Paul Auster: a miscellany of the mind

Autobiographical work feels like a grab bag of ephemera or an afterthought scrapbook

Sat, Apr 5, 2014, 01:00


Book Title:
Report from the Interior


Paul Auster

Faber & Faber

Guideline Price:

Mention Paul Auster and many readers will instinctively think of the novels that have made his name. Fiction came later to the Brooklyn-based writer, but his first published work was part-memoir, part nonfiction. In 1982, in The Invention of Solitude , he wrote: “The pen will never be able to move fast enough to write down every word discovered in the space of memory. Some things have been lost forever, other things will perhaps be remembered again.”

Three decades and several novels, film scripts and essay collections later, Auster is still interested in locating memory and its biases. In mid 2012 he published a slim memoir, Winter Journal , now swiftly followed by another autobiographical book. But there is a distinction, in Auster’s mind anyway, between the works.

In Winter Journal he proclaimed that he wanted to write about the body and “catalogue the manifold knocks and pleasures experienced by your physical self”. Report from the Interior is its opposite: an inner narrative of recollection. One book details the outer corporeal life, the other the cerebral, yet Auster’s decision to separate these intrinsically linked parts of his being is curious. How, as Yeats once asked, do we know the dancer from the dance?

Divided into four sections, the book mostly adheres to the conventions of memoir in being linear and confessional, and in beginning with the biographical nuts and bolts of childhood. Here Auster is at his most honest and engaging, revealing his nascent fears: polio, his sister’s declining mental health, and the threat of the cold war.

He is an anxious child, worried about “the starving children of India” and his parents’ uninvolved relationship. In marriage they are “cellmates thrown together” who later divorce, while his sister succumbs to a breakdown in her 20s.

The sense of being an outsider is tenuously linked to his Jewishness: “There were no cowboys called Bernstein or Schwartz, no private eyes called Greenberg or Cohen, and no presidential candidates whose parents had emigrated from the shtetls of eastern Poland and Russia.”

Auster finds solace in reading and sport. Although his interests sustain him, they also disappoint him. When he briefly meets the New York Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford it’s not the encounter he expected, and he is gripped by an inexplicable feeling of disappointment.

By his own admission his childhood “consists of no horror stories . . . but there is a constant, underlying feeling of sadness”. Auster makes a pragmatic assessment: that his parents’ loveless marriage drove him inwards to become a writer, “a man who has spent the better part of his life sitting alone in a room”.