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.