Paul Auster – Travels in the Scriptorium
Auster’s book, I read last, explores metaphysical mazes, stories within stories and alienated geographies and personalities. It is a taut and cyclical conundrum that teases and taunts readers. It does not, as it might appear, transport you to a time and place so much as distort time and place. Chance and coincidence again in full right.
Travels in the Scriptorium is one of his strangest, althougth not really labyrinthine works, I have come across.
At times one is almost compelled to make notes to try to piece together the puzzle, to plot an exit or just orient oneself.
As for further details, well, one just has to trust Auster: “Our only task is to study the pictures as attentively as we can and refrain from drawing any premature conclusion,” he writes on the first page.
Auster is here wickedly self-referential, constantly playing little games that extend from one book to another. His characters, like his motifs, are recycled and reworked, but this is no criticism. Auster said recently that this book featured characters from earlier books as “I keep asking myself what happens to them after the novel ends”. Only an obsessive could pick up all the reference points. The title of the book is the second novel of a fictional character from a fictional movie in Auster’s The Book of Illusions but is also the title of an Auster movie due for release this year, and it was the name of a movie in the same book. And it is at the same time a travel into the scriptorium of Auster’s own writings.
Blank’s nurse, Anna Blum, who shares a mysteriously close relationship with the confused man, appeared first in the book In the Country of Last Things; her dead husband, David Zimmer, popped up in The Book of Illusions; and so on.
Here, I did some more work for you:
* Page 28: Mr. Blank is asked to wear white clothes at the request of Peter Stillman, Jr. (City of Glass).
* Page 79: Mr. Blank receives a phone call from his doctor, Samuel Farr (The Country of Last Things).
* Page 88: Dr. Farr tells Mr. Blank that the manuscript he has been reading was written by John Trause (Oracle Night).
It’s rich pickings for those working on Auster doctorates, I suppose, but just another mosquito buzz for the ordinary reader, the sort of annoying half-memory that disorients Blank.
So what are we to make of Paul Auster? His 13th novel, Travels in the Scriptorium, sounds suspiciously like he were attempting to distill the essence of his work. Or is he trying to tell something about the number 13 (don’t dismiss it; in The Music of Chance Auster outlined the personalities of several numbers, calling 10 “simpleminded” and 11 “an outdoorsman”)?
Auster says Scriptorium is kind of a fable, a work that “resonates with what’s happening in America today”. Are Americans obnubilated and imprisoned in a featureless present, above them a camera silently clicking and “producing eighty-six thousand four hundred still photos with each revolution of the earth”? Or are they pictured as the main character, knowing or suspecting about his past, that it consistis of nothing but a terrible wrong he has done to a group of people, some of whom visit him and one of whom cares? Is America the “Confederation” waging war against the “Alien Territories” through a devilish plot for no other reason than to secure its own shaky stability? Is America today nothing but a fiction in some cruel author’s head, ready to call “Sleep well, Mr. Blank. Lights out.” any time?
Whatever it is, the story begins in a mysterious room detached from time or place. The Protagonist, a Mr. Blank, is medicated and confused. Parts of the puzzle appear to fall into place as he reads an account of a man writing an account of another imprisoned man forced to write an account of political intrigue. Mr Blank is then asked to imagine the conclusion of the story.
It appears Mr Blank is a prisoner but, much like the characters in a Beckett play, he never manages to establish if this is true or not.An old man emerges from a mental fog with no memory of who or where he is. The protagonist, helpfully, is dubbed Mr Blank and Above him, in the
While the an starts to read, he is interrupted by a stream of visitors — a nurse, an ex-cop, a doctor — who begin asking him about his “operatives.” As operatives continue to barge in on Mr. Blank, telling stories about those who have just left, the relationships pile on top of one another until every fact becomes, in fact, another person’s story.
Without a-ha recognition at a name like “Fanshawe,” entering and exiting characters blur, and two rather tepid forms of entertainment remain. First there are Mr. Blank’s daily proceedings, which are quite juvenile; at one point he farts and says “Hopalong Casidy rides again!” Second there is the story-within-a-story that Mr. Blank finds on his desk, a half-baked mystical Western about “the Confederation” and “the Alien Territories.”
At times there is a distracting over-description (“He savors the bulk and softness of Sophie’s somewhat pendulous but noble mammaries”) and questionable slang (“two shakes of a cat”). Careful reading is necessary to acquit some phrases; a tautology like “the word all is an absolute term” becomes acceptable only if one remembers its pair, “the word old is a flexible term,” 23 pages back. Auster is probably having fun, and it can come off as a little rude, for my taste.
As Mr. Blank’s day drags on, things do not go well. His visitors drug him, the manuscript that he’s reading ends abruptly, and someone plays a mean trick on him by moving things around in his room. But then he has a breakthrough: under the guidance of Dr. Farr, he is able to finish the tale of the Confederation and the Alien Territories. Taken as such, the entire setup — the scriptorium — might as well be an in-patient facility for writer’s block.
Yet, Travels in the Scriptorium poses deep and endlessly debatable questions, beyond any resemblance with modern America. Who is really in charge of the creative process: the artist or the art? Is writing a prison (Mr. Blank seems trapped in his room) or is it a paradise (he’s fed, clothed, and sexually serviced by one of his nurses)? Is there such a thing as truth, or are there only the fabrications of reckless writers?
Like a rap-album, where every song is a rip-off of a song that had come before, Paul Auster has at least the advantage of being able to rip off his own work in order to produce new meaning through intertextuality, as semantics call it.