Paul Auster’s Travels in the Scriptorium
A Riddle Wrapped inside an Enigma Hidden within a…?
By Asher Spiller
Have you seen any of M.C. Escher’s lithographs? There is one in particular that I’m thinking of, an especially memorable one, two hands, each holding a pencil, reaching out of the paper onto which they’ve been drawn, seeming to bring one another into being, drawing one another in their own likeness. Like “Drawing Hands,” much of Escher’s work hinges on pinpoint precision and the uncanny ability to create illusion. However, this print does more than trick the eye, it also traces one of the most important philosophical questions of our time, or any time—the question of identity. The charge bestowed upon us by the Greeks, to “know thyself,” has been a source of confusion for philosophers and artists for millennia. If one can be said to know oneself, who is the one that does the knowing and who is the one that is known? In the last fifty years or so, with the rise of postmodernity, the question has received an increased amount of attention. In fact, to this reader’s chagrin, it would seem that some writers have a difficult time writing about anything else.
All blanket statements aside, identity is without a doubt the foremost question for Paul Auster, who appears almost haunted by it. Auster’s texts are complex webs of self-reference. Not only does he present a version of himself in each of his novels (more often than not the main character is a middle-aged novelist living in Brooklyn), but his protagonists do the same in their own stories. Auster’s narratives are always transmitted through a middleman, always presented as works written by characters within his stories. So there is always a story within a story and more often than not, a story within a story within a story. Sometimes the manifold of layers is nearly impossible to wrap your head around.
Indeed, if you wanted to summarize the structure of Auster’s latest novel, Travels in the Scriptorium, you’d run into a bit of trouble. With enough time and concentration though, you might be able to come up with something. The task would probably require a sentence with a seemingly endless list of embedded clauses: A man writes a story about a man who writes a story about a man who writes a story about… And then, you’d have to indicate somehow (maybe with some grammatical or mathematical symbol) that the last clause points back to the first, back to the original man, the primary source, revealing, that he too is merely the product of a story. But if you wanted to save some time, you might just Xerox a copy Escher’s “Drawing Hands” and leave it at that.
In 1964, just three years before Roland Barthe’s “The Death of the Author” was published, Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short piece, entitled “Borges and I,” an article of sorts that appears now in the aptly titled Borges collection, El Hacedor (1960). “Borges and I” is not so different in kind from his other works, however it is uniquely relevant to a discussion of Auster’s latest novel. Borges’ article asks the question: How does one draw the line between one’s life and the story of one’s life? Can one exist without the other? And to whom does this story belong? The article’s narrator speaks of two parts of himself, the I who is contained within his own experience, “I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate,” and Borges who exists only through the experience of others, and whom the I can only experience second hand, “I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary.” The I, the narrator tells us, will inevitably lose himself to Borges as his work and notoriety continue to grow and flourish. And why shouldn’t Borges be the one to win out? Borges is known to the world, he interacts with others, he has a face, a history, and can be spoken of, described. What’s to stop him from living a life of his own?
The conclusion of the article communicates a feeling of disorientation and a sense of loss. He, the man, the I, has lost sight of himself, has begun to surrender himself, whatever is left of the I, to his image. And even though Borges is, in a way, the more fictional of the two—invented, created by external forces and occurrences—he also seems, in another way, to be the more real.
In the end, the narrator himself confesses that he has lost track of his own identity, “I do not know which of us has written this page.” “Knowing thyself,” turns out to mean far more than taking a look in the mirror. It’s not a very pleasant experience, to say the least.
For Borges, an artist’s identity is perpetually fractured by every stroke of the pen or paintbrush. Through his work the artist cannot help but provide a representation of himself. As the representation takes on a life of it’s own, the question emerges, which is the more real? And what happens when the story itself, one’s own fiction begins to make demands on the artist? And more severely put, when does the work start to encroach upon the author’s own reality? What happens when the story has its own agenda?
These are all questions that weight heavily on Paul Auster’s sense of literature as well. Even though Borges presents this line of questioning as culminating in a form of crisis, both he and perhaps Auster even more so, seem to, nonetheless, bring that crisis upon themselves. It might even be said of Auster that he longs for it, finds within it a certain kind of aesthetic grace.
One of Auster’s most successful novels to date, The Book of Illusions (2003), is a good example. In this story, David Zimmer, a novelist, loses his family in a plane crash. Finding himself on the brink of suicide, for survival’s sake, Zimmer hurls himself into a new project, a book of nonfiction dedicated to the study of silent-filmmaker, Hector Mann—sort of a Latin version of Buster Keaton—whose work Zimmer happened upon by chance. Mann disappeared in the 1920’s, just as his career began to take off. “Everyone thought he was dead,” the opening line of the book tells us.
Included in The Book of Illusions are vivid descriptions of the content of each of Mann’s films; it’s as though we get a glimpse into Zimmer’s book. Eventually we discover (though we had to know it was coming) that Mann is in fact alive and has all the while been looking for Zimmer. We are to meet the man whose films we have all but seen firsthand. Fiction becomes reality, the man in front of the camera becomes the man behind the camera and the perspective shifts once again. It doesn’t take long for us to forget which story we’re in, what’s real and what is not. As if that were not enough, when the story finally spirals out of control, exploding into mystery and confusion, we learn that it is David Zimmer, who is the real author of The Book of Illusions. The book we hold in our hands was left behind for us, bequeathed to the reader on the author’s deathbed. As Zimmer takes one step closer to our world, Auster’s role becomes all the more complex.
As is the case in other Auster novels, the protagonist in The Book of Illusions is who Auster would have been, were his life to take a different turn, what may have become of him were he to have lost his wife and child as Zimmer did. Like Borges, Auster takes on the role of both character and storyteller.
When speaking of Borges’ role in postmodern literature, critics will likely call him a visionary, will refer to his subtly, his cleverness, and his masterful ingenuity. When speaking of Auster however, any postmodern maneuver is considered a crutch, his writing, the mere product of a better than average comprehension of “The Idiot’s Guide to Postmodern Aesthetics.” His tricks are thought to be transparent, his subtlety, non-existent. Sophie Harrisson, for the New York Times “Sunday Book Review” writes, “His novels have a habit of unpacking themselves as they go, showing their workings with the gentle condescension of a creative writing tutor addressing a roomful of hopeful amateurs.”
Harrison may have something here, but for the moment let’s give Auster the benefit of the doubt. Let’s grant his postmodernist preoccupations the status of form rather than content. What if the “story within a story” gimmick is nothing more than the structure Auster uses to communicate something more complex and rich? A means to a far more interesting end? What if Auster’s webs fall under the same category as Wolf’s stream of consciousness, Hemingway’s simplicity, Plato’s dialogues? What if we resist the temptation to reduce Auster’s works to the mazes we must traverse in order to reach an altogether different core of meaning? After all, isn’t there more to Plato than his dialogical structures? More to Hemingway then his lack of ornamentation? Surely there are other themes in Auster’s work.
Instead of reading into The Book of Illusions as we have, perhaps we should treat it as a character study and closely examine the films of Hector Mann. Perhaps we should set aside for a moment the twists and turns in City of Glass and focus on the way Auster undercuts our perception of fate and chance, showing how something as insignificant and mundane as a wrong number has the power to alter the course of one’s entire life. Or perhaps we should pay more attention to Timbuktu, Auster’s most atypical novel, a biography of a dog named, Mr. Bones. Some of these novels may prove to be all the more interesting in this light, may offer us a new appreciation of Auster’s creative genius, if we were not already convinced.
Unfortunately, reading Auster’s most recent novel without dwelling on the novel’s form is nearly impossible. Indeed with so many twists and turns, perspectival shifts, and added layers, one cannot help but admit that Auster has rendered the question of form, the only question.
Travels in the Scriptorium is perhaps the most “Labirynthine” of all his works. The story begins much like Kafka’s The Trial—Kafka being one of Auster’s greatest influences. We are introduced to a man named Mr. Blank. Stricken with some form of amnesia, Mr. Blank wakes up alone in a room and tries to piece together the facts of his existence. On his desk is a manuscript of sorts, along with a stack of pictures portraying various figures, each of whom Mr. Blank can only vaguely recall. A camera extends down from a corner in the room. “The Shutter clicks silently once every second, producing eighty-six thousand four hundred still photos with each revolution of the earth…It is unclear to him exactly where he is…In a prison? What he knows is that his heart is filled with an implacable sense of guilt. At the same time, he can’t escape the feeling that he is the victim of a terrible injustice.” Like K. in The Trial, Mr. Blank is the victim of some veiled persecution. Visited by characters, who seem vaguely familiar to him, Mr. Blank soon learns that he is undergoing a mysterious and undesirable treatment. He is asked to take pills and assured that if he were in his right mind, he would understand that the treatment is entirely just. In fact, Mr. Blank is told, he requested that it be carried out.
We soon learn that the characters filtering in and out of the room over the course of the novel are in fact characters from other Paul Auster books (you are presumed to have read at least a few of these). Within this story, however, they are characters created by Mr. Blank, our Auster figure for the time being. As Blank tries to come to grips with this strange reality, he is told that he must, as part of the treatment, read the manuscript on his desk, which, if you can believe it, tells of a character, who also has to write his own story. The manuscript is incomplete, and Mr. Blank must finish it. From this point on, the number of self-references and shifts in perspective continue to multiply, exploding into the cleverest of paradoxes—a most predictable surprise.
The majority of structural moves in this novel cannot help but be anticipated and in the end they overshadow whatever new content this book might have to offer. Auster is so flamboyant with his (admittedly masterful) plotline construction that inevitably all we end up seeing is the line itself—the outline of an empty shape, a disappointment.
When Auster is at his best, reading his novels can be much like carrying out an archaeological excavation. In order to find answers to the questions his novels ask us, we must dig through layer after layer, all the while attempting to decipher the story or stories inscribed on the surface of each. His work is most effective when each story has it’s own integrity, it’s own texture, its own richness. We become mesmerized by each layer and each inscription, gripped and amazed as they make their assault on our reality, forcing us to read our own experience in a new light. As was shown in his latest work however, his books can feel hollow and tiresome when more thought and care is given to the frame around the picture than to the picture itself.
In some ways, Travels in the Scriptorium represents the culmination of the many Auster novels that have come before it. What is more starkly represented however, is the degree to which he has not strayed from the formula that has worked for him in the past. Auster has said that the greatest books have always been written out of some kind of necessity. Well, if his most recent novel has revealed anything, it is precisely a necessity for Auster to direct his pinpoint precision and uncanny ability to create illusion toward something entirely new.