Monday, January 15, 2007
Catching Up With Paul Auster
I came to Paul Auster late. In fact Brooklyn Follies, published not much more than a year ago, was the first of his books that I read. I quite enjoyed it but it was a much more conventional novel that I’d been led to expect from Auster so I was a bit disappointed all the same. I have since gone on to read some of his earlier books. On the one hand, this has confirmed my perception that Brooklyn Follies is something of an aberration in Auster’s oeuvre. On the other, it has set Brooklyn Follies in context for me such that I feel I might have seen more in it had I not read it first.
My most recent Auster read was The Red Notebook, a collection of ostensibly true stories about a series of coincidences. Are they really true stories? However improbable most of them are, only the last in the series seems forced. Does it matter? They felt true enough while I was reading that one or two of them had me on the edge of weeping. All in all, an odd and lovely little book.
What does this have to do with Brooklyn Follies? Paul Auster’s Red Notebook reminds me strongly of Brooklyn Follies protagonist Nathan Glass’s Book of Human Follies in which he seeks to document "in the simplest, clearest language possible an account of every blunder, every pratfall, every embarrassment, every idiocy, every foible" that he or anyone else has committed or been subjected to from the beginning of time to the present. Of course the subject matter of Glass’s book of follies is very different from that of the tales collected in The Red Notebook, but nevertheless they strike me as parallel endeavours undertaken in a similar spirit. Although Auster himself does not make one of his trademark appearances in Brooklyn Follies, I began to think perhaps he had slyly inserted himself into the narrative all the same. And then there is a more obvious connection in the fact that coincidence, of the same sort documented and celebrated in The Red Notebook, plays such a central role in Brooklyn Follies. These are small things, but they lead me to think that I might have discerned more layers and greater nuance in Brooklyn Follies had I been acquainted with Auster’s previous work when I read it.
I may or may not revisit Brooklyn Follies with this in mind, but I will continue to catch up on all of the books that preceded it. Auster’s next book, Travels in the Scriptorium, is due to be released this month. I’ve heard that a number of characters from his previous novels reappear in it and I want to be able to recognize them when I see them. I don’t intend to be caught without context again.