Oct/Nov 2005 Nonfiction

Reflections on Glass

by Andie Miller

In 1998, Daniel Auster, the son of author Paul Auster, then 20 years old, was sentenced to five years probation in the Manhattan Supreme Court after pleading guilty to stealing $3,000 from the body of murdered drug-dealer, Angel Melendez. The Reuters report stated the facts, but what happened on the night of the killing is much more murky and unclear. Melendez was killed by New York "club kid," Michael Alig, who then cut up his body. And though Daniel was never implicated in the murder, he admitted to being in the apartment while it took place.

The movie of Michael Alig's clubbing years, Party Monster, starring Macauley Culkin in the title role, has done the festival circuits. But Culkin's own strange childhood, as the angel-faced star of movies like Home Alone (1 and 2) and Getting Even With Dad notwithstanding, we can be fairly certain that he bears as much resemblance to the character as does Charlize Theron to Aileen Wuornos. Facts are generally far less esthetically pleasing than fiction.

The "better together" recommendations at Amazon for Party Monster suggest that it should be purchased with That Was Then, This is Now, S. E. Hinton's 1971 American classic about WASP vs. Hispanic teen gangs, written by and for teenagers. The movie stars Emilio Estevez.

Susan Hinton's books were my favourites as an adolescent, even as a South African. How much it had to do with a romantic idea of children living without parents, and eating chocolate cake for breakfast, I can't say. But I can still recall the opening line of her first book, The Outsiders: "When I stepped out into the bright sunlight, from the darkness of the movie house, all I had on my mind was Paul Newman and a ride home." At least I think that's how it went.

In Paul Auster's first novella, City of Glass, part of the 1985 New York Trilogy, his detective, Daniel Quinn, is so confounded by the case he is investigating—of a young man having been imprisoned in a room by his father as a boy, and now afraid that his father is going to kill him—that he seeks out the help of an author called Paul Auster (mistaking him for a detective of the same name).

Whether this is the same Paul Auster who is writing the novel, we are not sure. Though he borrows from the genre of detective fiction, the search in his writing is invariably the search for self. And he says wryly, "I grope my way forward in darkness as I'm doing it."

While Quinn and Auster are in conversation, Auster's little son Daniel arrives home with his stepmother. Paul introduces the two: "'Daniel, this is Daniel.' The boy burst out laughing and said, 'Everybody's Daniel!'"

Maybe so. Maybe there's a cautionary tale in this story for us all. After all, how well do we really know anybody? Even those closest to us.

"Sometimes the same people, sometimes different ones," says Auggie Wren, the storyteller in Auster's screenplay, Smoke, who photographs the same spot for "four thousand straight days in all kinds of weather... And sometimes the different ones become the same, and the same ones disappear. The earth revolves around the sun, and every day the light from the sun hits the earth at a different angle." Daniel Auster had a small role in the 1995 movie (he was the "book thief"), though he went on to become a photographer by profession.

In Auster's first book, published in 1982, The Invention of Solitude—this one not fiction, but a memoir of his father's death (Portrait of an Invisible Man), and his meditations on becoming a father to Daniel (The Book of Memory)—Auster goes on a journey of discovery of his own father, Samuel, who had been a remote enigma throughout Auster's life. Only in the process of writing this book did he unravel the mystery of what had shaped his father, and made him who he was.

When Samuel was just seven years old, "on 23 January 1919, precisely sixty years before my father died," Paul writes, "his mother shot and killed his father in the kitchen of their house." She was found not guilty of murder on the grounds of mental instability, but the family (she and five children) spent the rest of their lives in poverty, constantly moving. So when he grew up, he had spent most of his life in denial of and oblivious to what was going on around him.

Auster describes his experience of his father. "For fifteen years he had lived alone. Doggedly, opaquely, as if immune to the world. He did not seem to be a man occupying space, but rather a block of impenetrable space in the form of a man. The world bounced off him, shattered against him, at times adhered to him—but it never got through."

So much so, that once, after Paul and his sister and parents had moved, his father—who regularly took a nap before dinner—mistakenly drove to his old house and slept surrounded by the new owner's things without even noticing he was in the wrong house. "Even today," writes Auster, "it still makes me laugh. And yet, for all that, I cannot help regarding it as a pathetic story. It is one thing for a man to drive to his old house by mistake, but it is quite another, I think, for him not to notice that anything has changed inside it... For as long as he lived, he was somewhere else, between here and there. But never really here. And never really there... And if the mind is unable to respond to the physical evidence, what will it do when confronted with the emotional evidence."

Auster's father was no more emotionally conscious than he was physically, and Paul describes the first meeting between grandfather and grandson. "Daniel was just two weeks old when he first laid eyes on him. [He] pulled up in his car, saw my wife putting the baby into the carriage for a nap, and walked over to say hello. He poked his head into the carriage for a tenth of a second, straightened up and said to her, 'A beautiful baby. Good luck with it,' and then proceeded to walk into the house."

While he was writing The Book of Memory, and reflecting on having himself become a father, Auster was also translating Stéphane Mallarmé's A Tomb for Anatole, about the death of Mallarmé's young son. These fragments that "aspire to the condition of poetry," Auster describes as "anguished and moving material for me."

you can, with your little
hands, drag me
into the grave--you
have the right--
who follow you, I
let myself go--
--but if you
wish, the two
of us, let us make...

an alliance
a hymen, superb
--and the life
remaining in me
I will use for--

Auster, whose body of work revolves around coincidences—"the rhythms and rhymes in the world", and "the music of chance" (the title of one of his books)—comments on the fact that looking at photographs of Mallarmé's son Anatole, and his own son Daniel "at that age, when they were very small, they could have been twin brothers."

Of Mallarmé, Auster says that he "was able to transform more thoroughly than any other writer, the real into the imaginary, and to blur the distinction between the two."

Auster himself, of course, is a master of the blurring of fact and fiction. So is his wife, novelist Siri Hustvedt. In her most recent novel, What I Loved (that took her six years to write), she explores the effects of a troubled child, a pathological liar, on those around him. At once chastised for exploiting her stepson by thinly disguising the story of the Angel Melendez murder in the book, and then defended, because after all it is fiction, both ends of the spectrum of argument seem to be missing the point. More important are the issues she's exploring, and the way that she does it. Interviewer Michael Silverblatt puts his finger on it. It's "the interpenetrations of actual actions and literary ones" that are so remarkable, he thinks. What he describes as "the enjambment of fiction and reality."

This interpenetration that happens between fact and fiction in style, extends also to what she is exploring in the book, Hustvedt explains: "I'm very interested in the idea of our openness, and the fact that people really are created through each other in some important way. It starts in childhood, the intimacy that we have with our parents, maybe most particularly with our mother, or whomever is taking care of us in the beginning. And that intimacy is a kind of interpenetration of character, and that's how we develop. It goes on in life in friendships as well... Any ordinary conversation between people, there's that space where the language is taking place... Dialogue is something rather magical. The words are going into us, and coming out of us."

And this permeability seems to be heightened in art, she says. "Art, it seems to me, is probably the place where private life meets the culture in some way. With art we have the strange experience of looking at another person's inner life and unconscious through the vocabulary of the culture. Whether it's a written work of art, or a painting, art always borrows from history. It is never created in total isolation, never in a vacuum. You use an artistic vocabulary that you've inherited, from art history."

No doubt this borrowing from history extends to each other's personal histories, too.

The illusion of separateness and creation in isolation is what Auster was also exploring in The Invention of Solitude. The path of the solitary artist alone in a room is an alter ego that he has explored in his fiction, as well. He muses from time to time, with wry alarm, on who he might have become had he not met Hustvedt.

But the echoes in their work extend beyond just thematic and stylistic dimensions. They extend even to the characters in their books. When she is asked about similarities in their writing, and whether she is influenced by Auster's work, she suggests that "partly it is due to a shared world. After all we've been together for 21 years. Inevitably there are overlaps." At the same time, she reminds us, "what people often don't realise is that he's done some borrowing from me too."

In Auster's book Leviathan, one of his characters is a woman called Iris. Many people notice that this is Siri "in the mirror," as she puts it. But not as many are aware that Iris is a character of Siri's creation, from her first book, The Blindfold. Auster asked if his main character could marry Hustvedt's main character, and she "thought that was a lovely thing, because Iris was left hanging at the end of the first novel. And I thought it was very nice that she ended up married to Peter Aaron, and doing rather well." Peter Aaron of course shares Auster's initials, and is a semi-autobiographical character.

But life isn't as neatly tied up as fiction, and Michael Silverblatt wonders if perhaps our culture is encouraging its children to become pathological in order to imitate art. "When you talk about diseases generated by the culture, one of these diseases it seems to me has become the interest in the extreme case, the lurid case, the case that verges on poetry." Is pathology then the culture's self-fulfilled prophecy?

Hustvedt takes a more practical view. "I think that the human organism requires certain things in order to do very well," she says. "And it seems that some kind of consistent early nurture is really important. And I think that is the thing that to a large degree determines human health. At the same time, it's mysterious. If you read different case studies, you will not be able to find an honest psychiatrist who will tell you that you can predict. You can put two cases side by side, two children who have had very tough childhoods, and they will grow up to be two quite different people. What the factors are remain mysterious. Obviously personal history is very important, one's personal emotional history. But also one's genetic make-up. You know your nerves, the way you're strung. All of this goes together to make a human being."

Auster's first wife and Daniel's mother, writer and academic Lydia Davis, is quiet on the subject. After her divorce from Auster, Daniel moved between her and his father, and one can't help wondering about her thoughts of her child.

Writer Amy Fusselman says of her: "Lydia Davis is ferocious. When I attended her reading in NYC recently, and heard her read the piece about the old dictionary and her son, I was struck again by how that piece is one of the most fearless bits of writing I've ever read. It was all the more powerful to hear her read it in her own, soft voice."

In the piece to which she refers, a short story called "The Dictionary," from Davis' collection Samuel Johnson Is Indignant (2001), "a scholar measures her questionable child-rearing against how well she cares for a rare, antique book, and achieves a realization about how she could better treat her young son."

Davis specialises in short-short stories (sometimes referred to as "flash fiction"). In conversation with her, Michael Silverblatt observes, "I sense in your work an almost inhuman perfectionism." What is it that she is most sensitive to in her writing, he asks? "Well, taking away excess, the sentence that's one too many. Dullness. Something that's too commonplace." She recalls learning to read. "I loved learning the words 'look' and 'see': 'Run, Jane, run. See Jane run.' It was so clear and easy and unconfusing and neat."

She cites Grace Paley as an example of the "compression" that she admires. But she adds that, unlike Paley, she struggles to write slang. "I can't deal easily with casual writing. I wrote a story in slang, but to do it I had to go to a slang dictionary." She has a sense of humour about herself.

When she reads the story in question, "The Meeting," aloud, it reflects a similar sense of humour to Paley's, too. Though she cites Russell Edson as one of her earliest influences. "His subjects were from some deep psychic space that most of us don't want to touch. Family stuff. Crude, difficult family stuff."

Her story "In A House Besieged" (in full):

"In a house besieged lived a man and a woman. From where they cowered in the kitchen the man and woman heard small explosions. 'The wind,' said the woman. 'Hunters,' said the man. 'The rain,' said the woman. 'The army,' said the man. The woman wanted to go home, but she was already home, there in the middle of the country in a house besieged."

And from "The Professor": "All I wanted to do was go out into the middle of the desert, as far away as possible from everything I had known all my life, and from the university where I was teaching and the towns and the city near it with all the intelligent people who lived and worked in them, writing down their ideas in notebooks and on computers in their offices and their studies at home and taking notes from difficult books. I wanted to leave all this and go out into the middle of the desert and run a motel by myself with a little boy, and have a worn-out cowboy come along, a worn-out middle-aged cowboy, alcoholic if necessary, and marry him. I thought I knew of a little boy I could take with me... The fact is that if an alcoholic cowboy came into my life in any important way I would probably criticize him to death for his drinking until he walked out on me."

She characterises her writing as "a philosophical investigation of the relationship between imagination and reality, as well as an exploration of one's perceptions of one's identity and the subjective nature of the truth."

Davis went into the family profession, as both her parents were writers, though "it wasn't an entirely happy fate," she says. Music was her first love. But what does her son Daniel feel about being surrounded by literary celebrity?

Photographer Ned Schenk of Pavement Studios recalls introducing himself to "a cool tattooed kid on Avenue B after taking his portrait... 'By the way, my name's Ned.' The kid replies 'Hi, I'm Daniel Auster.' My response, 'That's interesting, I'm reading a book by Paul Auster; he's one of by favorite authors...' Daniel grins and says 'Yeah, I know him; that's my dad.' A few days later I read in the Village Voice that Daniel would be testifying as a witness in the Peter Gatien ecstasy drug ring trial, and that he was apparently the teenage kid who was passed out in the apartment during the infamous Disco Bloodbath clubland murder of Angel Melendez by Michael Alig."

In 1979, Auster concluded his Portrait of an Invisible Man, of his father, with these words:

"Past two in the morning. An overflowing ashtray, an empty coffee cup, and the cold of early spring. An image of Daniel now, as he lies upstairs in his crib asleep. To end with this.

"To wonder what he will make of these pages when he is old enough to read them.

"And the image of his sweet and ferocious little body, as he lies upstairs in his crib asleep. To end with this."

It was these words that touched me, and made me curious to investigate what had become of this little boy. Now I am filled with a profound sense of sadness.

In Hustvedt's book, What I Loved, the father of the troubled boy dies of a broken heart. But this is fiction. Auster is as productive as ever, still averaging a book every eighteen months. Of his most recent book, Oracle Night, Guardian critic Sean O'Hagan says that its "noir shadings... and shockingly violent interludes... are indicative of a late style that is both darker than the Auster of old, and somehow more life affirming. They speak of endurance, survival, reinvention; the trajectory that one does not give up, follows loss, attends to the grieving process."

"Every life is inexplicable," says Auster's narrator in The Locked Room, the final novella in The New York Trilogy. "No matter how many facts are told, no matter how many details given, the essential thing resists telling... We all want to be told stories... We imagine the real story inside the words, and to do this we substitute ourselves for the person in the story, pretending that we can understand him because we understand ourselves. This is a deception."

Recently Auster has had little to say publicly about his son. He says only that he "is currently finding himself—ask me again in a couple of years."


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