“Paul Auster is getting old”, my wife wrote on the first page of Travels in the Scriptorium. She’s right, as always; I’d only add he’s also really scared of it. Mr. Blank, Travels’ protagonist, has trouble walking and bending down, shakes so much he can’t feed himself, pees his pants. Add to these problems the facts that they are not attributed to old age alone — the shaking is a side effect of Mr. Blank’s medication, the urinary incident comes about from muscle relaxation due to a fall — and that Blank is clearly a fictional Auster, and the author’s feelings about getting old become more pungent still.
On the other hand, Travels in the Scriptorium is more related to Auster’s early novels — particularly Ghosts and The Locked Room, the second and third volumes of the New York Trilogy — than to his late ones. In the course of his career, Auster has followed a path that started on the symbolic and strange and slowly but surely approached the real and quotidian. It’s not by accident if one of the hallmarks of Auster’s late work (ever since, at least, 1992’s Leviathan) is the use of coincidences, these moments when reality becomes symbolic, to drive the plot. But in 1987’s In the Country of Last Things, for instance, there were no meaningful coincidences, just an imaginary country from where people couldn’t leave. And in Travels in the Scriptorium Mr. Blank can’t leave the room he’s in.
Auster’s intentions are clear from the start: Blank represents Auster himself, and those who visit Blank in his room are characters from his previous novels — some important, such as In the Country of Last Things’ protagonist Anna Blume, others peripheral to the point of inexistence, such as the detective of a book quickly mentioned in The Locked Room. Blank’s memory is failing him (another age-related torment) but he can remember he’s done a terrible thing to these people, sent them to dangerous missions just so he could write reports about what they went through. At the same time, he defends himself by repeatedly saying that “the reports needed to be written”, and some of his visitors accept this argument and excuse his attitude. Others don’t, and seek revenge.
An effortlessly constructed atmosphere of mystery and angst.
To wonder about the impact a narrative makes on its characters is not exactly new (for some reason, Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World is the first thing that comes to my mind, but I’m sure there are other examples) but challengingly paradoxical: readers are used to worrying about fictional problems of fictional people, but when the main problem stems from these peoples’ own unreality the suspension of disbelief becomes tightropingly unstable. It’s hard not to think, at one point or another, that such exercise is not only paradoxical but also quite silly, and that’s why enjoying Travels in the Scriptorium is ultimately a matter not only of taste but also of choice. Those who fully accept the premise of the book will get of it what Auster always has to offer: simple and elegant prose, an effortlessly constructed atmosphere of mystery and angst and also a merciless, even if sometimes naive or pompous, judgment of its author. Those who don’t will find the exercise self-important and void of content, an amusing but helpless waste of time. And both groups will have good reasons for feeling the way they do. I happen to belong to the first one.
It does help, though, if you know and love Auster’s previous work. Not only because the characters will make more sense to you, but also because the novel’s themes — the potential role of obsessions in life, the tension that rises from artistic creation, even the subtle analysis of an inglorious episode of American history — will have more meaning in light of what the author has written about them before. And only Auster fans will be able to sense in this book a kind of conclusion, a literary testament of sorts, as if by returning to his symbolic beginnings Auster were coming full circle and finally saying his last word about the subjects to which he’s been returning over and over during the whole of his career as a novelist. I suppose it’s a misleading feeling, and Auster’s next novel will present another variation on the same themes — which is more than fine by me; but I wouldn’t be much surprised if he went for some deep change after this curious, though imperfect, little book.