September 14, 2007

Paul Auster: Travels in the Scriptorium

Posted in Auster Paul at 11:47 am by John Self

Something told me that after the ‘vanilla’ Auster of The Brooklyn Follies, old austere Paul wouldn’t be able to resist turning back on himself, and possibly up his own fundament, with his next project.  And with Travels in the Scriptorium, he hasn’t disappointed.  By which I mean he has.

The elegant, luminous cover conceals a story which, although plainly told as ever, is about as self-regarding as Auster gets, and that’s plenty self-regarding.  Mr Blank (the name neatly describing his master’s voice) sits in a room pretty much like that we see in the picture.  A bed, a desk, piles of papers, and not much else.  He is – possibly – being held captive, though he can’t quite bring himself to try the door or window and make sure.

Perhaps he has always been here; perhaps this is where he has lived since the day he was born.  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.

Trapped like this by himself or others, “lost in a fogland of ghost-like beings and broken memories,” Mr Blank awaits visits by various people.  There is Anna, whom some will recognise as the central character from Auster’s early novel In the Country of Last Things.  Anna bathes Mr Blank, helps him to the toilet, and performs more intimate duties – which means that if Mr Blank represents Auster (and there’s little doubt about that), then this is intellectual masturbation of a very special kind.

Other characters from Auster’s earlier works run through the pages, either in person or in reference, from Benjamin Sachs (Leviathan) to Marco Fogg (Mr Vertigo).  There is a feeling that Mr Blank is being punished by them for ‘sending them out’ into the world as his fictional creations.  This is the sort of solipsistic storytelling that would have caused me endless delight about ten or fifteen years ago, but which now seems somewhat pointless self-indulgence, particularly when it hardly has as much to say about the relationship between creator and creation as, say, Frankenstein does.

Nonetheless there are moments of interest, and an oddly touching acknowledgement of the writer’s mortality and hopes for immortality in one of the closing pages:

Without him, we are nothing, but the paradox is that we, the figments of another mind, will outlive the mind that made us, for once we are thrown into the world, we continue to exist forever, and our stories go on being told, even after we are dead.

Travels in the Scriptorium may please some Auster fans but is likely to be offputting to anyone new to his stuff.  For them a good starting point would be The Book of Illusions, which I think shows the best of his storytelling virtuosity, and packs an emotional punch too.

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8 Comments »

  1. Stewart said,

    A very helpful review for me, Mr Self. I read this last week and, while I came to realise it revisited old work, I was never sure if it was any good because of that. And so it seems, the answer is no.

  2. jem said,

    I am planning a foray into Mr Auster. I read ‘The New York Triology’ about ten years ago, and recall I quite liked it, but since I’ve read so many reviews that makes him sound either very clever or rather irritating. I have ‘The Book of Illusions’ on my shelf, so glad to see you recommend that as a good place to start.

  3. kimbofo said,

    I find Mr Auster repels and fascinates me, simply because I’m never quite sure if his work is ingenious or self-indulgent. He treads a very fine line between the two, doesn’t he? Not that I’ve read much of his work to form a very valid opinion. I very much loved New York Trilogy when I read it a couple of years ago. I found the stories really wormed themselves into my brain. But I thought Oracle Night was a bit crap.

  4. Chris said,

    Hello John. Couldn’t agree more with you about Travels – I was very much looking forward to it and sadly disappointed in the end. I loved Oracle Night, though (sorry Kimbofo), and would say it’s been my favourite read of the past year or so

  5. Scott Pack said,

    I read this in proof form some time ago now. As a long-time fan of Auster I really enjoyed the in-jokes and self-references but did worry about how it would go down with new readers or people with only limited exposure to Auster. I cannot imagine it works all that well in isolation. Perhaps if he had published it as a limited edition for fans it might feel more ‘right’.

  6. [...] new book from him that I’ve written about since I started this blog 18 months ago. His last, Travels in the Scriptorium, seemed to me to be a little too inward-looking; but the previous novel, The Brooklyn Follies, [...]

  7. Atle said,

    This was actually the first book i ever read og Auster and i found it interesting and became totally indulged when i submeged myself in it. Atle

  8. Toby Simmons said,

    Fascinating! Great blog all-round, by the way.
    Let me know what you think of mine . . .

    http://apieceofcoffee.wordpress.com/

    Keep on posting!


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