Saturday, 13 March 2010

The Invention of Solitude

The first section of Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude is a moving meditation on fatherhood. Portrait of an Invisible Man gives expression to Auster’s feelings following the death of his father. Auster’s memories of his father are fragmentary. Auster writes to save his elusive father’s life from vanishing with him. The account is a brief scrap-book like collection of miniature essays, incomplete thoughts and even lists of unconnected memories. There is a strong emphasis throughout both parts of the book on coincidence. There are dramatic coincidences, such as a family album that is totally blank inside (Auster’s father also appears to be somewhat empty on the inside) and incredible coincidences such as the odometer of his father’s car reading 67, the age at which his father died. However, what interests me most about the first section of this book is the urgency of Auster’s writing and his response to death itself.
Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death explains that our insides are foreign to us. ‘(Man) doesn’t know who he is, why he was born, what he is doing on the planet, what he is supposed to do, what he can expect.’ I have often thought how strange it is that our insides are a mystery to us. Not being one for televised surgery, I expect my insides to remain something of a mystery, but I have very clear memories of attempting to position myself in the hollow of my body as a child. I came to the conclusion that the part of me that was actually me lived on a platform behind my eyes and controlled my body like a forklift truck driver. Auster remarks that following death we say ‘this is the body of X, as if this body which had once been the man himself, not something that represented him or belonged to him, but the very man called X, were suddenly of no importance. When a man walks into a room and you shake hands with him, you do not feel that you are shaking hands with his hand, or shaking hands with his body, you are shaking hands with him.’
I’m trying to organise my response to Auster’s thoughts. I’m writing a story about a child who is fascinated with death. The story has been simmering ever since I stumbled across a slide show during some research for another story. The slide show contained post-mortem photographs (as in after death, not surgical procedures). I found it fascinating. The photographs reminded me of Auster’s Portrait of an Invisible Man: they were created to make loved ones visible after death. Many of the children were photographed with favourite toys and living siblings; the things that shaped their lives. The families of those in the photographs probably shared Auster’s fear: ‘If I do not act quickly, his entire life will vanish along with him.’ Maybe that is one of the reasons why people write things down, as a way to remain visible and never entirely vanish.

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