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Auster and Descartes: reading 4321

Auster and Descartes: reading 4321

Paul Auster’s work has a certain resonance for me. I first discovered his books in that distant summer of 1991 when I made my first trip to America. In fact, I bought “In the country of last things” at the famous Strand bookshop in Manhattan. I read it on my ten-day greyhound bus journey to Socorro, New Mexico where I spent a long six months as a “summer intern” (finishing in December!) at New Mexico Tech. It was a strange and mysterious experience to read that book about the end of the world as the countryside unrolled around me back to zero and dissolved into desert. In the next six months out there I discovered Moon Palace and the New York Trilogy. It seems strange now because the first places and last places I saw on this trip to America was Manhattan, the deserts of New Mexico, and finally San Francisco, and all of those places play a central role Auster’s early novels.

Some mysterious trees, seen in the desert.

By the time I had arrived in the deserts of New Mexico it was hard enough for me tell the difference between what happens inside books and what happens outside them. Here’s an example: in one scene in Moon Palace the central character is instructed to take a trip to a Brooklyn art gallery, keeping his eyes closed, and only open then when he arrives before a certain painting — “Indian by moonlight”. I had of course never heard of this painting but I was curious, what did it look like? In the middle of my stay in New Mexico I made a trip back to New York and I knew I wanted to visit that Brooklyn Gallery and see the painting. I phoned the gallery. Do you have a painting called “Indian by Moonlight” in your collection, I asked them. Yes, they said. Could I see it? Well — no. You see, they explained to me, it’s in a part of the gallery where there are no lights. We could take you down there, but you couldn’t see it. So, even if I opened my eyes, I couldn’t see the painting.

Well, as they say — years passed. And now I find myself living in Paris. A few months ago in our local bookshop I chanced on an enormous tome, 4321 it said, and it was by Mr. Paul Auster. It had been years since I had read any novel by Paul Auster. I hesitantly picked it up. I wasn’t frightened of big books, but yes maybe I have less time now, so I didn’t buy it just then. But I was curious. A few weeks later when I learned I had to make a trip back to the Salpé hospital, I knew that afterwards I’d have enough time to read it. And so I did, all one thousand words in around a week, comfortably installed on the couch in the front room.

Proust on the left, Orwell on the right

Perhaps you’ve heard the central conceit of the book: Mr. Auster imagines three other versions of approximately his own life. Four stories in total. Only, the other three lives are cruelly cut short: the other Paul Austers do not make it to the end of the book. One is struck dead in his youth, more or less, by a bolt of lightning, an event which Auster himself narrowly avoided. That must have been hard for Auster to write especially because their deaths seem at times arbitrary and capricious. So, the book is a reflection on the different paths that lead to a life. Starting with the same raw material, the same inklings and desires, talents and failings, what would we become? Each Auster makes slightly different choices, meets different people, becomes a different person.

Paris (a city, one character says, I have never heard anyone say bad things about) lies near the heart of the story. There are the familiar tropes about writing books and creating works of art in that glittering city and Auster manages mostly to stay away from cliche. The history of America after the war is finely detailed and it struck me just how turbulent and unsettled those times were. Assassination of one public figure followed another, JFK and MLK and RFK. We think that our times are difficult now!

Auster paints on a very broad canvas but despite the sweep of history this is not Dellilo’s Underworld. At first, seeing the size of the book, I wondered, would this be Auster’s big book, the career-defining masterpiece? In the end, I am not so sure. If there had only been one of the four stories in the book, would it have been as interesting? Are any of the stories interesting in and of themselves? Although, really, the fascinating aspect here is just how each of the four stories interrelate to each other. The different Austers swelter in impossibly hot New York summers or travel to Paris for a week or a month or for years. His mother becomes a famous photographer or is a portrait photographer for families and weddings or closes her studio and abandons her art. Reading the book, one cannot help wondering what are the inflection points in one’s own life that might have a led to a different outcome. We have each have innate talents and gifts, how are they expressed differently?

Where it all ends

Finally, there is only one thread and there is only one writer. We are in Rue Descartes, Paris. This, we are told, is where the book was finished. Auster must surely know Milosz’ poem Bypassing rue Descartes. Rational systems destroyed the cities of Europe and killed millions. Weighted against that, to protect us, tradition and custom. For Auster, I suppose, on one side is our innate nature, on the other, our environment. It is impossible to know all these alternate lives that we may have led. This book, at least, makes us think about them.

“Surviving doomsday”

“Surviving doomsday”

For as long as I can remember I was interested in science. For the first ten years of my life, we lived across the street from the Cookstown public library, and I devoured anything I could find in there about science or astronomy. (I remember later hearing a Carl Sagan story where, as a child, he goes into his public library, asks for a book about the stars…and comes out with a book about Hollywood). There was only one bookshop in our town, and I’m happy to report that it’s still there today, but one day I was in there and saw this interesting book called Surviving doomsday. Interesting for me because there was a drawing of a mushroom cloud on the cover, and that was science, right? In the foreground, a man with a geiger counter in hand and wearing full radiation protection strode confidently away from the cloud. I managed to persuade my parents to buy it for me. I must have been around 8 or 9.

Yes, to survive Doomsday, all you need is a geiger counter and the right clothes.

This must have been 1979 or 1980, and we were in the depths of the cold war. I was fascinated by the book. Inside, one could find details concerning how to build a nuclear fallout shelter (but was there enough space in our Cookstown garden, I wondered) together with helpful hints concerning what colour to paint the walls. Of course, at this time there were programs on TV all the time imagining how nuclear war might unfold. I remember standing in our garden talking about one of these shows with my cousin. “Did you hear when they said they hit Lisburn?” I asked him. Lisburn is a suburb of Belfast. Of course it was Lisbon. At the age of 11, my knowledge of world capitals was very sketchy.

I brought the book to school to show it to my friends, I found it so fascinating. Our horrified teacher confiscated it from me. But I think I was too young to be horrified. Perhaps I didn’t fully appreciate yet what was in the world to be unhappy if it was no longer there. Later on, as a teenager, when we moved further out into the countryside, I made an extensive study of post-apocalyptic literature, discovering amongst other classic works George R. Stewarts’ Earth Abides, which describes America after the population is decimated by deadly virus. At the end of Stewarts’ book, a hundred or so years after the catastrophe, the survivors simply lose interest in rebuilding civilisation. What does it mean to them anyway?

And so today we are almost at the end of the second decade of the 21st century. We survived the cold war. A few days ago I learned that those folks at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (remember them?) have advanced their doomsday clock to only two minutes to midnight. Not even enough time to paint the fallout shelter walls the right colour … Let’s just hope that that particular solution to Fermi’s paradox (where are all the aliens) based on the durability of technological civilisations turns out not to be true, after all…

Henri Calet and Paris

Henri Calet and Paris

In the last twelve months I’ve discovered the French author Henri Calet. My friend Mr. Seagull gave me a copy of Les Grandes Largeurs and at the wonderful Festival des troquets last year, after a reading of Calet’s work, I bought a copy of Le tout sur le tout. It seems that Calet is almost unknown in the English-speaking world: he has no English Wikipedia entry, and no translations are in print. (Doing an image search I did find, amusingly, a few of his books in lurid covers from the 1950s). This is certainly a shame because Le tout sur le tout is certainly one of my favourite books about Paris. Calet, with contemporaries Jacques Yonnet and Bob Girard wrote about paris populaire, the life of ordinary people instead of film stars and politicians.

A small photograph of Calet

Le Tout sur le tout is a strange book: it is neither autobiography or novel. Calet’s own life was incredibly rich and chaotic. Born to an anarchist father, he ceaselessly changed job and apartment. Spectacularly, in 1930 he robbed the safe at his workplace in order to help pay for a horse-racing obsession. He fled to Montevideo, and it was actually during this escapade that the name ‘Henri Calet’ first appeared, on a false passport. The name he was born with was in fact “Raymond-Théodore Barthelmess” (harder to spell, that’s for sure). After much wandering he returned to Paris in the 1940s, and it was then that his literary and journalistic career really started.

At the puces de Vanves, a favourite haunt of Calet’s

But there is none of this in Le Tout sur le tout. Calet writes about his impossibly impoverished childhood and then his return to Paris after the war. I asked a friend who knows a lot about Paris if he had read the book and he said, “well, it’s a book for Parisians”, and indeed that is the case. Calet describes in detail the houses, and buildings he lived in and remembered, many of which are vanished today. But the streets are still there. In particular, Calet writes about the 14eme arr., here where I live, and how it was in the years immediately after the war. This part of the book has a melancholic, shocked, feeling to it, and you realise how much history and past a city like Paris can have, most of which has vanished with the people who lived with it. Calet certainly feels this, writing in particular about a Jewish girl he knew who was deported by the Vichy government.

In the Grand Largeurs he writes about the swings and roundabouts behind the 14eme’s town hall. But before those swings and roundabouts were there, in the 1920s, a man used to come from the countryside with his goats and ponies and offered rides to children. Or the fact that the large and noisy avenue du Général Leclerc (which used to be avenue d’Orleans) before the war was once a long permanent market with stalls and stands. After the war, everything vanished, and to Calet it seemed strangely empty and deserted.

Lady with a beard, seen at the puces de Vanves. Yours for only 200 euros!

Calet’s father was a hard-line anarchist, and changes jobs incessantly, usually either after picking a fight with the management or customers or by provoking strikes by organising the other workers. He is fired from serving ice-cream after spitting in the cones, because after all, ice-cream is for the bourgeois, right? This leads to a continual quest to find money to live, and the stories of pre-war poverty have an almost Irish quality of comedy and tragedy about them. There are many wonderful stories. Here’s my rough translation of one passage:

Another time, Petrus made fake two-franc coins in a room next to ours. But his work was amateurish: his coins blackened almost immediately. My Father’s job was to pass on the money, splitting the proceeds with his friend. But it wasn’t easy: he could only get rid of Petrus’ coins at dusk, in the short space of time when then shopkeepers hadn’t yet turned on the gas lighting.

And the melancholy lives with the comedy. In Calet’s time each year there was a celebration of life in the quartier, la Fete de la Lion. Calet writes that all he’d like in life is to stay in the 14eme and end his days at the retirement home on the avenue du Gereral Le Clerc, sitting outside on the pavement with them to watch the Fete du Lion. But it was not to be, he was dead only a few years after he finished Le Tout sur le tout.

Amongst the last words Calet wrote were the following:

« C’est sur la peau de mon cœur que l’on trouverait des rides. Je suis déjà un peu parti, absent. Faites comme si je n’étais pas là. Ma voix ne porte plus très loin. Mourir sans savoir ce qu’est la mort, ni la vie. Il faut se quitter déjà ? Ne me secouez pas. Je suis plein de larmes. »

or in my rough translation:

“My heart has wrinkles. I’m already a little gone, absent. Pretend I’m not there. My voice doesn’t carry very far. To die without knowing what is death or life. Already time to leave? Don’t shake me. I am full of tears. “

Calet’s popularity has risen here in recent years here in France. A new biography of his life is being planned. Perhaps it’s time to publish his books again in English?