which I think has to be one of the strangest publishing stories in the history of literature.”

The story is that Chateaubriand didn’t want his memoirs published until 50 years after his death. Mr. Auster writes that after the 1830 revolution, Chateaubriand fell into debt. Madame Recamier, Chateaubriand’s mistress, formed a stock company and encouraged people to buy shares in Chateaubriand’s memoirs. “In effect, Chateaubriand mortgaged his autobiography to finance his old age. They gave him a nice chunk of money up front, which allowed him to pay off his creditors and a guaranteed annuity for the rest of his life. It was a brilliant arrangement. The only problem was that Chateaubriand kept on living.”

Madame Recamier, I said, was so clever.

“She was no slouch,” Mr. Auster said. “Not only beautiful but very intelligent. But, of course, by the end the tragedy for Chateaubriand was that all the shares in this company that had been formed to support him in the book had been sold. Originally, friends were involved, and by the end it was a bunch of strangers who wanted nothing so much as for Chateaubriand to die so that they could recoup their investment. Eventually he did die, and immediately the book was published. So immediately that by 1849, it was already translated into English."

Did Mr. Auster have a copy of an early edition?

“I tracked one down, on the Internet, through a used book service. It is a copy of the 1849 edition, and it was for sale in some remote part of Australia. I got it. It’s very little in dimension. And it’s not the whole thing. It’s only about two-thirds of the book. Bound in leather and in a very nice translation, for the most part, unsigned, and it cost $35.1 think that it must have been published in installments in England. I just don’t know the circumstances, but there’s this long, long section, maybe 200 pages’ worth, which is a digression in the memoirs, which is the life and story of Napoleon, and my English edition ends at the Napoleon section. It doesn’t go on. Odd.”

As a young man, Mr. Auster frequently worked as a translator. I said that this work must have taught him a great deal about writing.

“Absolutely. I think a very good school to go to if you want to become a writer is to translate good writers, because it’s a way of penetrating a text more thoroughly than just reading it or even writing about it or thinking about it. You have to go into the bloodstream and the bone structure of the piece. You’ve got to break it all down, and then you’ve got to rebuild it. You really have to understand it, inside and out, and I think experiencing good works of literature that way is good for a young person. Teaches a great deal.”

“The act of translation,” I said, “must necessitate inhabiting an author in the way that an actor inhabits a role.”

Mr. Auster agreed. “I sometimes think of writing novels as like acting — you inhabit imaginary beings, you try to bring them to life. An actor does it with his body, and a writer does it with words. But it’s really the same leap of the imagination. And translation is a bit like that as well.”

For David Zimmer, writing is an anodyne for his suffering. When he works on his book about Hector Mann, or later, when he begins his translation of Chateaubriand, the work, for at least a few minutes, can muffle his grief. I asked Mr. Auster if work ever functioned for him in that way.

“Yes. I think it’s definitely the case. Writing is such a strange activity that when you’re really deep in something, time doesn’t exist anymore. And when I’m fully engaged in a novel, I come down into my little room here in the house in the morning, and I start working, and I blink my eyes, and the day is over. It’s very strange. You just don’t feel the clock at all ticking away.”

“Does that fictional world you’re writing ever come to seem more real to you than the world in Brooklyn where you live?”

“While I’m working on a novel, that work is certainly equal to the reality around me. And it’s a very hard moment in the day when you stop working and you have to rejoin humanity. It’s very hard. I’ve made a pact with myself over the years, and I think it’s helped to keep me reasonably sane, not totally, but reasonably, sane. The pact is that once I stand up and leave the table, I try not to think about the book. I try to trust my unconscious to do the work for the next 12 hours or however many hours it is before I go back.

"You know how it is when you’re trying to go to sleep at night; it’s not so easy always. And of course, the first thing you want to think about is the book you’re working on, and I try very hard not to do it. I have this little trick I play with myself. When I’m going to sleep, I start thinking about the next book I want to write. So I force myself to think about another story altogether, so that I’m not dwelling consciously on the work I’m doing now, and because often sleep miraculously gives you new ideas, and you wake up and you’re ready to go again. It’s remarkable.”

I asked if Mr. Auster, when for some reason he could not go to his work table and write, missed the characters he was creating.

“Oh, yes. It’s terrible. They become real. The characters in a novel for the novelist are real people, and you know everything about them, much more than you ever put on the page. Everything.”

Asked if he was a prodigious reader as a child, Mr. Auster said, “Yes. I read all the time. I think people become writers because they love reading as children. I think it comes out of that. You don’t have anything to say, it’s just that you love books so much you want to be part of that world.”

Reading fiction, Mr. Auster said, “You learn a lot about how the world works, how people live. Everything that’s important can be found in a good novel, I think. That’s why we keep reading them, the few of us who still care. It’s a passionate experience. I’ve always felt, you see, that novels are the one place in the world where strangers can meet on very intimate terms. I can’t think of another place where that happens. The solitary experience of sitting somewhere with a book. It’s just you and the writer. And the two of you make the experience together.”

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