Journey of a lonely mind

With this memoir, composed, like his letters, with “love and fatigue,” Auster takes another, admittedly imperfect, step toward that elusive goal.

Journey of a lonely mind (photo credit: Reuters)
Journey of a lonely mind
(photo credit: Reuters)
Paul Auster launched his career three decades ago with a memoir. In The Invention of Solitude (1982), he began his literary search for identity and personal meaning with an affecting account of his hardworking, emotionally distant father. Recently, after completing more than three dozen volumes of fiction, non-fiction, essays, poetry, screenplays and translations, Auster has returned to autobiography. In Winter Journal (2012), he offered a homage to his mother, an examination of the end of his first marriage, and “a catalogue of sensory data” designed to document the fragility of his aging physical self. In Report From The Interior, Auster tries to recreate his perceptions of the outside world, from his birth in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947 to his relationship with his middle-class Jewish parents and his graduation from Columbia University during the tumultuous 1960s. Written in the second person, the memoir has its moments. At times, however, Auster does not delve deeply enough into the interior to engage his readers in his quest to understand his journey into the lonely mind.
Report From The Interior often has the ring of authenticity. For young children, Auster writes, “boredom must not be overlooked as a source of contemplation and reverie.” Alone, “uninspired and at loose ends, too listless or distracted” to set up his Lincoln Logs or Erector Set or “fill in a page in his stupid coloring books,” and too young to read or call a friend on the telephone, Paul often sat by the window, wishing he owned a horse or a dog and musing on eternal questions, like why do we exist and where do we go when we die.
In a splendid chapter, Auster captures the power of the black-and-white science- fiction film The Incredible Shrinking Man, to take a 10-year-old “on a dark and menacing ride,” leaving him “in a state of gasping exaltation.” At the end of the movie, when the protagonist is no more than a fraction of an inch tall, but still alive, Auster reports, he turned to his friend, both of them “battered into submission,” but able to take solace in the fact that he is still alive, “cannot be reduced to nothing,” and will, eventually, “merge with the universe.”
Auster’s account of another “cinematic earthquake,” Paul’s response to I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932), which he watched on television in 1961, seems less authentic. Did the 14-year-old boy, you wonder, really conclude that the scene between the hero, James Allen, and a prostitute, was about tenderness and not sexual desire? Is it Paul or Mr.
Auster who deems Allen’s girlfriend “a bit insipid,” and concludes that the chain gang is “a precursor” to the death camps of World War II? More importantly, Auster’s description of his Jewish identity is touching, yet tantalizingly incomplete. His parents were assimilated, secular Jews, he recalls, who neither questioned their identity nor hid it from anyone. Like many second-generation Jews, Paul associated Jewishness with foreignness, embodied in his grandmother, who spoke with a heavy accent.
At age 14, he learned that Thomas Edison, his hero, was a “hate filled anti-Semite,” who discovered that Samuel Auster, a laboratory assistant in Menlo Park, was a Jew and fired him. And the Nazis lived in Paul’s imagination, “as a legion of death,” and in his dreams, “night after night,” with packs of soldiers, bent on turning him into a pile of ashes, chasing him into open fields and forests. After having embraced the triumphant narrative of American virtue as a boy, Auster indicates, Paul began to exclude himself from it because his past belonged to “remote settlements in Eastern Europe.” His sympathies turned toward outcasts.
In the remainder of his book, Auster returns to his Jewish identity only in passing, and enigmatically. In 1967, he writes, he could not resist sitting in front of the television set, waiting for news about the Six Day War. He doesn’t say why he was “torn by the whole Middle East mess,” with its “back-handed diplomacy and weak-minded hypocrisy.” Or why he was “seriously thinking about going to Israel” and deterred only by the thought that the war might end before he arrived.
A few years later, he recalls, Paul encountered “several large clusters of Jews” on the boardwalk of Coney Island, “huddling in the darkness.” These “doddering old people,” speaking Yiddish and Polish, filled him “with a dumb despair.” The experience, he concludes, “was like walking into one’s past, a past seen for the first time, which previously had only been sensed.” Auster then moves on, in apparent haste, to rides on bumper cars and skee ball games.
Report From The Interior concludes with many letters exchanged between Auster and Lydia Davis, who became his first wife. Written when the pair were 20-somethings, the letters are filled with Paul Auster’s angst-ridden yearning “to love and be loved, knowing that it is impossible.” And with his impatient, self-conscious resolution “to stick to life, no matter how fantastical, repulsive or agonizing,” dirty his hands, and become an “artist by turning himself inside out.” The problem of the world, Auster emphasizes, “is first of all a problem of the self, and the solution can be accomplished only by beginning within and then moving without.” With this memoir, composed, like his letters, with “love and fatigue,” Auster takes another, admittedly imperfect, step toward that elusive goal.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.