Paul Auster was born in New Jersey in 1947

Paul Auster was born in New Jersey in 1947. After attending Columbia University, he lived in France
for four years. Since 1974 he has published poems, essays, novels and translations. He has also
edited the story collection The True Tales of American Life. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Thus is the preface of every single book Auster has published. Other than citing a few biographical
facts, it however says little about the American author whose existence, he claims, is directed by
chance. To get a full portrait of Paul Auster, one only has to read his literary work. His life is found in
his fictions, translations, essays, and even in his movies; every story Auster creates reveals a few
events of the author’s past. His experience in Paris after he quit Columbia University; his hand to
mouth existence as a young poet; the books his uncle left in their house that incited his desire to
become a writer; his room in Varick Street where he composes his texts. A central obsession of
Auster's is what it means to be a writer spending most of your time alone in a room. The results
emerge in his fictions that address existential issues and questions of identity, personal meaning and
analyse relationships between men and their environment as well as focusing on different kinds of
hunger and failure.
In 1979, when his father had his fatal heart attack, Auster was on the brink of financial and
emotional ruin. He had writer’s block, a failing marriage, and a newborn son called Daniel. With the
modest inheritance that rewarded his father’s death, Auster was suddenly floating instead of drowning:
‘For the first time in my life I had the time to write, to take on long projects without worrying how I was
going to pay the rent. It’s a terrible equation, finally. To think that my father’s death saved my life.’ The
Invention of Solitude is Auster’s touching exposé of his search for the identity of his father and himself.
It is this ‘terrible equation’ as Auster puts it in his tribute to his departed father, which I address in this
dissertation, focusing on the works and life of Paul Auster. From the moment of his father’s death, the
theme of the father-son relationship dominates Auster’s oeuvre.
The Art of Hunger
The Brooklyn Follies
The Book of Memory
In the Country of Last Things
The Invention of Solitude, consisting of ‘Portrait of an Invisible Man’,
and ‘The Book of Memory.’
The Music of Chance
Moon Palace
Mr. Vertigo
The New York Trilogy, consisting of ‘City of Glass’ (CoG), ‘Ghosts’
(G), and ‘The Locked Room’ (LR)’
Oracle Night
Portrait of an Invisible Man
The Red Notebook
Anna Auster
Daniel Quinn
David Zimmer
Harry Dunkel
John Trause
Julian Barber
Kitty Wu
M.S. Fogg
Master Yehudi
Mother Sioux
Nathan Glass
Peter Stillman Jr.
Peter Stillman
Sam Auster
Sidney Orr
Solomon Barber
Thomas Effing
Tom Wood
Walt the Wonder Boy
a black boy saved by Master Yehudi who teaches him how to write and read
in Mr. Vertigo
Paul Auster’s grandmother who killed her husband, Sam Auster’s father
An author who turns into Paul Auster the detective in ‘City of Glass’
Marco’s friend who accommodates him after his near starvation in Central
Park in Moon Palace
an invisible figure in ‘The Locked Room’ who exists only through his best
friend (narrator) whom he forces to step into his old life, marry his wife and
adopt his son; the narrator’s alter ego
Sidney Orr’s wife in Oracle Night who has a secret affair with John Trause
a gay antique bookshop owner in The Brooklyn Follies who ran away from
his past
an author who hasn’t published anything since his wife’s death in Oracle
a painter who takes on the identity of Thomas Effing after he kills the
Gresham brothers in a cave in the desert in Moon Palace
Marco’s girlfriend who has an abortion, which ruins their relationship in Moon
The protagonist in Moon Palace who discovers his origins
a Hungarian artist who teaches Walt to fly and simultaneously becomes his
surrogate father in Mr. Vertigo
Master Yehudi’s house woman in Mr. Vertigo
Pozzi’s and Nashe’s supervisor in The Music of Chance
a divorced fireman in The Music of Chance
a character who decides to die, but adopts the role of surrogate father and
husband in The Brooklyn Follies
Peter Stillman Senior’s son in ‘City of Glass’
Peter’s father who imprisoned his son in ‘City of Glass’
a lonely poker player Nashe picks up from the streets in The Music of
Paul Auster’s father who witnessed his mother killing his father
an author who looks up to his literary father John Trause in Oracle Night
Marco’s long lost father who never knew of his son in Moon Palace
Solomon’s father and Marco’s grandfather in Moon Palace
Nathan Glass’ nephew in The Brooklyn Follies
an orphan named Walter Claireborne Rawley who is adopted by Master
Yehudi and learns to fly in Mr. Vertigo
Other characters
Hermann Kafka
Stéphane Mallarmé’s son who died at a young age
Franz Kafka’s domineering father
Franz Kafka, a German speaking author from Prague who died in 1923
The father in Paul Auster’s literature
Once upon a time, there was…
‘A king!’ my little readers will say right away.
No, children, you are wrong. Once upon a time there was a piece of wood.
The Adventures of Pinocchio
In Carlo Collodi’s brilliant fairy tale, Gepetto realizes his dream of becoming a father. When Master
Cherry gives him a mysterious block of talking wood, Gepetto in fact creates his own son Pinocchio,
who firstly shows little respect for his father. The Adventures of Pinocchio describes the mischievous
adventures of the famous puppet undergoing disciplinary trials to become an ordinary boy. Pinocchio
aspires to nothing more than being a good son to his father, which is the underlying moral of the story.
His curiosity and impatience however lead him to continuously withdraw from Gepetto, until he finally
gets the chance to save the man whom he is causing so much sorrow. For most of the tale, Gepetto
and Pinocchio are separated but do not fail to long for each other. Father and son experience their
grief in solitude, unaware of the other’s distress and genuine attempts to become reunited, until
Pinocchio finally rescues Gepetto from the belly of the shark. The beloved story of Pinocchio has not
only entertained generations of children around the world, it has also influenced filmmakers as well as
writers of adult fiction. Paul Auster admits to be one of them. The contemporary American author takes
great inspiration in fairy tales as their bare-boned narrative and lack of detail leave enough space for
the reader’s imagination to complete the story. The Adventures of Pinocchio holds yet another quality
for the author, famous for his fictions such as The New York Trilogy, Leviathan and Moon Palace. In
his work that addresses the effects of chance and coincidence, exploration of the theory of language
and story telling, the subjectivity of existence, and the fear of a lack of fixed identity among others, I
want to discuss Auster’s preoccupation with the image of the absent father, the searching son and the
solitary state of his subjects.
The story of Pinocchio symbolises that of Paul Auster and his father Sam. Their ending –
Pinocchio saving Gepetto– differs from the original however. In Auster’s tale, the father dies. The son,
unable to prevent Sam Auster’s lonesome death of a heart attack, tortures himself with the feeling that
he came too late; too late to be reunited with his father. His reasons for embarking on a journey for his
father resemble that of the puppet: Auster, feeling guilty about the abandoned relationship with his
father, longs to be reconciled by being a good son. Realizing the impossibility of this task, Paul Auster
wants, at least, to locate his father in his writing with the intention of lessening his mourning. In this
dissertation, I aim to demonstrate that Auster’s fictional writing not only assumes certain
characteristics that lead back to Pinocchio, but that his body of work entails such a great deal of
autobiographical evidence that its origin must derive from his past. The consequences of his father’s
emotional and physical absence in Auster’s youth that determines his prose is what I intend to reveal
in this paper.
The father in his different guises functions as one of Auster’s principal subject matter and
emerges as the strongest influence in the majority of his writing. The absent father, the search for the
father, the father as a solitary figure, the surrogate father inevitably creating the image of the searching
son, the lost son, haunts all of Auster’s fiction, just as much as he as a deserted child seems to be
haunting the missing father. I am fully aware that a discussion in which the focus lies on the
relationships between fathers and sons, as well as on the language applied to grasp such interaction
determined by lack, calls for psychoanalytical investigation among others. However, I intentionally
intend to exclude direct references to psychoanalysis, (post)structuralism and other literary theories.
This perspective allows me to focus solely on Auster himself, his various texts and his intertextual
references that form enough material to let his work speak for itself in three separate sections. The
first part of this dissertation addresses the foundation of Auster’s prose work in which the themes of
absence, solitude and loss are directly linked to Auster’s father. ‘Portrait of an Invisible Man’ is a report
on the personality of Sam Auster and the revelation of the terrible truth that drove him into being the
impenetrable man he remained until his death. This memoir is published in Auster’s debut prose text
The Invention of Solitude together with ‘The Book of Memory’. The latter differs from the first part by
the shifting in perception: Auster no longer mourns as a son, but talks as a father to his son.
Influenced by Proust’s achievement in his masterpiece À la recherché du temps perdu, Auster
engages in the discovery of his role as a son and a father by linguistically retelling and therefore
preserving the past.
The approach slightly alters in the next part of this work. If the first section is mostly determined
by absence and the attempt to understand the father, the second part confirms and expresses
Auster’s search for a missing structure. Considering the father’s absence as catalyst, it explores the
different ways in which the protagonists in Auster’s stories either seek for a surrogate father or the
missing son in the vastness of the American fatherland. Emphasising on Mr Vertigo and Moon Palace
especially, with reference to the symbolism in Pinocchio, I highlight the methodology through which
this quest is represented in all of Auster’s fictions. The third part discusses the ways in which Paul
Auster learns to cope with an absent father in his life. Referring to the manifold literary references and
styles he adopts from different authors in his work, I argue that these authors have symbolically taken
over the role of the absent father. Auster’s father raised his son only to a certain extent. His literary
existence, which determines the writer’s life, is influenced by the likes of Kafka, Beckett, Hawthorne,
Melville, Mallarmé, Sartre, Raleigh, Flaubert and many others. In the third part, the theme of absence
is therefore replaced by a literary presence. However, the fatherly absence still plays a considerable
role, as most of the authors that have influenced him, suffer from similar conditions. With the exception
of Beckett, whose focus lies on the deconstruction of language, these writers’ biographies resemble
Auster’s life in one way or another. By solely listing and analysing a fraction of their lives and writing at
the beginning, I want these authors to initially speak for themselves. After presenting the evident
similarities of Auster’s literary predecessors and their troubled relationship with fatherhood, I then
compare these with Auster’s own past and writing. In my further argument, I claim that all the literary
persons I list and explain also function as Auster’s father figures: he looks up to them, is influenced by
their work and shares the same solitude once engaged with writing which he shapes according to his
chosen father figures.
If the first part sets the setting for the father’s absence, part two and three are Auster’s reactions
to the latter. Writing seems to somehow help him to find his father, and replace him in some way
through all the literary figures and fictional characters that speak through him. This dissertation then
deals with stories about fathers and sons. And it deals with the language that is used to capture the
absent father from the hands of a deserted son.
The invention of solitude. Or stories of life
and death. The story begins with the end.
Speak or die. And as long as you go on
speaking, you will not die. The story begins
with death. 1
One day there is life.2
It all began in 1979, ‘that’s when everything changed in my life’, Paul Auster says. On a winter
Sunday morning, he receives the news of his father’s sudden death. ‘Death without warning.’ (IoS, 5)
That which was already apparent for Auster, has now become manifest: The father’s absence. ‘Even
before his death he has been absent, and long ago the people closest to him had learned to accept
this absence, to treat it as the fundamental quality of his being.’ (6) The father’s distance –emotionally
as well as physically- throughout the author’s life is now completed by his final withdrawal. Sam Auster
is history. A history that is so void that his son is captivated to tell its nothingness. In a memoir
dedicated to his father, Paul Auster chronicles an attempt to capture the past by marking absence: the
story of his father, ‘Portrait of an Invisible Man.’ The title already reflects both Auster’s longing for
completion and his rejection of its prospect as a means of preserving it. Part biography of his father,
part autobiography, this text is a meditation on loss, familial love, fatherhood and memory.
‘Earliest memory: his absence.’ (21)
In his first published prose text The Invention of Solitude consisting of ‘Portrait of an Invisible
Man’ and ‘The Book of Memory’, Auster is struggling with fundamental issues. How to portray a
solitary man who leaves no traces? If a man leads a life that nobody else notices, did he really live?
How to know a man who never offered anything by which to seize him; who barely mentioned his past;
who detached himself from his surroundings? Auster remarks in this difficult mission to grasp the
essence of his father how ‘he did not seem to be a man occupying space, but rather a block of
impenetrable space in the form of a man.’ (7) Death has finally taken his father away from him, but
how to cope with life after death when there is nothing that precedes it? In his written attempt to
approach the father, Auster faces the problem of how and what to tell? To write absence or towards
realizing this absence and replace it? The totally blank photo album he stumbles upon while
unpacking his father’s belongings: This is Our Life, The Austers, exemplifies his situation. Paul Auster
embarks on this project to make sense of his father’s, and therefore his own, existence in search of
the past; a project that will be disappointing, as Auster mentions: ‘to recognise, right from the start, that
the essence of this project is failure.’ (21) In this part, I not only explore this failure, but also discuss
the notion of paternity and loss that shaped the life and therefore the work of Paul Auster.
The father’s lonesome death is a catalyst for the author’s resurrection as a writer. He literally
saves Auster’s life by rescuing him from his financial distress. The father’s inheritance gives Auster a
financial cushion that finally allows him to stop worrying about money to support his little family. For
Auster, Paul. ‘The Book of Memory’, The Invention of Solitude. USA: Sun Press, 1982. This edition published by
London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2005, p 160
Auster, Paul. ‘Portrait of an Invisible Man.’ The Invention of Solitude¸ p 5
the first time, freed from this immense pressure, he can focus solely on writing. Yet his subject matter
is determined by the father’s gift. The heritage carries a heavy burden, which the author struggles with
throughout his writing career. Auster never finishes reimbursing his debt to his deceased father: even
today it seems he is still reviving and maintaining the image of the man he barely knew. It seems
paradoxical that the man, who never appreciated his son choosing literature over a financially secure
job, actually stands to the author’s rescue. A man who worked so hard for his business;
who never
understood that his son quit Columbia University to embark on a ship and later lead a hand to mouth
existence in Paris. A man characterised by his reluctance for spending, for holding back everything he
has to offer, for remaining silent, for worshipping solitude. The money he had so painstakingly saved
through what Auster calls ‘bargain shopping as a way of life’, (57) allows the author to fully concentrate
on his writing career. Paul Auster, the author who in the eyes of his father, was just ‘one more shadow’
(25) feels obliged to pay tribute to the man whose already absent presence made him ‘nervous’: ‘You
felt he was always on the verge of leaving.’ (58) Auster realises this irony, and yet he faces it to deal
with it slowly in and through his prose writing. In an interview he says:
In some sense, all the novels I’ve written have come out of that money my father left
me […] It’s impossible to sit down and write without thinking about it. It’s a terrible
equation, finally. To think that my father’s death saved my life. 4
The ghost of his father therefore keeps reappearing in Auster’s literature. For it presents a too
heavy load for Auster that the end of one person means the beginning for another. Especially if the
nature of the homage opposes everything the father believed in. However, the burden Auster slowly
discharges is not only centred on the materialistic aspect of the inheritance. Auster is left with less
than before which he realized. The money the father set aside never fills the emotional void he causes
in Auster’s life, before and after his death. The performance of paternal absence -while still alive and
continued past death- is recalled in all of his prose. Before discussing the absent fathers in Auster’s
fiction however, I want to focus on the work that triggered this evolution in his literature. For all his
work is to some extent autobiographical. He refers to The Invention of Solitude as ‘everything I have
done has come out of that book. The problems and questions and experiences that are examined
there have been the meat of the things I have done since.’ 5 The Invention of Solitude is thus the key
work to Auster’s career, which Dennis Barone reads as ‘Auster’s chosen and invented mythology, as
the first cause of all his subsequent works’,6 or as Pascal Bruckner states: ‘To understand him we
must start here; all his books lead us back to this one.’ 7 Therefore, the underlying message of Auster’s
body of work must be determined in this part and developed in the next two parts of this dissertation.
Paul Auster, once informed about his father’s death, immediately feels the urge to write about
him, to capture this familiar and yet alien person with words. ‘I knew that I would have to write about
Up early morning, home late at night, and in between work, nothing but work. Work was the name of the country he
lived in, and he was one of its greatest patriots. ‘Portrait of an Invisible Man’, p 56
Paul Auster in an interview with Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory. The Red Notebook. London: Faber and Faber
Limited, 1995, p 132
Paul Auster in an interview with Christopher Bigsby, in Varvogli, Aliki. The World that is the Book: Paul Auster’s Fiction.
Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2001, p 12
Barone, Dennis. Beyond the Red Notebook: Essays on Paul Auster. ed., Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
Press, 1995, p 14
Bruckner, Pascal. ‘Paul Auster, or The Heir Intestate.’ Beyond the Red Notebook, p 27
my father. […] I thought: my father is gone. If I do not act quickly, his entire life will vanish along with
him.’ (6) His literary spark -that never extensively manifested itself in his poetry- returns while looking
for the man he had already lost a long time ago. His intention is to translate the memory of his father
into words; to save him from oblivion; to find and keep him alive through language, perhaps more alive
than he ever was to him. He aims to grasp this absence that presided over his father’s presence; this
person who was ‘somewhere else, between here and there. But never really here. And never really
there.’ (19) To search for the traces his father had never even left. And at the same time try to
understand why his father was who he was, why he behaved like he did. Why he barely shared his life
with his son, who so desperately wanted a piece of him. Why he deliberately failed to attend his first
son’s birth; why he didn’t even acknowledge his only grandson other than wishing Auster good luck
with it; the son that means everything to Paul Auster. Why he couldn’t confront reality. Why he
remained living in a house on his own that could accommodate seven people. A man ‘who finds life
tolerable only by staying on the surface of himself, with offering no more than his surface to others.’
(15) His memories of his father are dominated by a craving for love, approval and attention, which his
father withheld from him. He describes how ‘I mulishly went on hoping for something that was never
given to me- or given to me…rarely and arbitrarily. (21) That Auster is facing a blank, impenetrable
wall, becomes apparent with the following description of his father whom he refers to as ‘tourist of his
own life’ (9):
Devoid of passion, either for a thing, a person, or an idea, incapable or unwilling to
reveal himself under any circumstances, he had managed to keep himself at a
distance from life, to avoid immersion in the quick of things. He ate, he went to work,
he had friends, he played tennis, and yet for all that he was not there. In the deepest,
most unalterable sense, he was an invisible man. Invisible to others, and most likely
invisible to himself as well. If, while he was still alive I kept looking for him, kept trying
to find him, kept trying to find the father who was not there, now that he is dead I still
feel as though I must go on looking for him. Death has not changed anything. The
only difference is that I have run out of time. (7)
Auster’s lack of fatherly love strongly affects him. Especially now that he realises that it is too
late, that the image of the unlocatable, odourless man without appetite, whose clothes ‘seemed to be
an expression of solitude, a concrete way of affirming his absence’ (59) resides in his head. And yet
he keeps on looking for him. He invades his father’s privacy, desperately searching for evidence that
might change his perception of him. Silk ties that remind him of his childhood, used razor blades, a
packet of condoms, pictures and other leftovers of his father’s past do not reveal the truth about him.
Like the photographs, Sam Auster remains silent. In his incapability of coming to terms with death,
Auster is convinced that a different person is buried inside his father. He wants to find this other, to
unbury the ‘real’ Sam Auster. ‘One could not believe that there was such a man -who lacked feeling,
who wanted so little of others’, he says ‘and if there was not such a man, that means there was
another man, a man hidden inside the man who was not there, and the trick of it, then, is to find him.’
(21) He therefore turns to writing; writing is his vehicle to dive into the depths of his father and himself
and share their solitude; to dig out the truth about his fatherless existence and express it. Only through
the realm of language can he now connect with his father. ‘On the condition that he is there to be
found.’ (21) He doesn’t give up, he keeps on writing even though he finds that particularly difficult:
The closer I come to the end of what I am able to say, the more reluctant I am to say
anything. I want to postpone the moment of ending, and in this way delude myself into
thinking that I have only just begun, that the better part of my story still lies ahead. No
matter how useless these words might seem to be, they have nevertheless stood
between me and a silence that continues to terrify me. When I step into this silence, it
will mean that my father has vanished forever. (69)
Auster is stuck; because of his desire to satisfy his hunger and at the same time preserve it, he
finds himself trapped between his ability to assuage his pain through writing about his father and his
fear of losing him when he stops writing about him. He chooses the former: to freeze this emptiness
into language and make sense of it thereafter. Words become a deferral, or a displacement, of
absence and of silence. As long as he prolongs his father’s story and keeps on looking for him –be it
in this memoir or in his following prose writing- the image of his father remains alive. Only when he
stops writing does he realise the extent of his misery, which turns him into the same invisible man his
father once was. For at the instant he writes his recollection, he sits alone in a room, lost in his
thoughts about his father, oblivious to the world. As soon as he stops, he becomes aware of his
loneliness- a fatherless man, divorced from his wife, and painfully separated from his son David. ‘A
man sits alone in a room and writes.’8 The Invention of Solitude is in fact an expression of his own
introverted state. His desire to write then is to escape his misery and reunite with his father. But within
the narrative itself he clearly says that this desire cannot be satisfied:
‘Impossible, I realize, to enter another’s solitude’. (20)9
Does Auster actually find what he is looking for, a hint of emotion from the man who was afraid
to show it. Does he really grieve his father, or is this reflective memoir just a story that serves a good
plot, a profitable fictional biography? Can words replace a person? ‘You do not stop hungering for your
father’s love, even after you are grown up.’ (20) His attempt to mark his father through language fails
for in retrospective, he still remains the same unaffectionate person he remembers. Even Auster’s
story cannot change this fact. Auster becomes more and more depressed throughout the book in
realizing that what he is looking for stays hidden, what he is trying to say will possibly remain unsaid.
He recognizes that there is a gap between presentation and reality, that the story he is about to tell
somehow escapes language.
Never before have I been so aware of the rift between thinking and writing. […] I have
begun to feel that the story I am trying to tell is somehow incompatible with language,
that the degree to which it resists language is an exact measure of how closely I have
come to saying something important, and that when the moment arrives for me to say
the only true important thing (assuming it exists), I will not be able to say it. (34)
Language is in effect inexpressible; it can never fully render what one intends to communicate, nor
does it serve to understand a man like Sam Auster. ‘Language is not truth.’ (173) Auster feels trapped
in a terrible situation for he knows that his only tool that may effectively pay tribute to the father is also
the least one to do it. Especially if the subject matter ‘absence’ seems impossible to be translated into
words. He realizes that he has missed his chance to come to terms with his father: writing about his
father does not return him, nor reveal why Auster must have meant so little to him other than exposing
a terrible secret.
Every book is an image of solitude…A man sits alone in a room and writes. Whether the book speaks of loneliness or
companionship, it is necessarily a product of solitude. ‘The Book of Memory’, p 145
Auster later rejects this statement by writing about his literary surrogate fathers. In ‘The Book of Memory’ he describes
how solitude becomes a shared moment when one author writes about another, which I analyse in the third part.
There has been a wound, and I realise now that it is very deep. Instead of healing me
as I thought it would, the act of writing has kept this wound open. […] Instead of
burying my father for me, these words have kept him alive, perhaps more so than
ever. I not only see him as he was, but as he is, as he will be, and each day he is
there, invading my thoughts, stealing up on me without warning: lying in the coffin,
underground, his body still intact, his fingernails and hair continuing to grow. A feeling
that if I am to understand anything, I must penetrate this image of darkness, that I
must enter the absolute darkness of earth. (34)
This Kafkaesque description of the father invading Auster’s thoughts, introduces the family
secret, which is uncovered by mere coincidence just before Auster is about to give up: the gruesome
story of his grandfather’s murder through the hands of his own grandmother.10 The darkness of the
story means the enlightenment for Auster. The finishing sentence -‘I hope that this will shed some
light on your Father’s actions over the past years’- (37) of the cover letter that carries the information
about his father’s past, opens Auster’s eyes. In order to understand his relationship with his father, he
must accept that his father’s idea of paternity was shattered. Sam Auster never experienced
fatherhood; he was too young to know his father and therefore refrained from being one as he was too
afraid. At the age of three, the perfect age to become more acquainted with the parent, Sam’s mother
killed her husband and thus taking away the most important person in a boy’s life. The brutal act,
which Anna Auster covered up as suicide, was never spoken about. ‘It was as though the family had
decided to pretend he had never existed.’ (35) Even in the family photo depicting the mother with her
five children, the father is missing: the photo is torn, the father eliminated. It is then that Auster realises
the consequences of the past: ‘a boy cannot live through this kind of thing without being affected by it
as a man.’ (38) The own mother committing a brutal murder, and -after being shot at by her brother-inlaw– is released from prison free of charges. The children who have witnessed the events must then
embark on an escape journey: always moving, never staying in one place for more than three months,
without friends or money. All these terrible events were buried within Sam Auster and never released
but through his remoteness. It seems that the father wanted to protect his son from his terrible past,
and therefore remained at a safe distance from the present as his way of dealing with the past.
Revealing and writing the truth opens up the door to his father’s behaviour. Yet Auster still
cannot identify with his father’s attitude and keeps blaming him for his neglected childhood. What does
he expect of his father? Unsatisfied, he still lacks and looks of the father’s recognition. In retrospect,
Auster seems to project his distress solely onto his father, which casts a shadow on the latter. What
about Auster as a son though? As a reader, we only get one part of the story, as the father cannot
speak for himself anymore. Could it be that he has missed eventual signs for his father’s affection?
Does he see it from a wrong perspective? Why can’t he accept the father the way he was? Why does
he blame his father for not visiting him in Paris when he is the one who ran off? Why does he accuse
his father for neglecting his literature when he hardly publishes anything creditable? Auster comes to
the conclusion that he ‘must have been a bad son; a disappointment, a source of confusion and
sadness. It made no sense to him that he had produced a poet for a son’ (64). He realizes at the end
‘It is not that I am afraid of the truth. I am not even afraid to say it. My grandmother murdered my grandfather. On
January 23, 1919, precisely sixty years before my father died, his mother shot and killed his father in the kitchen of their
house on Fremont Avenue in Kenosha, Wisconsin.’ (p 38)
of ‘Portrait of Invisible Man’ that he must change his perspective and see the past from a father’s
viewpoint: ‘to end with this.’ (73) Instead of talking to and of his father, he ends his memoir by
addressing his son Daniel. His next step is to meditate further into the depths of fatherhood, which
explains the second part of The Invention of Solitude that ‘grew out of the first and was a response to
it.’ (TRN, 106) If the driving force behind the first part was to understand his father, the second part is
determined by Auster’s yearning to understand himself as Daniel’s father. He must question his mode
of being a parent to discover what it entails and then discern whether his father failed in performing his
In ‘The Book of Memory’, Auster soon finds out that the father’s death leaves traces in his life
that slowly destroy his idyllic family existence as well as his idea of paternity. Like his father, he
divorces from his wife and moves into his office at 6 Varick Street. Alone again, Auster retreats to his
writing. The thought of being separated from his son –conversely to the impression we get about his
father- is unbearable to him. He starts ‘The Book of Memory’ contemplating his solitude, which Auster
continuously describes in his prose. Only by distancing himself from his own self and referring to
himself in the third person as A., can he objectify and understand his situation and search for the
reasons of his isolation. He investigates whether his son will also condemn him for his physical
absence and slowly understands that Auster himself is partly the catalyst that creates his father’s
absence. The revelation to this chain of thoughts comes to him while reading The Adventures of
Pinocchio to his son Daniel. He reflects upon this story about father and son that mainly focuses on
the lost child, the escaping child, the searching father, the remote father and the realization that only in
their unification, can they both be father and son. He finally understands that a harmonious
relationship can only be complete when both father and son invest in it. Did Auster contribute enough
of himself to be worthy to his father, or did he, like Pinocchio, simply run away? Stephen Fredman
argues that throughout the Invention of Solitude Auster cultivates a fantasy, most fully represented by
the Pinocchio story, that the son will rescue the father. 11 A statement that in my opinion stems from the
following quote:
A. has watched his son’s face carefully during these readings of Pinocchio. He has
concluded that it is the image of Pinocchio saving Gepetto (swimming away with the
old man on his back) that gives the story meaning to him. (143)
A. is captured in his room, in his memory, surrounded by his guilt, like Gepetto in the belly of the
shark. Akin to the fairy tale, the son comes as his rescue; Auster is saved by his son from the belly of
the shark that is his room. He finally understands the essence of fatherhood that makes everything
else seem less important. Rather than grieving the past, he lives in the present now. The second part
seems to complement for the loss of the first part, for Auster, for the first time, realizes his father’s
position. His son frees him from his solitude while he devotes to the role he has to play and thus finds
what he thought was absent. ‘When the father dies’, he writes, ‘the son becomes his own father and
his own son. He looks at his son and sees himself in the face of the boy. He imagines what the boy
sees when he looks at him and finds himself becoming his own father. Inexplicably, he is moved by
Fredman, Stephen. ‘How to get out of the Room That is the Book? Paul Auster and the Consequences of
Confinement.’ PMC 6.3, 1996
this. It is not just the sight of the boy that moves him, nor even the thought of standing inside his
father, but what he sees in the boy of his own vanished past. It is a nostalgia for his own life that he
feels perhaps, a memory of his own boyhood as a son to his father.’ (85)
Auster still grieves the past and regrets for not trying to embody his father’s ideal son, even if he
endeavours to compensate for this by being a good father. He continues wondering whether ‘it is true
that one must dive to the depths of the sea and save one’s father to become a real boy?’ (83) Auster
comes too late to save his father while he was still alive. Saving him from the solitude that his father
has created around himself. Instead he realizes that the nature of his distress lies in never accepting
his father for whom he was. Through the act of writing, he recognizes that he took his father for
granted; instead of worshipping what his father has to offer, he only sees his disappointments as a
father. Auster seems ashamed and resentful of his behaviour and therefore turns to writing. He
realizes that it is too late to change his father, but must accept him the way he is. He reflects on what
he has invested in their relationship and ponders his high expectations he had for his father. Now that
he is in the same position, he understands the twofold direction of a father-son bond. He realizes that
it is not necessarily the father who saves the son, but that the son must also contribute to this
harmony, which he learns from Pinocchio. That his father’s behaviour and attitude nevertheless keep
affecting him becomes clear in the fictions that follow The Invention of Solitude. In the next part, I want
to demonstrate that Auster is still haunted by, and haunts the image of the absent father.
When the dead weep, they are beginning to recover,’ said the Crow solemnly.
‘I am sorry to contradict my famous friend and colleague,’ said the Owl, ‘but as far as I’m concerned, I
think that when the dead weep, it means they do not want to die.’
The Adventures of Pinocchio.12
The Invention of Solitude, p 77
The search for the father and the missing son is reminiscent to the tale of Pinocchio and runs through
Auster’s prose like a red line. Similar to the investigation of fatherhood in The Invention of Solitude,
every story written thereafter implicates a comparable notion that re-enacts the author’s quest for his
own father and the condition of the missing son. Absent fathers haunt his fiction like ghosts; the search
for the latter determines the action of the plot. Dennis Barone notes that ‘from the Invention of Solitude
to Mr. Vertigo characters have searched for a home’.13 All his characters embark on endless
explorations to find some sort of emotional or physical shelter. Either directly or indirectly, Auster’s
picaresque heroes are somehow looking for a father figure, or conversely, ‘Pinocchios’ are reclaimed
by lonely ‘Gepettos’. Nashe, for example in The Music of Chance, or Nathan, in The Brooklyn Follies,
acknowledge another father position towards younger men, even though their own daughters lack
their parental care. Like Dickensian orphans who require a sense of structure, Auster’s male heroes
undergo certain disciplinary rituals in their adventurous discovery of their past or presence in the
vastness of the American fatherland. Explorers either by force or nature, his characters detach
themselves from everyday reality to intuitively compensate for an emotionally neglected childhood in
the search of their own identity. Is Auster trying to compensate for his past by letting his characters
experience the same abandonment of fatherly love? Bruckner argues that Auster’s literature is a
response to his yearning for the absent father: ‘And the author, who had to lose his father in order to
find him, would respond by filling his novels with figures of weak, colourless, pitiful parents,
overwhelmed by their offspring and incapable of assuming fatherhood.’ 14
In the following paragraphs, I demonstrate Bruckner’s argument by listing a few of Auster’s
characters and their behaviour that match the description above and replicate Auster’s personal
search for the father. Nashe, a divorced fireman who, like Auster, inherits a large sum after his father’s
death in The Music of Chance, leaves his daughter behind to drive around America and seek
ontological suspension until he picks up the street kid Pozzi: ‘the stranger he saw as a reprieve,
because he had already given up’. (MoC, 1) After a joint poker adventure that dramatically fails, he
lingers with an absurd wall-building project for two millionaires instead of facing his miserable
existence as an incapable father beyond the wall. In the shelter of his mission, Nashe develops a
father-son relationship with Pozzi who only met his father twice. ‘I barely knew who he was.’ (37) After
Nashe is unable to ‘take on the role of Pozzi’s guide and protector’, (45) and save the boy’s life, he
longs for revenge by killing his supervisor’s grandson, a dull 4-year old who in turn perceives Nashe as
his father. At the end, he is incapable of pulling through with it. Having nothing to look up to –Pozzi is
most certainly dead, his daughter prefers to stay with her foster parents, no one seems to notice his
absence- he rather takes his life, along with that of his supervisors.
Marco Stanley Fogg, a restless inquisitor in Moon Palace loses every touch with the world once
his last relative dies. Yet he regains stability when he stumbles into discovering his origin: he meets
Barone, Dennis. Beyond the Red Notebook: Essays on Paul Auster. ed., Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
Press, 1995, p 21
Bruckner, Pascal. ‘Paul Auster, or The Heir Intestate’. Beyond the Red Notebook, p 27
his father he thought dead. Kitty Wu becomes Fogg’s girlfriend after she saves him from solitary
confinement in Central Park. An orphan herself, she embraces every father figure that passes her life,
from Fogg to his father Barber, but denies her own paternity while pregnant and has an abortion. In
‘City of Glass’ Peter Stillman escapes into his room after his father imposed a state of isolation from
reality upon him. He then hires the detective Paul Auster –himself a fatherless son whose child has
just died- to watch Stillman Senior. It follows an incredible account of chasing, identity matters and an
analysis of the meaninglessness of language. Quinn alias Auster at one point introduces himself to the
old Stillman as his son, before he waits himself into oblivion outside his apartment. The unnamed
narrator in ‘The Locked Room’ takes on his former best friend’s identity, Fanshawe, an author who had
to watch his father, ‘a silent man of abstracted benevolence’, (218) die slowly. The narrator marries
Fanshawe’s wife, adopts his son and publishes the friend’s biography while he is simultaneously
turning the world inside out to find Fanshawe. Harry Dunkel’s daughter in The Brooklyn Follies
perceives him as ‘a dark man’. (35) Instead of being a father, he ends up in prison after an affair with a
gay artist and fraudulent incident in business. In the same story, Nathan Glass compensates for his
own unsuccessful attempt at paternity by acting as father to his nephew and his niece. Even Mr
Bones, a speaking dog in Auster’s untypical story Timbuktu, is on a journey to replace his dead
Other characters devour or starve themselves into unconsciousness as they lack sense of
primary stability in their lives: Solomon Barber, who ‘eats his way to the brink of oblivion’ (MP, 242)
and Tom Wood, the brother who acts as his sister’s father, are two lonely figures who hide behind their
own immensity; neither of them are in contact with their parents. Fogg and Quinn become barely
recognisable as their reluctance to eat renders them into walking corpses. Again, both of them are
without relatives at that point. Even Auster seems to have a troubled relationship with food. 15 All these
protagonists have no guidance, no father to direct them, no Gepetto that longs to be saved by his son.
And all of them fall into a degenerative obsession for understanding their origins, to fill their
sentimental shortcomings.
The narrative that mostly resembles Collodi’s brilliant moral tale is that of Auster’s 6 th novel
completed in 1994. Auster says ‘if there is any book that Mr. Vertigo is connected to, it’s Pinocchio. In
some odd way you could say that Walt is Pinocchio, Master Yehudi is Gepetto, and Mrs Witherspoon
is the Blue Fairy.’16 Equally structured, Mr Vertigo is Auster’s first real attempt to explore the genre that
has mostly influenced him: the fairy tale. By definition, a narrative that is passed on from generation to
generation, from father to son, fairy tales are especially fascinating for Auster, as he enjoys nothing
more than discovering them with his son, Daniel. As he remembers in ‘The Book of Memory’ while
reading his son The Adventures of Pinocchio:
In his essays like ‘Art of Hunger’, ‘Hand to Mouth’ or various extracts from The Red Notebook, Paul Auster provides an
account of his hand to mouth existence in his early writing career as a poet during which he barely had enough money to
eat. This changes after he finally resolves to prose writing, starting with The Invention of Solitude, followed by The New
York Trilogy whose publication coincides with his recognition as a writer. Nevertheless, similar to the way his father’s
death shapes his literature; the painful feeling of hunger is repeated in his fiction as a way of reminding himself and his
reader of his miserable past.
Paul Auster in an interview with Ashton Applewhite,
And for the little boy to see Pinocchio, that same foolish puppet who has stumbled his
way from one misfortune to the next, who has wanted to be ‘good’ and could not help
being ‘bad’, for this same incompetent little marionette, who is not even a real boy, to
become a figure of redemption, the very being who saves his father from the grip of
death, is a sublime moment of revelation. The son saves the father. This must be fully
imagined from the perspective of the little boy. And this, in the mind of the father who
was once a little boy, a son, that is, to his own father, must be fully imagined. Puer
aeternus. The son saves the father. (143) 17
This source of inspiration –the author saved from his solitary state- along with his aim to be a good
father, led Auster translate a childhood dream into a book. The idea of flying, of experiencing a sense
of weightlessness similar to death, has always fascinated Auster and is significantly explored in his
writing.18 Auster claims that this obsession derives from an incident that happened to his father. Sam
Auster, while working on a roof, slipped and started stumbling through the air until a clothesline saves
him from death.19 The father’s descent is taken further in Mr Vertigo. Walt’s parental loss coincides
with the end of his ability to fly, as if Auster decided to complete his father’s story with a different
ending: that of death. In Mr Vertigo, flying does not only symbolise freedom, it also encompasses
death and exemplifies the entrapment in one’s own body and the surrender to the forces of nature and
gravity. The young orphan, Walter Claireborne Rawley, becomes a successful artist once a father
figure enters his life and takes care of him. His career comes to a drastic end once puberty takes hold
and his foster father is killed. Before discovering his gift, he stays with his cold-hearted uncle, Slim,
until the Hungarian circus artist, Master Yehudi, adopts him. Walt never encountered the feeling of
having a father. His hunger for recognition leads him to embark on this adventurous journey with the
stranger. Even though Master Yehudi firstly insults the boy as ‘a piece of human nothingness, no
better than an animal’, (3) Walt grows more and more acquainted with the strange man and slowly
they form a bond that can only be broken by death. In the care of his new family -his brother Aesop
and his mother Sioux, both eventually killed by the Ku-Klux-Klan- and after harsh disciplinary
preparations, he pulls off what his surrogate father predicted: to levitate.
At the beginning, Walt is afraid of the dark man and doesn’t trust Yehudi. The latter,
unconscious of his fatherly affection for the boy, sees in Walt his door to show business: ‘You’re my
meal ticket, remember? I wouldn’t hurt a hair on your head’. (7) Similar to Pinocchio, Walt keeps
running away, but realises that all his escapes lead him back to Master Yehudi, his creator, who
proves his good intentions. The two need and complement each other, underlined by the dying Yehudi
when he says: ‘whatever you are it’s because of me. It works both ways. Whatever I am, it’s because
of you.’ (208). Walt in fact embodies the lost son Yehudi always looked for. Through their adventures
around America, they become an inseparable team. The support and attention Walt receives from
Yehudi awakens new spirits in him. At the moment he most senses the Master’s affection, he
symbolically accepts him as his father:
Puer aeternus is Latin for eternal boy.
All his characters, in some way, have an experience with falling: Anna Blume falls out of the window but is saved:
Nashe flies into a car to commit suicide; Fogg imagines to be flying in his psychedelic trance in Central Park; Barber falls
into his own grave. The Baseball star he recalls in ‘The Book of Memory’ who wanted to be closer to his son, died in a
plane crash. He even dedicated a whole story to Philippe Petit, the ropedancer. Everything in Leviathan revolves around
Benjamin Sachs falling off a fire escape; an incident that really happened to Paul Auster’s father.
Paul Auster in an interview with Ashton Applewhite,
He put his hand gently on my shoulder [...] I felt nothing but trust for him at that
moment. […] That’s probably how Isaac felt when Abraham took him up that mountain
in Genesis, chapter twenty-two. If a man tells you he’s your father, even if you know
he’s not, you let down your guard and get all stupid inside […] He tells you, Come with
me, and so you turn yourself in that direction and follow him wherever he’s going. (3839)
Walt is happier than ever. The thought of disappointing his father puts him in distress. When he
imagines Yehudi’s rejection, as Walt still doesn’t believe in his ability to fly, he fears he ‘had lost him
forever.’ Auster’s own yearning for his father’s recognition 20 is here translated into Walt’s realisation
that he desires nothing more than ‘the master to love me again […] I hungered for the master’s
affection […] He had made me in his own image, and now he wasn’t there for me anymore.’ (53) Even
though the Master is not his real father, Walt nevertheless recognizes that his father has stimulated in
him a desire to please. Soon after these thoughts and a few terrifying events through which he
imagines losing his new family, Walt lifts himself off the ground for the first time. He expels his sorrows
and becomes weightless. Detached from the world, he hovers through the air. Walt’s levitation is not
so much his protest against the fear of losing his father, but rather an expression of gratitude for the
love and confidence he receives from Yehudi. The boy manages to realise the impossible, and the
drive for this lies in his desire to please Yehudi. Flying must then be the expression of finally feeling
complete, so complete that Walt can empty himself out without being afraid that this feeling returns
once upon ground again. Is this fairy tale an allusion to the author’s life, an experience he never had?
Auster never managed to delight his father with his talent; death took his chance and he surrenders to
the forces of nature. Throughout Sam’s life, Paul Auster’s literary career did not lift him up, but now he
seems to be flying in success. Due to his father, who will never know; Auster cannot save his father.
Walt’s ability to fly is the permit to their joint adventure and nothing seems to damage the strong
bond between father and son. After the Master’s death and Walt’s surrender to puberty that ends his
flying, however, Walt feels lonelier than before. He returns to the streets and drifts aimlessly around
America until he finds the man who killed his substitute father: Uncle Slim. His story, so the narrator
informs us, ends in the arms of Mrs Witherspoon. Other than telling the story of Walt the Wonder Boy,
Auster takes us on a journey of his fatherland. The tour around the vastness of America covers many
historical facts and geographical references. From Kansas to Oklahoma, Michigan and Illinois and
finally Hollywood, Auster lets Walt experience his country in which key aspects like that of baseball
and culture, American authors, technical progress, slavery, racism, Ku-Klux-Klan, emigration, Indians
and the Wild West all play a part. Similar to the description of his father in The Invention of Solitude,
Auster devotes a lot of time to exploring his country through language, uncovering its history and
unfolding it in great depth. His fictions are full of travelling reference, of going from one place to
another in order to find oneself.
Auster describes in ‘Portrait of an Invisible man’ how ‘I was looking for my father, looking frantically for anyone who
resembled him. I mulishly went on hoping for something that was never given to me. […] It was not that I felt he disliked
me. It was just that he seemed distracted, unable to look into my direction. And more than anything else, I wanted him to
take notice of me.’ The Invention of Solitude. p, 20-21
In his previous fiction, Auster takes us from New York –where the trace for the missing father
begins- westwards to the desert in Utah, where all the gaps of paternal origins are filled. In a subtle
way, he links the personal development of the protagonist Marco Stanley Fogg with the movement of
American history. The novel’s beginning sentence indicating the first moon landing, determines not
only the historical timeframe but also the agency of the plot. Narrated in concentrated circles in which
the question of identity is once again prominent, Moon Palace evolves around the three generations of
complete strangers who belong to the same family: all fatherless sons and fathers who are oblivious of
their offspring. The motifs of Moon Palace are all extremely familiar to Auster readers: the beleaguered
orphan, the missing father, the ruined romance, the squandered inheritance, the totemic power of the
West, the journey as initiation. Born in the same year as Auster, the protagonist is a restless explorer
whose name proves that ‘travel is in his blood’: Marco refers to the wide-ranging traveller, Marco Polo,
the first European to visit China; Stanley stands for the man who tracked down Livingstone and found
fame in darkest Africa; Fogg is directly related to Phileas, the explorer who travelled the world in 80
days. (6) All of these men were seekers, voyagers into the uncharted and unknown; a journey the
protagonist evidently pursues as all these men combined in his name, already point to his fractured,
made-up identity and the thirst to unearth his genealogy.
The image of the moon shapes Fogg’s experiences, acts as his orientation, and shines over his
final destination like the moon in the centre of Blakelock’s painting Moonlight that Fogg analyses at the
core of this Bildungsroman. A fortune cookie in a Chinese restaurant with the same name as the title
of the book, tells Fogg: ‘The sun is the past, the earth is the present, the moon is the future.’ (233) Not
really grasping the full meaning of the sentence, he puts it away to only later come across what the
fortune-teller had predicted. The moon keeps resurfacing in the novel, both as physical appearance in
the sky and linguistically within the text. As long as the moon is present, Fogg instinctively follows it.
His foster parent Uncle Victor –who raises the boy after his mother’s death- joins a band called
Moonlight Moods. When he dies from a similar unexpected condition as Auster’s father, ‘the man I
have loved most in the world’ as Fogg informs us, his only ‘link to something larger than myself’ simply
‘drops dead,’ (3) Fogg falls into distress. After reading and selling the only thing that is left from his
uncle –the 1492 books that serve as his furniture and later as temporary rescue from his financial
distress- he ventures into Central Park where he sleeps under the moon while Neil Armstrong takes
his first steps. After a few days, he is rescued just before death from starvation by his friend David
Zimmer and Kitty Wu. That Fogg clearly lacks the structure of family ties becomes clear when his selfdestructive nature nearly kills him after his uncle’s death. He is a fragile person who grew up without a
real father figure. As an orphan, Fogg, like all of Auster’s characters, craves for a sense of belonging,
and before he finds his true identity, he puts his life under certain tests. He retreats inwards to see
whether his world has enough on offer to come to terms with himself.
I decided to give up the struggle […] because I thought that by abandoning myself to
the chaos of the world, the world might ultimately reveal some secret harmony to me,
some form of pattern that would help me to penetrate myself. (80)
This secret harmony finally begins when he ends up with Thomas Effing, an eccentric cripple
who is in fact his grandfather and simultaneously his next stability. Former painter Julian Barber, he
changes his identity to Thomas Effing after a tragic experience in the American desert. Just before
Barber explores the lunar landscape, he unknowingly fathers a son -Solomon Barber. Slowly Effing
reveals some of his past to his unknowing grandson and contracts him to approach Barber after his
death to deliver his obituary. Effing senses that his death will put Fogg out of orbit when he says: You
need someone to look after you […] Once I am gone, you’ll be right back where you started.’ (216)
Effing failed to be a father to his son, but he somewhat unknowingly preserves Fogg from the same
experience by opening the path on which son and father meet: ‘Barber took us under his wing as
though he meant to adopt us. Since Kitty and I were both orphans, everyone seemed to benefit from
the arrangements.’ (274)
The obese Solomon Barber who hides himself in his body -like Auster in his room- is unaware
that his father’s life ran parallel to his own. Neither does he know that the deliverer of this message is
his son, even though he senses it straightaway when he makes allusions to Fogg’s mother, his one
time affair. Again, one cannot help but trace similarities in Barber’s life to Auster’s own. After Effing
dies, Barber inherits a large sum of money, which enables him to concentrate on his writing. He moves
to New York to spend more time with his unknowing son Marco. As an author he has also published a
book on fathers and sons called Kepler’s Blood. Described as an adolescent novel that features the
quest of a young boy for his origin, Barber tries to understand his fatherless condition through writing.
Like Auster who keeps looking for his father, Barber actually embarks onto the discovery of Effing’s
cave, to find out whether the man he knows from Fogg’s stories actually existed. Barber never ‘finds’
his father. His search is interrupted when he confirms his yet unreleased paternity to Fogg after which
he falls into an open grave. Fogg, suddenly aware of his descent, therefore continues Barber’s quest.
In every generation, Auster launches a search for the father that ends in the unearthing of a
character’s genealogy.
The moon imagery that shapes the plot, stands in direct opposition to Fogg’s biological father
Solomon Barber: he notices that sol means sun in both Spanish and Elizabethan poetry as well as
ground in French: ‘it intrigued him that he could be both the sun and the earth at the same time.’ (251)
Once he ‘finds’ his father he always thought dead standing at the family grave, Fogg literally loses him
to the French connotation of the father’s name. At the moment he realizes that the plump man
weeping at his mother’s grave is indeed his father, Fogg verbally attacks Barber who consequently
stumbles into a freshly dug grave, that soon becomes his own. Barber receives a similar funeral
ceremony from his son that Auster organised for his dead father. The recognition of Barber as his
father comes almost simultaneously with Fogg’s own frustrated attempt at paternity that is finally
shattered with his girlfriend’s abortion.
I wanted to be a father, and now that the prospect was before me, I couldn’t stand the
thought of losing it. The baby was my chance to undo the loneliness of my childhood,
to be part of a family, to belong to something that was more than just myself, and
because I had not been aware of this desire until then, it came rushing out of me in
huge, inarticulate bursts of desperation: ‘If you kill our baby, you’ll be killing me along
with it.’ (280)
With Effing and Barber dead, an unborn child and a broken relationship, the novel comes full circle
and Fogg is alone again, under a full moon. Orphaned many times over, destitute, he feels lost in the
lunar landscape after the failed endeavour to uncover the truth about his origin: the same spot where
Effing changes his identity is now covered by a lake. Unable to solve the mystery of his roots, Fogg
continues his journey westward. Only there can his regeneration begin, drawn to the same direction
his two ancestors took to change their life. The book must end, under the full moon, for there is no one
left to save him. Fogg is abandoned again. ‘And that’s where we leave him – getting ready to begin.’21
The figure of the selfish, absent or ignorant parent looms in the background of other Auster
fictions. In ‘City of Glass’, an oppressive account of an innocent son and his cruel father dominates the
plot. In his isolating experiment with his child, Stillman Senior wants to reach God's language by
denying his son the interaction with human language. He keeps him imprisoned in a dark room for
seven years and crushes him into submission. However, the father's language experiment badly fails
and only creates a Beckettian puppet without identity; a creature lost in the real world. Paternal
struggles and betrayed relationships are explored in Oracle Night as well as Leviathan. Sidney Orr’s
wife Grace debates an abortion as she is unsure who the father of her child is: Sidney or else, John
Trause, her father’s best friend, as well as surrogate father and secret affair. Trause on the other
hand, already parent of his son Jacob, refuses to see the latter. After financially supporting him, he
finally disinherits him when his literary pupil, Sidney, reports of his drug addiction and abusive
behaviour. Jacob despises his father for choosing Grace over him and releases his jealousy in beating
Grace and her unborn child to death. Fanny on the other hand, Benjamin Sachs’ wife in Leviathan, is
unable to bear children. In her belief that her author husband is sleeping with other women, she
convinces the couple’s best friend to start an affair with her. In the end, both her husband –who
retreats to supposedly finish his book- and the narrator, abandon her.
The loneliness and desertion Auster’s characters experience especially in relation to paternity,
seem to trigger a desire to crawl back into their mother’s womb. ‘Room and tomb, tomb and womb,
womb and room,’ (BoM, 171) Auster symbolically implies this fact throughout his prose. Most of his
writing –that Auster completes in his own retreat- mentions the subject entrapped in an interior: Jonah
in the belly of the whale, Gepetto imprisoned for three years inside the shark; Quinn, Stillman,
Fanshawe, Paul Auster himself, David Zimmer, all trapped alone in a room, sharing their solitude with
nothing but their thoughts. Fogg in his cave in Central Park, Effing in his cave in the American desert;
Barber trapped in his body; Nashe imprisoned behind the wall; the writer inside his room. All these
fatherless characters withdraw from the world and hide in their solitude. An enclosed space seems the
only protection for a subject in pieces from which it must be rescued. ‘The son saves the father’, or
conversely, the father stands as the rescuer of his son? The next part addresses the writer’s solitude
through which he finds himself as well as other solitary figures he adopts as substitute fathers.
Paul Auster in an interview with Larry McCaughey and Snide Gregory. The Art of Hunger, p 310
Authorial Presence
My writing was all about you; all I did there, after all,
was to bemoan what I could not bemoan upon your
Franz Kafka
Pères, ne l’oubliez pas, vos
enfants sont votre unique avenir.
Il dépend de vous que vous les
massacriez ou qu’ils vous sauvent
du néant : car vous ne vous sauverez
pas tout seuls, je vous le dis.23
Jean-Paul Sartre
no – I will not
give up
father – I
feel nothingness
invade me24
Stéphane Mallarmé
In his long letter to his father written in 1919, a thirty-six year old Franz Kafka expressed the
detachment he felt towards the man who charged him with ‘coldness, estrangements and
ingratitude.’25 The description of the troubled relationship he had with Hermann Kafka in his short life,
determines the language of the message that was however never delivered to its recipient. The
German speaking Jew, born in Prague in 1883, suffered immensely from his father’s domineering
authority, from his rules ‘that had been invented only for [him] and which [he] could, [he] did not know
why, never completely comply with.’26 Most of the time, his father was absent; he didn’t share his life
with his family as he was too occupied with his job. His presence however made Kafka feel
uncomfortable, afraid even. He retreated into his own literary world that he fills with autobiographical
elements, spent nights rendering his life into novels that hold a nightmarish quality.
The young novelist opposed Hermann Kafka’s ‘aversion’ to his writing and ‘to everything that
was connected with it.’ Instead, he dealt with this rejection by charging his prose with imposing figures
that refer to the man who could be so disheartening in his behaviour towards his son. Kafka’s texts
reflect his statement that ‘the revolt of the son against the father is one of the primeval themes of
literature, and an even older problem in the world.’27 According to his close literary friend Max Brod,
Kafka wanted to lump all his writing together under the banner ‘attempt to get away from my father.’ 28
The act of writing enabled Kafka to digest his inner loathing against his father. All his heroes are to
Franz Kafka ‘Letter to My Father’. Armstrong, Raymond. Kafka and Pinter: Shadow Boxing. London: Macmillan Press
Ltd., 1999, p 1
Fathers: don’t forget that your sons are your sole future. Whether you massacre them or they save you from
nothingness depends on you. You won’t save yourselves alone, this I say to you.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. ‘Le droit à l’insoumission’. Dossier des 121, Paris: nod. p 32 in Harvey, Robert. Search for a Father:
Sartre, Paternity and the Question of Ethics. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1991, p 3
Auster, Paul, translation of Mallarmé’s ‘A Tomb for Anatole’, in ‘The Book of Memory’, p 120
Kafka, Franz. ‘Letter to My Father,’ Translated by Ernst Kaiser and
Eithne Wilkins; revised by Arthur S. Wensinger, Copyright Schocken Books Inc.
Franz Kafka in Conversations with Kafka. Gustav Janouch in Kafka and Pinter: Shadow Boxing.
Kafka and Pinter: Shadow Boxing, p 5
some extent versions of himself: weak, abandoned, insecure and threatened by their fathers’ abusive
dominance. In The Metamorphosis for instance, the father treats his son Gregor Samsa like vermin
when the latter awakes as huge insect one morning; an alien prospect that can be read as allegory for
Kafka’s final subjection to become a writer, the existence with which his father dissents. Samsa Sr.
punishes Gregor for crawling along the walls by chasing him back into his room and excluding him
from the family life. Although he is not responsible for his peculiar state, Gregor feels guilty for
upsetting his father. In fact, Kafka always excuses his father’s behaviour and blames himself for
Hermann’s outbreaks: ‘you were perhaps more cheerful before you were disappointed by your
children, especially by me, and were depressed at home.’29 A similar behaviour is admitted in ‘Portrait
of an Invisible Man’ when Auster, in his last attempt to understand his father, says: ‘I realise now that I
must have been a bad son. Or if not particularly bad, then at least a disappointment, a source of
confusion and sadness.’ (64)
Kafka was also worried about not pleasing his father, which must have deteriorated his health
problems. He, like Auster, fuses autobiographical facts with fiction. In The Metamorphosis, Kafka
alludes to his own situation: the father (un)intentionally causes Gregor’s death when he hits the latter
with an apple as he fights what his son had turned into. Gregor is a feeble creature that, like Kafka
who died of lung tuberculosis at an early age, slowly perishes away in solitude. Auster states that ‘in
the public mind Kafka was Gregor Samsa of The Metamorphosis […] his life and work were
inseparable.’30 Considering Kafka’s letters and fictions, the father always personifies the evil character
or stands in close connection to the author’s despair. Kafka, in his life as in his writing, was too weak
to confront the adversary and rather stood in the shadow of this tyrannical man who never offered any
affection to his son. In Letter to My Father, Kafka tries to understand why he was so distant:
I cannot believe I was particularly difficult to manage; I cannot believe that a kindly
word, a quiet taking by the hand, a friendly look, could not have got me to do anything
that was wanted of me. Now you are, after all, basically a charitable and kind-hearted
person, but not every child has the endurance and fearlessness to go on searching
until it comes to the kindliness that lies beneath the surface.
Kafka went on searching for this affection to find an explanation for Herrmann’s emotional withdrawal
until his death. Different biographical accounts on Kafka demonstrate that, like Sam Auster, Hermann
Kafka’s behaviour is marked by a difficult childhood that obstructed him from forming a bond with his
son. And like Auster, Kafka wrote to understand why and how this has an effect on his own life. But
just like Sam Auster, Hermann Kafka never read his son’s personal message to him, and thus both
never realized the painful moments their sons endured.
It seems a common denominator that a father’s deserting behaviour causes a written reaction in
some authors, furthermore demonstrated by Jean-Paul Sartre, who clearly abhorred his father.
According to Sartre, who wrote unflaggingly about paternity, the latter ‘signifies a way of looking upon
the other, a way of perceiving, a regard -in the sense of thought, attention, concern, respect,
Kafka, Franz. Letter to My Father
Auster, Paul. ‘Kafka’s Letters’, The Art of Hunger. Essays. Prefaces. Interviews. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press,
1991, 126-7
deference- from each of the two vantage points.’
Auster could never expect this attitude from his
father, nor did Sartre; in their relationships the sons’ admiration for the father was hardly returned.
When Sartre wrote: ‘there is no good father, that’s the rule. Don’t lay blame on men but on the bond of
paternity which is rotten. To make children: nothing better; to have them: what iniquity! Had my own
father lived, he would have lain on me full length and crushed me,’ 32 one can clearly sense his
rejection of paternity. Sartre truly despised his father and refused to become one, which doesn’t
however object him from being a literary father figure for his pupils later in his life.33 Unlike other
people, Sartre declared his father’s death, in The Words, as a blessing that allowed him to escape
paternal dominance. Whether Sartre however rejoiced, as he insists in The Words at not being
emburdened by a father or whether he suffered from his father’s premature death and therefore
created a fatherless world remains unclear, in his life as in his writing.
It is a different kind of distress considering the literature of the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé.
This time the perspective shifts from the author as a neglected son to a deserted father who describes
the loss of his child. When his son Anatole died at a young age, Mallarmé found retreat only in his
writing that led him to compose the poem ‘A tomb for Anatole’. In this act of mourning, he tries to
recreate his son through words, to mark the absence his son left, to express his sorrows and bury
them, as the title suggests. Anatole meant everything for Mallarmé ‘who considered himself largely
responsible for the child’s suffering’ which he recorded in various letters to his literary friends such as
Robert de Montesquiou and John Payne. 34 Auster feels drawn to Mallarmé. He perfectly identifies with
Mallarmé’s sorrows as he encountered similar anxieties: the fear of not being a good father and the
vulnerability when death approaches. Fortunately, unlike Anatole, Auster’s son Daniel did not die but
fell severely ill. The dreadful memories of his son in hospital return to him when he reads the poem
Mallarmé wrote at the bedside of his dying son. Auster wants to confront his fright and share it with the
same feelings his French mentor endured. He therefore translates this and other poems by Mallarmé
into his own language. Here, he grasps the full meaning of fatherhood; he realises through his son’s
near death what it means to be/have a father, a feeling he never before experienced:
It was precisely this idea, A. realized that moved him to return to these texts. The act
of translating them was not a literary exercise. It was a way for him to relive his own
moment of panic in the doctor’s office that summer: it is too much for me, I cannot
face it. For it was only at that moment, he later came to realize, that he had finally
grasped the full scope of his own fatherhood: the boy’s life meant more to him than his
own: if dying were necessary to save his son, he would be willing to die. And it was
therefore only in that moment of fear that he had become, once and for all, the father
of his son. (BoM, 116-7)
I want to suggest a different perception from which to interpret Auster’s appeal to translate
Mallarmé’s poetic fragments: that of Paul Auster as a son. In his introduction to a collection of
Mallarmé’s poetry, Auster explains: ‘Mallarmé would take it upon himself to give the boy the one
indomitable thing he was capable of giving: his thought. He would transmute Anatole into words and
Harvey, Roberts. Search for a Father: Sartre, Paternity and the Question of Ethics. Michigan: University of Michigan
Press, 1991, p 24
Jean-Paul Sartre in Search for a Father, p 30
Harvey, Roberts. Search for a Father, p 12
The Red Notebook, p 79
thereby prolong his life. He would literally resurrect him, since the work of building a tomb –a tomb of
poetry- would obliterate the presence of death […] it was as though he had not died. He was still alive
in his father, and it was only when Mallarmé himself died that the boy would die as well.’ (TRN, 85-6)
Is Auster here projecting his own approach to literature on Mallarmé’s poem? Auster wants to keep his
father alive through words, which I have demonstrated in the first part. 35 His reason for marking36 him
into existence reflects Mallarmé who believes responsible for Anatole’s fatal illness: Auster feels guilty!
He cannot bear the thought that through his father’s death he survives as an author. As long as he
keeps writing about his father, he slowly repays the debt he owes and swallows his absence. He
therefore fills his fiction with stories that depart from his own, telling his and his father’s life.
Why turn to Mallarmé, Sartre, Kafka and authors to follow, when this work discusses Auster and
the father figure? It is no coincidence that the above-mentioned authors have a troubled relationship
with fatherhood, which they also process in their literary works. And it is certainly no coincidence that
these authors, and many more, appear right through Auster’s fiction. Not only do their stories and lives
interest the American author and inspire his texts. Auster believes that ‘through writing we can choose
other fathers to compensate for our own.’37 And this is what he continuously does: he finds
replacement for his father’s emotional distance by consulting men that are in a similar position to him.
It is not only their shared interest in writing that Auster feels attracted to. He sees most of the different
writers listed in his work as his role models, his literary fathers who stimulate his desire to write and
thus fill the void his own father bestowed upon him. With some of them, Auster even had a closer
relationship. He met up with Beckett and Jabès in Paris, for instance. In ‘The Book of Memory’ –his
dedication to his literary influences from which he quotes liberally- Auster speaks of his own isolation
as a writer: ‘every book is an image of solitude.’ (145) However, even while separated from his son,
divorced from his wife, abandoned by his father, he, A., consciously shares this solitude:
A. sits down in his room to translate another man’s book, and it is as though he were
entering that man’s solitude and making it his own. […] It is no longer solitude, but a
kind of companionship. Even though there is only one man in the room, there are two.
Conversely to what he says about the impossibility of entering his father’s solitude, (PoIM, 20)
here, Auster forms an imaginary but solid bond with an author who also experiences these isolated
moments: decoding the words of another writer is a profoundly intimate form of relationship, in which
the translator often finds identities melting. Even though Auster is the initiator and sole bearer of that
relationship, he nevertheless feels understood; a feeling that cannot be taken away from him as Auster
is in control. He is no longer dependent on someone –the father- for recognition, but he instead
creates a similar kind of recognition for himself. In this abstract space that he conceives through
converting words that do not belong to him, he is no longer alone, but replaces his loneliness through
words and concurrently becomes connected to something beyond language. Like he speaks of his
father to locate him, Auster speaks through all the literary figures that inhabit him. If translating other
For direct comparison, see page 9
Marking is here understood in the Austin sense of performative language. In his Speech Act Theory, Austin argues
that language has the power to bring into being what it names. Austin, J. L., How to do Things with Words, Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962
Bruckner, Pascal, Beyond the Red Notebook¸ p31
people’s work fills the absence Auster experiences with presence, writing through and of other authors
has a similar effect. I want to suggest that, because of his father’s abandonment, Auster turns to
literary authors as compensation. These authors whom he admires, who teach him and whom he feels
connected to, provide him with an impression of fatherhood, the only one he knows. I now
demonstrate the presence of these literary fathers in Auster’s text and the way he uses their
vocabulary to express his devotion.
Kafkaesque is the label to describe some of the unpleasant incidents that Auster intentionally
cites in his fiction. The nightmarish situations of Nashe’s imprisonment behind the wall in The Music of
Chance, evokes Kafka’s The Great Wall of China. Auster’s version has another uncanny quality to it,
as its publication coincides with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The absurdity of Barber falling into a freshly
dug grave from which he is lifted by a crane, just before revealing his fatherhood to Fogg, could stem
from Kafka’s pen. Anna Blume’s escape from the apocalyptical city in The Country of Last Things,
especially after surviving the human butchery, is another example. The origins of the speaking dog in
Timbuktu lie in The Metamorphosis. Then there is the story Orr writes in Oracle Night, about a
character who is trapped in the remote ‘Bureau of Historical Preservation’ –a library full of telephone
books- and no one to answer his calls. Quinn’s anonymity in ‘City of Glass’, confirmed by the
telephone company’s refusal to acknowledge his existence. Or else, his flat occupied by a stranger
after he withdraws into an alley to observe an already dead person. Especially the ending of The
Brooklyn Follies foreshadows grotesque circumstances when Nathan walks the streets of New York
moments before the two planes hit the towers of the World Trade Centre. Auster and Kafka both
manage to present the most unbelievable things as mundane. Even their narrative style is
comparable, especially when Auster adopts Kafka’s lugubrious convention of referring to himself in the
third person as in ‘The Book of Memory’, or implicating himself in the story like in ‘City of Glass’.
Another feature Auster shares with Kafka is his constant presence. Auster’s life is filtered in his
work. ‘Writing is an activity that helps me to relieve some pressure caused by these buried secrets.
Hidden memories, traumas, childhood scars-there is no question that novels emerge from these
inaccessible parts of ourselves.’38 His autobiographical fictions often describe events that have left an
impression on him, mainly that of loss. References to Auster’s first unhappy marriage, the inevitable
divorce and the perfect relationship he enjoys with his second wife, appear in a few of Auster’s fictions.
And then not to mention: the missing father, the deserted son. However, more remarkable is that every
single work includes allusions to at least one of his literary role models that have, in some way
affected his life. Auster’s range of influences is not limited to authors suffering from troubled parental
relationships but he is self-conscious of his literary heritage. He extends his selection of father figures
only to worship them in his many prefaces, critical essays and translations on Mallarmé, Melville,
Hawthorne, Joubert, Jabès, Borges, Sartre, Raleigh and many more. 39 The way he evokes his literary
idols in his fictions varies: either directly through their names, references to their works, or by adopting
their writing style. Representatives of the American Renaissance, French Symbolists and modern
The Red Notebook, p 123
All these texts can be found in Auster’s Collected Prose. New York: Picador, 2003
writers -such as Beckett, Proust, Collodi, Thoreau to name but a few- are part of his collection of
literary icons whose works he fuses with his own. When asked about his favourite writers, Auster
directly affirms: ‘of prose writers, unquestionably Kafka and Beckett. They both had a tremendous hold
over me. […] Of older writers, there were Hölderlin and Leopardi, the essays of Montaigne, and
Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which has remained a great source for me.’40 The effects literary figures have
on Auster are obvious in yet another guise: many of his fictional characters are in fact authors
themselves who allude to the stories Auster is mostly intrigued by.
Paul Auster, an author in ‘City of Glass’ for example, takes Don Quixote apart and explains
Quinn –a creator of detective stories that he composes under a pseudonym- the nature of his critical
text. The dropout literature student Tom Wood compares Hawthorne and Poe in his dissertation; (BF)
two writers Auster is fascinated by. Wood later tells the story of Kafka consoling a little girl by sending
her a letter each day in the name of the doll that she has lost. Sidney Orr is a novelist in Oracle Night,
who develops his own version of a story that his closest friend, literary mentor and renowned author
Trause alerts him to. Benjamin Sachs, a talented author, debates his career with the narrator Peter
Aaron (note the initials) who struggles to finish his own book in Leviathan –a novel Auster dedicated to
Don DeLillo. The title refers to Melville’s Moby Dick as Leviathan signifies sea monster. In The New
York Trilogy especially, authors invade Auster’s language: Auster borrows the name William Wilson
from his American predecessor Poe to develop the genre of the detective fiction (CoG). Fanshawe,
another author, carries the same name as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s first book title (LR). In ‘Ghosts’, Blue
and Black compose each other’s biographies while observing one another; a story inspired by Walden.
What stands out mostly in The New York Trilogy however, is the struggle with language that Auster
adopts from Samuel Beckett. The presence of the Irish writer is in fact strongly felt: ‘The influence of
Beckett was so strong that I couldn’t see my way beyond it,’ Auster admits. 41
Beckett is famous for his bare-boned, absurd and insignificant texts that use language in such
an abstract, contradictory and nihilistic manner to complicate the process of understanding. Beckett’s
‘literature of the unword’ is an attack upon verbal communication. Even some of his titles, like Texts for
Nothing or The Unnameable, reveal what the text is about: nothing. Beckett, who like Auster lived in
Paris, defines his work as ‘the expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to
express, no power to express, together with the obligation to express.’ 42 This reveals Beckett’s
frustration towards language: he is aware that the only human means of communication is deemed
unsuccessful. Texts for Nothing especially demonstrates this destruction of representation.
Name, no, nothing is nameable, tell, no, nothing can be told, what then, I don’t know, I
shouldn’t have begun.43
I have very little (perhaps nothing) to say to you, I have very little (perhaps nothing) to
show you. You will learn nothing from it; you will gain no moral profit from it; it will not
Auster in an interview with Joseph Mallia. The Red Notebook, p 104
Beckett, Samuel. Proust, and Three Dialogues with George Duthuit. London: Calder 1965, p108
Beckett, Samuel. Texts for Nothing, translated from the original French by the author. London: Calder and Boyars,
1974, p53
even enhance your life with that delight or superior pleasure with which you have
been led to believe, artists have the obligation to provide you. 44
Language no longer operates as a vehicle for meaningful expression. In Beckett’s work, language
presents an endless stream of signifiers, signifying insufficiently. His words disappear into sheer
materiality; they become empty deposits of ink on paper. Peter Stillman’s expedition to find a pure
language reveals a similar attitude. The search evokes Beckett’s literary investigations, especially
when Stillman explains his idea of language:
Yes. A language that will at last say what we have to say. For our words no longer
correspond to the world. When things were whole, we felt confident that our words
could express them. But little by little these things have broken apart, shattered,
collapsed into chaos. And yet our words have remained the same. Hence, every time
we try to speak of what we see, we speak falsely, distorting the very thing we are
trying to represent. […] Consider a word that refers to a thing- “ umbrella”, for
example. […] Not only is an umbrella a thing, it is a thing that performs a function. […]
What happens when a thing no longer performs its function? […] the umbrella ceases
to be an umbrella. It has changed into something else. The word, however, has
remained the same. Therefore it can no longer express the thing.’(CoG, 77-8)
In his mission, Stillman literary walks the letters that form ‘The Tower of Babel’ to strip language
of its unnecessary vocabulary and reduce it to meaningful fragments. Conversely to Beckett, whose
texts destroy the signifying potential of language, Stillman tries to return to it. In a prescribed area in
New York, he wants to discover the principle by which words correspond to the things they name. His
goal is to fill the gap between signifier and signified by in effect reinstating the instrumental function of
language. Stillman’s endeavour fails; Auster leaves the reader with a literary subject living a Waiting
for Godot-like existence. Auster has rightly understood the way in which language as a meaningcreating tool fails. However, he does not offer a solution: Stillman commits suicide before he can
finalize his attempt to fix language. Auster analyses, exemplifies and sometimes even explains
structuralist and poststructuralist thinking in his subject’s utterances, especially when they are
searching for identity and meaning in their existence. In the final pages of ‘The Locked Room’,
language reaches its non-signifying climax in a Beckettian manner:
All the words were familiar to me, and yet they seemed to have been put together
strangely, as though their final purpose was to cancel each other out. I can think of no
other way to express it. Each sentence erased the sentence before it, each paragraph
made the next paragraph impossible. (313)
This linguistic skepticism has another connotation as the self-destructive words simultaneously erase
the person whom they refer to –Fanshawe- as well as the person reading them –the narrator. In ‘The
Locked Room’, Fanshawe, whose identity he is forced to adopt, directs the narrator’s existence. When
he senses the impasse in Fanshawe’s final words, his assumed identity disappears at the same
moment Fanshawe dies. The narrator is alone again when telling Fanshawe’s story, his story. So is
Paul Auster. The words used to explain Fanshawe’s abandoned situation recall this signifying absence
in Auster’s work: the absence of his father, which he feels equally connected to as the narrator to
Fanshawe. Be it through Beckett, Kafka, or his different characters, Auster uses everyone’s language
to express his solitude that he creates in response to the fatherly absence. He however slowly learns –
Bersani, Leo and Dutoit. Ulysses. Arts of Impoverishment: Beckett, Rothko, Resnais. Cambridge Massachusetts,
1993, p3
triggered by the investigation in ‘Portrait of an Invisible Man’- that language cannot bring a person into
being; that it can never fully deliver the world since language is always bestowed with a certain
absence. In Auster’s world, the father, his father, signifies this inexpressible absence; an absence that
he fights against. He therefore seems to open up his narrative to another dimension in which authors
that have influenced him, tell their story through Auster. Each book is a tribute of a writer to all those
who have helped him create. Most of these literary figures are combined in ‘The Book of Memory’, the
text he wrote in connection to his dead father about which he says:
‘You don’t begin to understand your connection to others until you are alone. And the
more intensely you are alone, the more deeply you plunge into a state of solitude, the
more deeply you feel that connection. It isn’t possible for a person to isolate himself
from other people. No matter how apart you might find yourself in a physical sense
you discover that you are inhabited by others. Your language, your memories, even
your sense of isolation- every thought in your head has been born from your
connection with others. This is what I was trying to explore in ‘The Book of Memory’,
to examine both sides of the word ‘solitude’. I felt as though I were looking down to the
bottom of myself, and what I found there was more than just myself –I found the
world. That’s why the book is filled with so many references and quotations, in order
to pay homage to all the others inside me. On the one hand, it’s a work about being
alone; on the other hand, it’s about community. That book has dozens of authors, and
I wanted them all to speak through me. In the final analysis, ‘The Book of Memory’ is a
collective work.’45
Paul Auster in an interview with Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory. The Red Notebook. p 144
How to get out of the room that is the book?
Paul Auster must accept this abandonment he describes in The Invention of Solitude to validate his
literary existence. Auster’s identity as an author is defined through his father’s past, his behaviour, his
absence and what Auster creates out of it, which he tries to identify with in all his writing but especially
in The Invention of Solitude.
Like everyone else, he craves a meaning. Like everyone else, his life is so fragmented
that each time he sees a connection between two fragments he is tempted to look for
a meaning in that connection. The connection exists. But to give it a meaning, to look
beyond the bare fact of its existence, would be to build an imaginary world inside the
real world, and he knows it would not stand. At the bravest moments, he embraces
meaninglessness as the first principle. […] He is in his room in Varick Street. His life
has no meaning. There is the world, and the things one encounters in the world, and
to speak of them is to be in the world. (158)
Auster acknowledges the past, although he still does not fully get to the core of his father and
therefore carries on dealing with it in the present. His way of mourning the father’s death is by
continuing to write. He withdraws to his prose to sense his father and all the other literary figures that
live inside him, shape him, those he tributes. The image of the solitary artist sitting in a room and
contemplating absence is the setting for Auster’s stories, his story. His work is a celebration of
enclosed rooms in which the subject gives birth, in essence, to himself through other characters; like in
a mental uterus. ‘Memory as a room, as a body, as a skull, as a skull that encloses the room in which
a body sits. As in the image: ‘a man sat alone in his room.’ (BoM, 93)
What Auster in fact looks for is his own identity. An identity that is dependent on the father whom
he searches in his writing through different approaches. All his attempts to shape the image of the
father are after all to shape the image of himself as a writer. The father is the starting point from which
he can establish his genealogy. His death has triggered this quest that he develops in his writing. He is
not defined solely through his father, but all the other father figures are inherent to his identity as a
Every writer is trapped by his obsessions. You don’t choose your subjects- they
choose you, and once you enter a book, you’re powerless to escape. […] And in the
end, all you really discover is yourself. Again and again.’ 46
In retrospect, Auster requires this solitude to realize his father’s absence that stimulates his
desire to write. ‘Is it true that one must dive to the depths of the sea and save one’s father to become a
real boy?’ (BoM, 83) As cruel as it sounds, his father’s death is Auster’s first step toward resurrection,
and he is aware of that. When his father was still alive, Auster never felt the urge to see him, nor
notice that he had so little in common with him. It is only through death that he acknowledges this
absence, which from then on surrounds him like the belly of the whale; an image Auster mentions
sufficiently in ‘The Book of Memory’. The popular mythology of the whale that swallowed Jonah and
saved him from drowning, references Auster’s life. When Auster writes ‘Jonah flees. He books a
passage aboard a ship,’ (133) Auster remembers his escape to Paris to become a writer. However,
without success: ‘Jonah has ‘gone down into the sides of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep.’
Sleep, then, as the ultimate withdrawal from the world. Sleep as an image of solitude.’ (133) His
‘sleeping’ career –Auster never publishes anything in Paris that renowned him fame- suddenly awakes
Paul Auster in an interview with
when he is thrown into the sea, like Jonah, and saved by the whale. This stands in direct connection to
the father’s death. At the moment he dies, Auster is swallowed by the fish which he claims ‘is by no
means an agent of destruction. The fish is what saves him from drowning in the sea.’ (133) Hereafter,
he realizes the world only within the belly of the fish. The fish stands for the father who saves him from
drowning. Auster’s father literally swallows him; the writer’s thoughts only turn around his father:
The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about,
the weeds were wrapped about my head.’ In the depth of that solitude […] Jonah
encounters the darkness of death. […] And when the fish then vomits Jonah onto dry
land, Jonah is given back to life, as if the death he had found in the belly of the fish
were a preparation for new life, a life that has passed though death, and therefore a
life that can at last speak. For death has frightened him into opening his mouth. ‘I
cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of
hell he cried I, and thou heardest my voice.’ In the darkness of the solitude that is
death, the tongue is finally loosened, and at the moment it begins to speak, there is an
answer. And even if there is no answer, the man has begun to speak. (133-4)
Is Auster here projecting his own view of literature onto this imaginary story that also recalls The
Adventures of Pinocchio? This motif of dying to be reborn, of descending into the depths in order to
rise spiritually, symbolises the resurrection of Auster’s writing career through his father’s death that
saves him from drowning. Auster uses his fiction to write his story.
Paul Auster’s desire to come to terms with his past that is dominated by the father’s absence, is
apparent in every of his approaches to literature: be it by writing directly about his father as
demonstrated in the first part, referring to his fundamental search in the guise of different characters in
his fiction, as highlighted in the second part, or by compensating for his father’s absence and choosing
his own father figures in authors that have influenced his work in the third part. The act of writing is his
way of dealing with everything that affects him in life, and his father will always remain one of the main
subjects for him. Auster’s statement about Mallarmé ‘it was only when Mallarmé himself died that the
boy would die as well,’ (TRN, 86) reflects his personal attitude: as long as Auster keeps writing, his
father will stay alive through his pen. Nevertheless, Auster will always remain in his father’s debt, no
matter how intensively he tries to resurrect the bond he never had with his departed parent. A son can
never stop paying for the death of the father who gave him life.
Word count: 15053
Armstrong, Raymond. Kafka and Pinter: Shadow Boxing. London: MacMillan Press Ltd., 1999
Auster Paul. The Invention of Solitude. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1988
Auster, Paul. Collected Prose: Autobiographical writings, true stories, critical essays, prefaces and
collaborations with artists. New York: Picador, 2003
Auster, Paul. In The Country of Last Things. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1987
Auster, Paul. Leviathan. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1992
Auster, Paul. Moon Palace. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1989
Auster, Paul. Mr. Vertigo. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1994
Auster, Paul. Oracle Night. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2004
Auster, Paul. The Art of Hunger. Essays. Prefaces. Interviews, Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1991
Auster, Paul. The Book of Illusions. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2003
Auster, Paul. The Brooklyn Follies. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2005
Auster, Paul. The Music of Chance. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1990
Auster, Paul. The New York Trilogy. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1987
Auster, Paul. The Red Notebook. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1995
Auster, Paul. Timbuktu. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1999
Auster, Paul. Travels in the Scriptorium. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2006
Austin, J.L. How to do Things with Words. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962
Barone, Dennis. Beyond the Red Notebook: Essays on Paul Auster. ed., Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 1995
Barthes, Roland. Image-Music-Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. Fontana/Collins, 1977
Baudrillard, Jean. America. Trans. Chris Turner. London: Versa, 1989
Beckett, Samuel. Proust, and Three Dialogues with George Duthuit. London: Calder, 1965
Beckett, Samuel. Texts for Nothing. Trans. from the original French by the author, London: Calder and
Boyars, 1974
Benjamin, Walter. ’Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of his Death’. Illuminations. London:
Pimlico, 1999
Bersani, Leo and Dutoit, Ulysses. Arts of Impoverishment: Beckett, Rothko, Resnais. Cambridge
Massachusetts, 1993
Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: A Politics on Performance. New York: Routledge, 1997
Collodi, Carlo. The Adventures of Pinocchio. Trans. Ann Lawson Lucas. Oxford & New York: Oxford
University Press, 1996
Davis, Robert Con. The Fictional Father: Lacanian Readings of the Text. ed., The University of
Massachusetts Press: Amherst, 1981
Derrida, Jacques. ‘Signature Event Context’. trans. A. Bass in Peggy Kamuf (ed.) A Derrida Reader:
Between the Blinds. Columbia University Press, 1991
Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference. trans. Alain Bass. London: Routledge, 1978
Flares, Angel. The Kafka Problem. ed., New York: new directions, printed by American Book-Stratford
Press, 1946
Foucault, Michel. ’What is an Author?’ Trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon in Language,
Counter-Memory, Practice. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977
Fredman, Stephen. Poet's Prose: The Crisis in American Verse. 2nd. ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP,
Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. 1900. Trans. Joyce Crick. Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1999
Harvey, Roberts. Search for a Father: Sartre, Paternity and the Question of Ethics. Michigan:
University of Michigan Press, 1991
Herzogenrath, Bernd. An Art of Desire. Reading Paul Auster. Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 1999
Jabès, Edmond. From the Book to the Book: An Edmond Jabès Reader. Trans. Waldrop, Rosmarie.
Hanover, NH: Wesleyan UP, 1991
Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis and other stories. ed. by Stanley Appelbaum. Dover: Dover
Publications, Inc., 1996
Kamuf, Peggy. A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds. Columbia University Press, 1991
Lacan, Jacques. ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in
Psychoanalytical Experience’. Écrits: A Selection¸ London: Routledge, 1977
Mailloux, Peter. A Hesitation before Birth: The Life of Franz Kafka. London and Toronto: Associated
University Press, 1989
Mallarmé, Stéphane. Ouvres Complètes. ed. by Bertrand Marchal. Paris: Gallimard, 2003
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker. New
York: Norton, 1967
Sarte, Jean-Paul. Words. Trans. from the French by Irène Cléphane. London: H. Hamilton, 1964
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Sarte in the Seventies: interviews and essays. Trans. from the French by Paul
Auster and Lynda Davies, London: Deutsch, 1978
Varvogli, Aliki. The World that is the Book: Paul Auster’s Fiction. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press,
West, Rebecca. ’The Persistent Puppet: Pinocchio’s Heirs in Contemporary Fiction and Film’.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, Oxford: Blackwell, 1958
Ash, Beth Sharon. ‘Walter Benjamin: Ethnic Fears, Oedipal Anxieties, Political Consequences’. New
German Critique, No. 48. (Autumn, 1989), pp. 2-42.
Chénetier, Marc. ‘Around Moon Palace. A conversation with Paul Auster.' 1996 automne
Cohen, Josh. ‘Desertions: Paul Auster, Edmond Jabès, and the Writing of Auschwitz’. The Journal of
the Midwest Modern Language Association, Vol. 33, No. 3. (Autumn, 2000 – Winter, 2001), pp. 94-107
Contat, Michel; Waters, Alyson. ‘The Manuscript in the Book: A Conversation’. Yale French Studies,
No. 89, Drafts. (1996), pp. 160-187
Dimovitz, Scott A. ‘Public Personae and the Private I: De-compositional Ontology in Paul Auster's The
New York Trilogy’. MFS Modern Fiction Studies, Volume 52 number 3, Fall 2006
Ford, Mark. ‘Inventions of Solitude: Thoreau and Auster’. Journal of American Studies, 33 (1999), 2,
Fowler, Doreen. ‘Faulkner's Return To The Freudian Father: Sanctuary Reconsidered’. MFS Modern
Fiction Studies, Volume 50, Number 2, Summer 2004
Holcombe, Garan. Reflections On the Work of Paul Auster
Jahshan, Paul. ‘Paul Auster’s Specters.' Journal of American Studies, 37 (2003), 3, 389–405 f 2003
Cambridge University Press
Kaplan, Carola M. ‘Absent Father, Passive Son: The Dilemma of Rickie Elliott in The Longest
Journey’. Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 33, No. 2. (Summer, 1987), pp. 196-210
Lavender, William. ‘The Novel of Critical Engagement: Paul Auster's "City of Glass". Contemporary
Literature, Vol. 34, No. 2. (Summer, 1993), pp. 219-239
Little, William G. ‘Nothing to Go on: Paul Auster's "City of Glass". Contemporary Literature, Vol. 38,
No. 1. (Spring, 1997), pp. 133-163
Merivale, Patricia. ‘Review: The Austerized Version’. Contemporary Literature, Vol. 38, No. 1. (Spring,
1997), pp. 185-197
Osteen, Mark. ’Becoming Incorporated: Spectacular Authorship and DeLillo's Mao II ’. Modern Fiction
Studies 45.3 (1999)
Perloff, Marjorie. "Between Verse and Prose: Beckett and the New Poetry." The Dance of the Intellect:
Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985. 135-54
Shiloh, Ilana. ‘A Place Both Imaginary and Realistic: Paul Auster's "The Music of Chance".
Contemporary Literature, Vol. 43, No. 3. (Autumn, 2002), pp. 488-517
Walker, Joseph S. ‘Criminality And (Self)Discipline: The Case Of Paul Auster’. MFS Modern Fiction
Studies, Volume 48, number 2, Summer 2002
Walter H. Sokel, Kafka as a Jew,
Auster, Paul, Blue in the Face. directed by Wayne Wang, 1995
Auster, Paul, Lulu on the Bridge. directed by Paul Auster, 1998
Auster, Paul, Smoke. directed by Wayne Wang, 1995