Wednesday, January 24, 2007

More Auster

In a comment on my post about Paul Auster’s The Red Notebook: True Stories, Isabella noted the blue notebook at the centre of Oracle Night, and also the mention of a number of notebooks in The New York Trilogy though she couldn’t recall offhand if any of the latter were red. I flipped back through the trilogy and found that at least three red notebooks make an appearance therein, most prominently Daniel Quinn’s red notebook in City of Glass:

     After he finished eating, Quinn wandered over to the stationery shelves. A shipment of new notebooks had come in, and the pile was impressive, a beautiful array of blues and greens and reds and yellows. He picked one up and saw that the pages had the narrow lines he preferred. Quinn did all his writing with a pen, using a typewriter only for final drafts, and he was always on the lookout for good spiral notebooks. Now that he had embarked on the Stillman case, he felt that a new notebook was in order. It would be helpful to have a separate place to record his thoughts, his observations and his questions. In that way, perhaps, things might not get out of control.
     He looked through the pile, trying to decide which one to pick. For reasons that were never made clear to him, he suddenly felt an irresistible urge for a particular red notebook at the bottom. He pulled it out and examined it, gingerly fanning the pages with his thumb. He was at a loss to explain to himself why he found it so appealing. It was a standard eight-and-a-half-by-eleven notebook with one hundred pages. But something about it seemed to call out to him—as if its unique destiny in the world was to hold the words that came from his pen. Almost embarrassed by the intensity of his feelings, Quinn tucked the red notebook under his arm, walked over to the cash register, and bought it.

After locating that passage, I continued to reread. When I once again encountered the fictional Paul Auster, I was seized with a sudden curiosity as to whether the real Paul Auster had ever written an essay on Don Quixote along the lines of that described by his fictional counterpart in the novel. I logged on to the online catalogue of the public library and found that there was a copy of Auster’s Collected Prose sitting on the shelf at a branch not too far away. I was in an instant gratification sort of mood, so I set off on foot to collect it myself rather than arranging to have it sent to my local branch.

This mission accomplished, I retired to a nearby coffee shop with the book. There was no Don Quixote essay included in the Collected Prose but there was much else of interest. I had a cup of tea and a leisurely read, pausing now and again to jot something down in my notebook which just happens to be red. I assure you that I didn’t acquire it under the influence of Auster’s The Red Notebook, as I hadn’t yet read that book when I bought the notebook. However, it is possible that the memory of Quinn’s notebook had a subliminal influence on my choice. Certainly my conviction when I bought it that it was exactly the right notebook for me at this moment in time echoed Quinn’s sentiments in the excerpt quoted above.

I admit that I felt a bit goofy sitting there with Auster’s Collected Prose and penning notes about it in a red notebook. But then it occurred to me that any denizens of the coffee shop well enough acquainted with Auster’s work to make the connection between the two would be apt to be sympathetic to a deliberate homage or, in the alternative, to relish an inadvertent link replete with overtones of Austerian coincidence.

From the coffee shop, I made my way to yet another branch of the library, this time on the trail of a copy of Oracle Night. So long as I was fixating on Auster and notebooks, how could I resist the Auster novel that explicitly centres on a notebook? By the end of the day, I’d criss-crossed a good swathe of the city, visiting three different branches of the public library and four bookstores (who says the reading life is a sedentary one?), and thereby acquired four more books by Auster and one about him.

I always find it an interesting exercise to immerse myself in the work of one author, to begin to track the evolution of the writing, and to make connections between the books however distant in time or disparate in genre. But it’s proving a particularly interesting exercise where Paul Auster is concerned because of the extent to which the connections are out in the open. He deliberately lets the seams show. And yet, I've begun to think that this obviousness may conceal more than it reveals, layering over deeper complexities that are worth pursuing. For the moment, I'm thoroughly enamoured with Auster's work. No doubt you will hear more from me about it in future posts.


litlove said...

How you make me want to read Auster, Kate! I love the thought of you as literary detective, soft-shoeing your way around the libraries of the city!

Isabella K said...

I am positively itching to read the new Auster now.

I know Auster has said Don Quixote is his all-time favourite book, but I don't recall coming across anything he's written explicitly on the subject.

Re The Red Notebook: it's full of coincidence, but I think he's making a point about the interconnectedness of seemingly insignificant things. It doesn't necessarily make things more significant for that, but I'd say his oeuvre is a kind of ongoing inner dialogue about how your mind forces you to see (or create) connections, how life feeds art and vice versa and comes full circle.

Daniel Quinn's lost passport turns up in The Country of Last Things. I find that gives his fiction more reality -- all his fictional worlds are interconnected and more fully fleshed out for this kind of insignificant detail. Auster's rich in ideas, but I wouldn't say his language or descriptions are rich -- not like Dickens can make you picture a character in front of you -- so I think this is a pretty neat trick of his to make his world seem more real.

I can see the influence too of Don Quixote -- stories within stories, the creation of a quest (by Auster himself as well as by his characters) where an ordinary person would see none, a kind of skewing of reality to create meaning and significance when there are none.

Anonymous said...

I have the New York Trilogy--I really must read it! It's interesting reading multiple books by one author!

LK said...

I agree with Litlove -- you are making the case for Auster. I have enjoyed reading all of your posts on this journey.

I was struck also by your effort to immerse yourself in an author -- will save this post to reread to myself and ponder. I am trying to do more of this myself, starting with Margaret Atwood. I am reading Cat's Eye and her essays on writing simultaneously. I really want to pursue this further with Woolf, reading her books in conjunction with Briggs' bio, An Inner Life (not my idea -- you or one of the other litbloggers had invented that). Such a rich way to approach reading, I think, and your discoveries about Auster seem to prove the case.

MissMiller said...

I'm reading Auster's Book of Illusions at the moment, and your post has made me want to go on an Auster binge. Enjoy!

mary grimm said...

That was a very Auster-ian sort of journey you described, don't you think?
I'm on a Robertson Davies binge right now.