Biography, says Justin Clemens, ‘conjoins the celebratory revivification of outstanding personages with a second murder’. He evokes the grasping and violence that drives the remorseless tracking and reconstruction of lives in the name of biography, noting the form’s inevitable collapse into the fictive:
Truth and myth come to be entangled in a Gordian knot of narrative, and the attempt to sort haphazard acts from defining events can founder in an ocean without stars.
While analysis of biography is often mediated through a discourse of crime and guilt, commentators differ on the legal details. In The Silent Woman (1994), Janet Malcolm portrays biography as a sexed-up burglary in which voyeurism and busybodyism collide with the theft, by biographer and reader, of a life’s most intimate details:
The transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged, but it is the only explanation for biography’s status as a popular genre … a kind of collusion [exists] between [the reader] and the biographer in an excitingly forbidden undertaking: tiptoeing down the corridor together, to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole.
Malcolm notes that the genre’s deeper nature is shrouded. Biography’s ogling and grasping are carried on beneath a surface of ‘banklike blandness and solidity’. Patricia Dobrez prefaces her provisional account of the plural lives of Michael Dransfield with a similarly shrouding negation, soon unwound by a suffixed question:
The work of a biographer does not begin with a Suspicious Incident Report and end with the solving of a mystery. Or does it?
In Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1985), Richard Holmes imagines his craft as a form of pursuit, washed in longing, of imagined intimacy between writer and subject. In the end, every subject recedes, leaving a lonely, pining biographer. Describing empathy as crucial to this process, Holmes outlines methods that are as intuitive, unconventional and contentious as those of his fictional relative Sherlock. For Holmes, biography is unrequited love, thoroughly enjoyed and captured in soft focus. Yet haunting his vision is the question of consent. His pioneering ‘footstepping’ technique involves physically following paths taken by his subjects as a means of accessing their inner lives, but beneath the garb of the enamoured footstepper lurks a darker version of pursuit involving intrusion and stalking. The tender, gentle yearning that Holmes evokes might at any time drop its disguise and bubble up into erotomania or a crime like Malcolm’s bedroom-keyhole voyeurism, or even a more direct assault.
In each of these imaginings – criminal, romantic, or a melding of the two – there is an actor and an acted upon, an I-thou relationship that is at best erotic, at worst murderous. Biography needs a second person. It needs some kind of pursuit. It requires collision or tension between its players. It needs contact and loss, closeness and distance. It is a genre predicated on a crush.
Autobiography also confronts and compresses questions of the second person. Like biography, it has traditionally tended to conceal such questions: to hide its seams. Paul Auster’s autobiographical writing takes questions of the second person – of murderous impulses and blushing crushes – from their hidden places and shakes them out to expose their ethical and textual complexities.
The Invention of Solitude (1982) begins in biographical mode with Paul Auster, surrounded, starless, in an ocean of mysterious objects belonging to his recently deceased father, Samuel. As he navigates these objects – dusty furniture, a stove encrusted with charred food, toothbrushes, birthday cards, neckties – his father’s story recedes and he begins, instead, the writing that will become the first part of an autobiographical trilogy.
Auster’s biographical impulse seems pure. As he looks around his father’s house, he imagines that he might yet save a life. His first thought on hearing the news of his father’s death is remedial: ‘If I do not act quickly, his entire life will vanish along with him.’ However, before he takes on the mantle of biographer, he catches a glimpse of himself as a burglar:
Each time I opened a drawer or poked my head into a closet, I felt like an intruder, a burglar ransacking the secret places of a man’s mind.
Auster’s work is blocked by his father’s secrecy, into which the biographical project must intrude if it is to succeed. This instance of literary resuscitation – the keeping alive of the loved one through a combination of elegy and memoir – must be transgressive and intrusive, since Auster’s relationship with his father – ‘a perpetual outsider, a tourist in his own life’ – has revolved around absence. Samuel Auster preserved his solitude with a range of deflective and protective gestures. After his divorce from Auster’s mother, he reverted to a bachelor’s life. He engaged minimally with the women with whom he became involved, compartmentalising his life with the neurotic and efficient superficiality of one determined to avoid pain, even at the cost of joy and connection.
‘For a man who finds life tolerable only by staying on the surface of himself,’ writes Auster, ‘it is natural to be satisfied with offering no more than this surface to others.’ The only profundity the son discovers is in the nature of his father’s solitude:
Solitary. But not in the sense of being alone. Not solitary in the way Thoreau was, for example, exiling himself in order to find out where he was; not solitary the way Jonah was, praying for deliverance in the belly of the whale. Solitary in the sense of retreat, of not having to see himself, of not having to see himself being seen by anyone else.
Auster begins to worry that it is ‘impossible to enter another’s solitude’ – or that, at least, it is possible ‘only to the extent that he is willing to make himself known’. During his life, Samuel Auster repelled intimacy by refusing to talk about himself. Or, Auster wonders, was it because ‘his inner life eluded even him’? In the latter case, intrusion might be justified as therapeutic: something done for his father’s own good, an illusory and impossible project of reconnecting him with the lost treasures of the examined life. The biographical project begins with the dismantling of solitude.
Beneath Auster’s pure motives lurk hurt and anger. Childhood memories of a father who could not look his way are shot through with disappointment and loss. Auster grew up in the shadow of his father’s distraction: ‘as if I were just one more shadow, appearing and disappearing in the half-lit realm of his consciousness’. The problem, he decides, is that Samuel Auster did not known how to express himself. When he did speak, it was ‘as if making a great effort to rise up out of his solitude, as if his voice were rusty, had lost the habit of speaking’.
Auster’s task – a form of ventriloquism that is capable of capturing and holding his father’s lost thoughts – seems both doomed to fail and morally dubious:
I have begun to feel that the story I am trying to tell is somehow incompatible with language, that the degree to which it resists language is an exact measure of how closely I have come to saying something important, and that when the moment arrives for me to say the one truly important thing (assuming it exists), I will not be able to say it.
The act of writing serves to keep open a deep wound, because to write about his father is to probe the very depth and intimacy Samuel Auster has denied in life, and continues to thwart in death. Words stand between Auster and ‘a silence that continues to terrify me’. He knows that ‘When I step into this silence, it will mean that my father has vanished forever.’
The work’s elegiac drive tends towards the melancholic end of the spectrum, one pathologised since Freud for its resistance to the healthy closure of mourning – though, as Jacqueline Rose notes, this raises a question: ‘What is this love that, in mourning as opposed to melancholia, steadfastly, dedicatedly, works to extinguish itself?’
Auster’s account may be an elegy for words never spoken, yet it proves not entirely futile or rhetorical. It illuminates occluded parts of his family history, which in turn leads to an understanding of Samuel Auster’s traumatic young life and the effect this had on his ability to connect.
In the second part of The Invention of Solitude, ‘The Book of Memory’, Auster inverts his exploration, considering his own history and role as a father to young Daniel Auster. He stages this second exploration in the small room that recurs throughout his writing as the place in which the writer has to face and overcome the ‘I’ and the question of memory. And he stages it in the third person, as a person who is hovering over the pool where the vanished first person – cursed with self-absorption – appears to have drowned.
On a blank sheet of paper this third person writes the words: ‘It was. It will never be again.’ When he returns to the table, he can barely decipher the words and ‘those he does manage to understand do not seem to say what he thought he was saying’. He writes again: ‘It was. It will never be again.’ By the end of the book, he is able to write: ‘It was. It never will be again. Remember.’
The projections and investments of the autobiographical project reverberate through the small room and the problem of the subject. This is because, along with the failures of memory, ‘I’ obscures the landscape. Virginia Woolf evokes this idea in an arch section of A Room of One’s Own (1929) where ‘I’ becomes ubiquitous as a stalker:
after reading a chapter or two a shadow seemed to lie across the page. It was a straight dark bar, a shadow shaped something like the letter ‘I’. One began dodging this way and that to catch a glimpse of the landscape behind it. Whether that was indeed a tree or a woman walking I was not quite sure. Back one was always hailed to the letter ‘I’.
And yet, as Woolf puts it in ‘A Sketch of the Past’, memoir often fails because it ‘[leaves] out the person to whom things happened’, and because our lives find their moments of being ‘embedded in many more moments of non-being’, and because ‘the subject of this memoir’ is tugged this way and that by the invisible forces that ‘keep him in position’. She imagines herself ‘a fish in a stream; deflected, held in place; but cannot describe the stream.’
‘The Book of Memory’ is an inversion in which the biographical lens through which Auster has viewed his father is turned back on the first person, turned back on himself. The author displaces himself, makes himself the subject. Like biography, autobiography needs its space, its tensions and its crush: it needs its second person to create an objectifying distance. Auster thus enters solitude to invent or generate a second person who can become victim to the murderer, prey to the hunter, beloved to the lover. This becomes the origin of the second person voice used in the two subsequent autobiographical volumes.
In his novel Invisible (2009), Auster revisits and analyses these dynamics in a supposedly fictional scenario. Jim Freeman is a Brooklyn-dwelling writer who, like Auster, attended Columbia University in the late 1960s. He is not called Paul Auster, but has much in common with him, as characters in Auster’s fiction often do. The protagonist in the New York Trilogy’s ‘City of Glass’, for example, is a writer who becomes a detective by impersonating a private eye by the name of Paul Auster.
Asked for his advice on a manuscript, Freeman describes his own early attempt at a memoir, or what he calls ‘a memoir, of sorts’. Like The Invention of Solitude, this memoir has two parts: the first is written in the first person, the second in the third person. This division came about after ‘difficult … anguished months’ in which Freeman was unable to find himself in the memoir. The problem involves, again, a vanishing:
I had smothered myself and made myself invisible, had made it impossible for me to find the thing I was looking for. I needed to separate myself from myself, to step back and carve out some space between myself and my subject (which was myself).
The creation of this space and the concomitant invention of the second actor allows the remembering self to get beyond the remembered, to get outside the remembered self in order to see him more clearly. In doing so, memory becomes more fully the subject of Auster’s (and Freeman’s) exploration.
The autobiographical trilogy of The Invention of Solitude, Winter Journal (2012) and Report from the Interior begins with the likely vanishing of the past and the people who populated it, represented by Auster’s father. But it proceeds with the consolation, expressed early in The Invention of Solitude, that ‘memory is the space in which a thing happens for the second time’. The work begins with the impulse to preserve, urgent in the face of dissolution and disappearance. Memory, at this stage, is a stable thing. It is imagined architecturally as a place in which the remembered self might be visited by the remembering:
Memory as a place, as a building, as a sequence of columns, cornices, porticoes. The body inside the mind, as if we were moving around in there, going from one place to the next, and the sound of our footsteps as we walk, moving from one place to the next.
The next two volumes the trilogy complicate this. One complication is Auster’s childhood understanding that being a Jew excludes him from a mainstream American identity. The erasure of memories by lying histories, the silences after trauma, and the occlusions forced by xenophobia cause him to feel ‘not fully at home … a part of things and yet not a part of things’. He feels excluded from the story he is entering.
Here, Auster skirts the idea of ‘postmemory’, a term coined by Marianne Hirsch, initially to describe Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1991). Maus is Spiegelman’s account of his parents’ experience of the Shoah told in a comic that incorporates a wildly inventive play of masking and disclosure. It bears witness at a remove, in a way that is oblique yet still urgent. (Incidentally, Spiegelman appears in Auster’s trilogy as his friend Art, a passionate defender of Auster’s smoking, which Auster persists with despite his wife’s concerns.) Postmemory, a term Hirsh has spent years exploring and defining, refers to the inherited memories of those who did not directly experience an event (the Shoah, in Spiegelman’s case), but who have been imprinted with the memories, spoken or concealed, of others. Auster’s postmemory includes the erased trauma of his father’s childhood: his grandmother’s murder of his grandfather. This event shapes the silence that grows between father and son, which the trilogy seeks variously to pursue, open, embrace and murder.
The significance of being a Jew is similarly something the young Auster seems to chance upon. In Report from the Interior, he describes the impact of his Jewishness on his remembering and subjectivity. He stands apart from the typical American boy he has hitherto imagined himself to be. His younger self does not attempt to resist this separateness. He refuses to blend in with the assumed and compulsory Christianity of his education:
stubbornly holding your ground … proud … in your stubbornness, in your refusal to be someone you were not.
A distinct person emerges from this holding of ground, a new person: not the child Auster has imagined himself to be, but a second person – a second person who stands slightly apart and seeks a clear perspective. Auster illuminates the ways in which something perceived to be a flaw may at first be kept hidden, but then generates the apartness that enables autobiography, and thus allows for the disclosure of that flaw.
He first applies this to the question of being Jewish, then shifts to considering his bed-wetting. In childhood, Auster’s bed-wetting resulted in near-humiliation during a summer camp, but he was saved by a sympathetic camp counsellor and former bed-wetter. He was able to wash the stain from his sheet before others could find evidence of his ‘flaw’. The disclosure of this memory shows the stained sheet to the reader, revealing what was then concealed. The second and third volumes of this work are not for the squeamish. Along with urine-soaked sheets, there are are descriptions of ailments ranging from allergies to sexually transmitted diseases. Auster seems especially keen to include in his work those things conventional biographies and autobiographies – Phyllis Rose has called such work ‘partial biography’ – might exclude. He offers a vehement ‘yes’ in response to the question Foucault asks in ‘What is an Author?’: whether a laundry list scribbled by Nietzsche should be considered a work of literature.
The Invention of Solitude joins the two panels of its construction like pieces of fabric meeting at a seam. The collapse of memory and the disappearance of identity propel writing that is a form of recuperation, remembering and holding-the-ground. The two subsequent volumes include more laundry and more listing as these processes deepen. The Invention of Solitude is a mosaic: small tiles of poetic and aphoristic prose are arranged to recreate the remembered picture. If it were a fabric, it would be patchwork, with its intricate connecting of stray pieces. There is a sense of a melancholy turning-out of pockets, but with an underlying sense of guilt, since the melancholia produces writing that will prove crucial to the establishing Auster’s reputation. Elsewhere, in Hand To Mouth (1997), he describes the despair and poverty experienced by many writers at the beginning of their writing lives, and the alleviation of those anxieties after he received a small inheritance from his father and wrote The Invention of Solitude: ‘In the course of those four years, everything changed for me.’
Autobiographical writing may involve stalking and murderousness, but its disclosures are a way of getting beneath fabrications. It shakes out the fabric, reveals the stains, re-members flaws, makes something coherent from broken pieces and discarded scraps. Auster’s uses oblique means to describe the psychological origins of this process. In Report from the Interior, he devotes a long section to the description of two films that were crucial to the formation of his identity: The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) and I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932). In her scathing review of Journey to the Interior, Catherine Ford sees this section as simply a ‘blow-by-blow plot recall, with lo-fi exegesis, of two B-grade films’. But if the fabric of the trilogy is imagined, this section is like the inside of a pocket, or the hidden insides of a garment. It shows how that garment was made. Its hidden threads and loose ends reveal the fabrication of Auster’s second person. Samuel Auster is the first ‘shrinking man’ of the trilogy. The work is founded on his disappearance. Later, it is Auster himself who might vanish, but for the words flung out like Eliot’s ‘fragments shored against [his] ruins’.
A fear of of vanishing runs through the three volumes and Auster recalls The Incredible Shrinking Man in this context. As the film’s protagonist begins to shrink, a doctor is found who can administer an antitoxin. Auster recounts the narrative at the uneven pace of the man’s shrinking, from an apparent slowing-down to moments of lurching acceleration. The second person narration places the reader in the position of the child viewer. Larger and larger doses of the antitoxin are needed, and the young Auster watches in horror as the process of shrinking continues. For a while, the protagonist’s potential disappearance seems to have been forestalled by his discovery of an equally small woman – a semblable, suggests Auster, alluding to Baudelaire’s ‘hypocrite lecteur, – mon semblable, – mon frère!’ There is a similar connection between the plights of viewer and shrinking man. As long as the shrinking man keeps talking, Auster suggests: ‘you will not have to face the horror of watching him melt away into nothing’. Better any fate than to ‘vanish into thin air.’
Autobiography functions in much the same way as the antitoxin. As in the film, its doses must get larger and larger, until its risks and disclosures become excessive. Stitch by stitch, the second two volumes catalogue the houses Auster has lived in, the injuries he has sustained, the sexual experiences he has had. It is interesting, then, that this excess, this vociferousness, is at the heart of James Wood’s recent parody of and attack on Auster’s work, entitled ‘Shallow Graves’, which he describes as ‘l’eau d’Auster in a sardonic sac’. After a few paragraphs of parody, Wood suggests that Auster remove himself into a silence he finds better explored by other writers:
The classic formulations of postmodernism, by philosophers and theorists like Maurice Blanchot and Ihab Hassan, emphasize the way that contemporary language abuts silence. For Blanchot, as indeed for Beckett, language is always announcing its invalidity. Texts stutter and fragment, shred themselves around a void.
Margaret A. Rose, writing about the etymology of ‘parody’, notes that the marriage of the prefix ‘para’ with ‘ode’ produces a ‘singing in imitation’. This suggests the identifications haunting Wood’s piece. A similar set of identifications is evident in a piece parodying Wood by Colson Whitehead published in Harper’s Magazine almost a year earlier, which begins:
We each come to literature in our own way. For some, the gift is bestowed by a helpful governess who guides our fingers over the letters in a primer. For others, a private tutor first enlightens us to the majesty of the written word. How you arrive is immaterial. What is important now is that you forget all that and learn to read anew. In my literary criticism, I have become known as a champion of the eternal verities and a scold of the trendy and the fashionable. I have essayed to instruct your writers in how to write correctly. Now I will teach you to read correctly.
Each parody reveals an attunement to the work of its subject. While Wood demonstrates an acute perception of some of the formal aspects of Auster’s work, and while he sees the centrality of language’s relationship with silence, his parody skirts and curiously enacts a key point. At the heart of Auster’s writing lies the fear of vanishing and of the silence attending it. Wood’s parody – and the fact of his style having been parodied – enacts and confirms Auster’s point: that the act of overwriting someone else and wresting control of a second person’s narrative begins with identification. Whether its ends are voyeuristic, suffocating or murderous, parody, in its focus on and attunement to a second person, is analogous to the doubling at the heart of Auster’s autobiographical work. In ventriloquising a work – in writing a parallel ode to it – the critic takes his or her parodic subject as the double through which his or her own fear of vanishing may be either expressed or remedied.
The openness of Auster’s second person – the grammatical function of its inclusive ‘you’ – invites the reader to identify in similar ways, and to find in a similar doubling the possibility of evading his or her own disappearance. Such a reading offers a perspective on Catherine Ford’s dismissal of Auster’s work. In her review of Report from the Interior, Ford takes her cue from Wood’s parody and dismissal of Auster. She finds in Wood’s critique a diagnosis of her own allergy to Auster’s work, and an illumination of its flaws. She considers the impact of the second person on her reading, finding in it, along with an amiable lecturing, the experience of ‘hearing charges as a co-accused’. The possibility that ‘you’ is inclusive, inviting the reader to explore his or her own such experiences, is not probed.
Of course, as Auster repeatedly notes, the destination of his autobiographical trilogy may indeed still be disappearance and silence. The poet Jo Shapcott describes autobiography as chasing one’s own ambulance and perhaps Auster is doing this, notebook in hand. But not before the second person is captured, wooed, shaken down, beaten and sung, his pockets emptied and his fabric turned inside out – perhaps in preparation for making a shroud, but first to pursue the fascinations of the self in whatever its laundry lists, its spool of memories, might reveal.
Justin Clemens, ‘All he is at this point in brains and sex,’ Sydney Review of Books (25 March 2014).
Patricia Dobrez, Michael Dransfield’s Lives (Melbourne University Press, 1999).
Catherine Ford, ‘Inside Story Brings Auster to the Surface,’ Sydney Morning Herald (25 January 2014).
Richard Holmes, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (Knopf, 1996)
Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (Knopf, 1994).
Jacqueline Rose, On Not Being Able to Sleep (Princeton University Press, 2003).
Margaret Rose, Parody: Ancient, Modern and Post-modern (Cambridge University Press, 1993).
Phyllis Rose, Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages (Knopf, 1983).
Art Spiegelman, The Complete Maus (Penguin, 2003).
Colson Whitehead, ‘Wow! Fiction Works!’ Harper’s Magazine (February 2009).
James Wood, ‘Shallow Graves: the Novels of Paul Auster,’ New Yorker (30 November 2009).
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (Hogarth Press, 1929).
Virginia Woolf, ‘A Sketch of the Past,’ Moments of Being, edited by Jeanne Schulkind (Pimlico, 2002).