This is my first reading of a work by Paul Auster. I had heard that it would be worth my while to investigate his books after I finished The Summer Without Men by his wife Siri Hustvedt. He has multiple entries on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list, so I thought I would start off with a novella to see what I was going to be getting.
My library edition runs to a mere 130 pages and it follows a day in the life of Mr Blank.
Mr Blank, it appears, suffers from amnesia rather along the lines of all the supporting cast from Groundhog Day*. He is in a room, but he does not know where. He does not know if he is locked in an asylum or a prison for his “treatment” or whether he has locked others out. We are taken through his ablutions, his interactions with a small range of other characters, his inability to control his bodily functions and a couple of minor sex scenes.
By page 30 I had worked out what, or who, Mr Blank is. The rest of the novella was spent waiting to see where it was all going to go and how it was going to terminate. The writing style provided easy reading, although the subject matter was for the most part very mundane and on occasion repetitive. It took until the very last page and a bit for the dénouement and I was correct in my earlier assessment of Mr Blank. There was a twist, of sorts, at the very death which I hadn’t quite foreseen.
After I finished reading I found myself wanting to go online and find out what others had thought of it, and what they had made of it all. I wondered if perhaps I was sitting in my own little lowbrow world missing lofty metaphysical points being made.
Interestingly it seems to split people down the middle – either people loved it or really couldn’t rate it. It also seems that the novella is a bit of an insiders joke with cross-references to characters from Auster’s other works. This, naturally, sailed right over my head.
I fall on the side of not rating it. For me the story read like a blow-by-blow description of a very boring train ride that promises to take you through interesting countryside but ends up a short trip to a dead-end siding in the railway yard. The end “plot twist” is meant to be chilling. I personally didn’t find it so. Perhaps it is just me. I can’t say that it makes me want to rush out and read more books by Auster, but I did get Timbuktu from the library at the same time in case I enjoyed the shorter work. I may get to reading that, but I won’t be perturbed if it goes back unread.
So my final rating? Two out of a possible five stars.
Don’t rush out to get this unless you know Auster’s work and can be in on the joke, or you simply love his work.
On a personal note, I have always loved the word Scriptorium. It was in the running for the name of a business that I once had an idea for a millennium ago now.
Oh, and I should share the one passage in the entire book that struck a chord with me.
So it goes as I work my way down the page, and each cluster of marks is a word, and each word is a sound in my head, and each time I write another word, I hear the sound of my own voice, even though my lips are silent.
* oh dear, I think I’ve just lowered the tone before we even begin.
Today in history: 1840 – Auguste Rodin was born. (French sculptor)
Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely.
– Auguste Rodin