I shook his hand for the first time in the spring of 1967. I was a second-year student at Columbia then, a know-nothing boy with an appetite for books and a belief (or delusion) that one day I would become good enough to call myself a poet, and because I read poetry, I had already met his namesake in Dante’s hell, a dead man shuffling through the final verses of the twenty-eighth canto of the Inferno. Bertran de Born, the twelfth-century Provençal poet, carrying his severed head by the hair as it sways back and forth like a lantern—surely one of the most grotesque images in that book-length catalogue of hallucinations and torments. Dante was a staunch defender of de Born’s writing, but he condemned him to eternal damnation for having counseled Prince Henry to rebel against his father, King Henry II, and because de Born caused division between father and son and turned them into enemies, Dante’s ingenious punishment was to divide de Born from himself. Hence the decapitated body wailing in the underworld, asking the Florentine traveler if any pain could be more terrible than his.
I might still be a couple of novels behind on my reading American writer Paul Auster, but at least I was able to go through his latest, Invisible (New York NY: Henry Holt, 2009). Invisible tells the story of 20-year-old aspiring poet and Columbia University student Adam Walker, who meets a couple at a party in the spring of 1967, Rudolf Born and his girlfriend, Margot. After reading most of his other works, there is something here in how he tells his story that feels familiar, from working through secondary texts—including Walker’s contemporary memoir-in-progress, “1967,” sent to a friend and read through his eyes, and the diary entries by another character at the end—and odd coincidences, working through elements of the story through both archival and character distances, something that Auster seems to employ in different ways over a number of his works. It’s something he employed in his breathtaking The Book of Illusions, easily my favourite of Auster’s works, as well, working through the search of a dead filmmaker through the narrator’s conversations with the filmmakers family, friends and through the late filmmakers own nearly-lost black-and-white masterpieces. Who here is invisible, what exactly is lost, through Walker witnessing Born’s irrational outbursts and seeming generosity and, finally, Born’s murder of a mugger who wasn’t even armed, causing the rest of the book (and the remainder of Walker’s life) to spiral out of control.
Back in the dark ages of our youth, Walker and I had been friends. We entered Columbia together in 1965, two eighteen-year-old freshmen from New Jersey, and over the next four years we moved in the same circles, read the same books, shared the same ambitions. Then our class graduated, and I lost contact with him. In the early seventies, I ran into someone who told me Adam was living in London (or maybe it was Rome, he wasn’t sure), and that was the last time I heard anyone mention his name. For the next thirty-something years, he rarely entered my thoughts, but whenever he did, I would find myself wondering how he had managed to disappear so thoroughly. Of all the young misfits from our little gang at college, Walker was the one who had struck me as the most promising, and I figured it was inevitable that sooner or later I would begin reading about the books he had written or come across something he had published in a magazine—poems or novels, short stories or reviews, perhaps a translation of one of his beloved French poets—but that moment never came, and I could only conclude that the boy who had been destined for a life in the literary world had gone on to concern himself with other matters.
I’m intrigued by Auster’s secondary character Jim (a writer, as so many of Auster’s main characters are), working his own way through Walker’s story, even the parts that don’t match up, and even contradict, through secondary sources to further the plot. What really appeals is how the story leaves itself, finished and unfinished, leaving the reader to decide exactly what happened, and exactly if it matters, precisely, in the end, what the difference is. Is there a difference? What does the truth have to do with the results that followed? What is the truth to any person’s story, and does how they saw their story become, then, its own kind of truth? I’m intrigued, too, by Walker’s literary ambitions, working on poems and translations of poems, finally ending up in Europe to pursue his literary ambitions, something that Auster himself did as well; is Walker simply an alternate Auster (something he has played with, too, in previous books, even bringing characters named “Paul Auster” along for the ride) who took a wrong turn at a party in New York at the tender age of twenty?