Sunday, February 11, 2007

Invisible novelist: thoughts on Paul Auster

Paul Auster’s nuanced and very moving The Brooklyn Follies reminded me of something an Auster fan told me once. “He’s one of the very few writers I know,” he said, “who can get you so involved in the story that you forget there is a novelist’s voice behind the narrator’s.”

Reading this book, I saw what he meant. By the time I was on the third or fourth page, Auster was out of my mind and as far as I was concerned the story really was written by its narrator, Nathan Glass, a retired insurance agent. One reason is that compared with most other writers Auster doesn’t have an obvious, easily identifiable style. The writing is so functional, so centred on taking the story forward that the novelist’s methods are invisible.

I’m not talking here about the distinction that’s commonly made between simple, lucid writing (e.g. Vikram Seth) vs writing that draws attention to itself (e.g. Salman Rushdie’s fiction). Even authors who belong to the former category, whose work we think of as narrative-driven, do usually have a distinct style that marks their writing as the work of a particular person (a contemporary example being Kazuo Ishiguro, one of my favourites). But Auster’s writing in The Brooklyn Follies is so completely integrated with his narrator’s personality that one has no trouble in believing that Nathan himself wrote it all.

This is less common than one might think. In most first-person stories narrated by characters who are not professional wordsmiths, the reading process entails a minor suspension of disbelief (though we tend not to dwell on it). There’s an implicit understanding that though the thoughts and experiences are the narrator’s, the story is being ghost-written by an accomplished novelist: he’s clarifying the narrator’s ideas, polishing the language, supplying order and structure. (While reading Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, for instance, narrated by the butler Stevens, we understand that if Stevens were to himself sit down and write the story his prose would not be anywhere near as elegant as Ishiguro’s, nor his writing as organised.)

It’s different when the narrator himself is a writer by profession. Philip Roth’s frequent narrator Nathan Zuckerman is a successful novelist – in fact there’s very little that separates him from Roth – and so the striking prose of books such as American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain doesn’t seem incongruous. One is aware that Zuckerman’s own writing could be this proficient, or close enough.

Auster’s Nathan on the other hand, though an intelligent, well-read man, has never been a writer – until, very late in life, he starts jotting down notes for a book, more for amusement than anything else. And the narrative of The Brooklyn Follies fits what one would expect of such a character. Nathan is self-conscious about the writing process and about his own limitations: he plays around with sentences, comments on his stylistic choices, begins one chapter on an experimental note, deliberately avoids all forms of description in another chapter. He introduces his nephew Tom by flamboyantly (and awkwardly) bestowing the title Hero of this Book on him. And he fumbles for the right words, as in this passage where his car has just stalled:
...the engine coughed forth one of the most peculiar noises in automotive history. I have sat here thinking about that noise for the past 20 minutes, but I still haven’t found the correct words to describe it, the one unforgettable phrase that would do it justice. Raucous chortling? Hiccupping pizzicati? A pandemonium of guffaws? I’m probably not up to the task – or else language is too feeble an instrument to capture what I heard, which resembled something that might have come from the mouth of a choking goose or a drunken chimpanzee.
Later, after an unpleasant phone conversation with his ex-wife, he decides to stop referring to her by name, which leads to the use of phrases like “(Name Deleted)” at points in the narrative; this could have been annoying and gimmicky, but it’s true to Nathan’s playfulness and his growing confidence about his role as a storyteller.

Note: I’m not saying that if Nathan Glass existed he actually would have been able to write this very novel, just that we are given that impression – which is one of Auster’s great achievements. He’s a deceptively good writer and a lot of craft must go into the seeming effortlessness of his work.

[Will review The Brooklyn Follies soon]


  1. Jai,
    What's the price of this book in Rupees?


  2. The first book I read of Auster was the Book of Illusions. It had me literally hooked and yes, it did feel as if the protagonist David Zimmerman was writing the book. I became an overnight Auster fan but a couple of books after, in a span of a couple of weeks, I got tired of the pattern in his books that I had read: the missing female character, loneliness and a triggering incident that sets the protagonist off in a journey of (un)real discovery/borderline lunacy. Anyway, Auster does remain a favourite author because he is a compelling author. I look forward to reading Brooklyn Follies.

  3. Sundhar: I got the paperback for Rs 320 I think

    ART: Yes, it can be difficult to read too much work by one author in a short span of time. btw I'm thinking of doing a consolidated post on some of Auster's work (though the only other books of his I've read are The New York Trilogy and The Book of Illusions).

  4. The piece makes an interesting point. I haven't read Auster but shall try to get hold of this now.

  5. The first one I read of his was The New York Trilogy. 'the missing female character, loneliness and a triggering incident that sets the protagonist off in a journey of (un)real discovery/borderline lunacy' explains it perfectly. But he always makes for a good mood-changer.

  6. Its really rare to find such an invisible author.The last time I read one like that was Roddy Doyle's Woman who walked into Doors. I kept looking at the book cover in disbelief. It was difficult to believe that this was not the transcribed ramblings of a young Irish woman.

  7. i'm pleased you've finally read and liked and written about him. he's been a favourite for a long time and have read all his stuff including his nonfiction though, i believe, a new one 'tales from the scriptorum' has just come out. look forward to your review as you are quite a favourite too. cheers

  8. I was thinking about this issue of narration and narrators the other day, in relation to David Mitchell's Black Swan Green. Any thoughts there?

    Nisha: I did the same thing with The Woman Who.... An amazing book.

  9. Jonathan: I wrote this post on Black Swan Green some time ago, but it doesn't really address the narrator question.

    However, I think Michell's book showed how any book written by an adult, for adults, but in the voice of a child requires a suspension of disbelief - no matter how skilled the author or how precocious his young protagonist. Children are usually too busy living their lives, dealing with strange new ideas and experiences every day, to be able to see the Larger Picture or to articulate it in meaningful ways – and so, inevitably, certain passages in that book read like a retrospective rather than firsthand account of childhood. Intelligent as Jason undoubtedly is, his musings on life ("The truth is, jumping in at deep ends causes drowning. Baptisms of fire cause third-degree burns") don’t always ring true.

    What are your thoughts on the subject?

  10. psybabou: that's Travels in the Scriptorium - a title that's mentioned at least twice in The Book of Illusions, as one of the films made by Hector Mann, the silent-screen comedian. No, haven't read that yet...

  11. Jai: I pretty much agree with you. Yet no doubt Mitchell expects us to believe BSG is entirely thirteen year old Jason's work: consider his handwritten version of the beginning of the Goose Fair chapter, which is word for word the same as the actual chapter. And the mondegreen (Jason mishears Elvis Costello's "Oliver's Army" as "Olive's Salami") isn't corrected in the actual chapter either.

    So yes, those bits don't ring true, but I don't know if I would call that a real criticism--I still think BSG is an excellent book.

  12. Elli: yes, it's always fun when you get these little connections, isn't it? These days I'm reading 6-7 things simultaneously (usually have to since there's a lot of reviewing going on too), including Amitava Kumar's Home Products and Sarnath Banerjee's graphic novel The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers. Ishiguro and Roth are among my favourites generally, and Auster is getting there!

  13. Well, I'll make sure to check for these books. I just started reading "Special topics in calamity physics", which so far I enjoy immensely. However I don't get around to reading as much as usually, because my baby daughter (3 months) doesn't show a lot of sympathy for this past-time yet ;-)

  14. what you have told about Auster's narrative technique is absolutely true. While I was reading "The New York Trilogy", each of the three novellas had a distinct tone.