In high school you were to compare novels in an essay. Addressing a thesis statement and proving your point using examples out of each story. Unfortunately, rather than using the web your mind had created while reading them, you ended up trying to pull the strings the teachers had connected to them. Moreover, you were limited to choose from a few thesis statements they had set out for you, and all you had to do was fill in the blanks the right way. Though I enjoyed reading the books and exploring the themes in this way, I was repelled by the way books seemed to become an objective framework. A framework you could neatly dissect, like identifying human anatomy. I didn’t like the idea that your interpretation of a book could be wrong, that there was one absolute intention every reader every reader should grasp. In my opinion, every written story is meant to open up a new world to every single reader. Combining the experiences the author tried to jot down with your own perception of life something is created that is more astonishing than a dream; a novel’s main purpose being an escape from the outside world. The creating doesn’t stop whenever the author decides to put down his pen. It continues again every time a person opens the book, every time someone turns a page. Until the story is being read, it’s just a collection of words and phrases, nothing more than ink on a page. Only when the story is being read, it comes to life. The reader adds the spark that makes the new world part of reality, even if it’s only in his own mind.
This is what I concluded after having read Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions. A novel that provides an excellent escape from the view of daily life. The story is about Hector, a silent movie maker, scarred by the cruel turns life can take, who punishes himself by making films that will never be shown in public. After all, what is the point of a movie that won’t be seen, what is the point of a story that isn’t told, what is the point of a novel that isn’t read? Does it even exist? And, even further, what is the point of Hector’s existence now his work isn’t being recognized?
“…he is able to drench your mind into thought”
Paul Auster addresses these questions in his novel, illustrating the torment of grief resting on the shoulders of both Hector and the narrator David Zimmer, an ex-academic teacher who lost his family in a plane crash. Death and despair drive both characters into questioning their existence and their own identity. At one instance the world was what it was; a daily routine filled with certain coincidences we barely pay attention to. However, when disaster strikes, a simple coincidence can get a whole different meaning. It becomes a significant event in time, a point of regret, a moment when we ask: what if… ? By triggering these fundamental questions of life, Paul Auster does not only succeed in absorbing the reader into his story, but he is also able to drench your mind into thought.
David’s first person narration helps us slipping into his character, making his questions, his doubts yours, while taking your first steps into the world Auster has laid out for us. Now it’s up to the reader to add colour to the sketch. Besides prompting you to think, Auster found a way to make you dream. He draws a picture of reality, all the events could have happened in real life. Yet, he handed this image of reality a coat of absurdism, that allows your imagination to take over. It seems, when you look at life from another perspective, we begin to wonder if it’s not only an illusion. A deserted ranch, somewhere in the middle of a Mexican desert, with the only purpose of creating films to destroy them, is the setting Paul Auster puts before us. He shows that by putting his characters in a desolate place, barely connected with society, people can create their own kind of living. Strange as it might seem, is it really less purposeful than ordinary life in the city? At first sight it doesn’t. Hector and his wife Frieda find happiness. They are able to build their own house, plant trees to create a forest and direct movies in the way they want it to be. There are no limitations, they can let their minds be free. Just like in The Music of Chance, another novel by the same author, Flower and Stone, two rich pensioners who like to play poker, have created their own ‘city of the world’. In the large house they live in, and across the land that belongs to it, their idea of a perfect society is imminent. When everything is the way you want it to be, when life reflects your state of mind, what do you need society for?
However perfect it may seem, one thing remains amiss. What is the point of perfection, if it is for no one to see? What if you die and you leave nothing behind to the world you lived in. What prove is there that you ever really existed? What was the purpose? Hector understood this missing all too well. He meant to punish himself, but in his dying days he couldn’t resist looking for someone’s opinion. He needed some feedback from the outside world, just so his existence wouldn’t have meant nothing. It seems people always want to leave their mark in some kind of way. That one thing that makes the world acknowledge that they’re there. Just like sound needs someone to hear. In The Book of Illusions this might be the reason why Hector is so fond of his trees. They are a silent remembrance of his existence , even when his films have long been destroyed. Likewise, David Zimmer wants Alma, family and supposed biographer of Hector, to be buried as a writer. Even though Frieda burned the manuscript, it is what had given Alma’s life meaning. Similarly, in The Music of Chance, Flower and Stone are eagerly willing to show what they have accomplished to Nashe and Pozzi, the protagonists of the story. Flower’s collection and Stone’s model of the City of the World are in some way the result of their being. The work that they’ve contributed to this world.
“What does the novel mean to you?”
Eventually, it seems everyone wants to be acknowledged, as being perceived is the only way of truly existing. The only way to make your life less futile and establish some influence on the bigger whole. You need the world to be, and the world needs you to verify its existence. A thing can only be real, if another perceives it. Just like a novel isn’t complete until it has been read. Only through the interpretation of the reader, it attains the color of reality. In return the novel colors the person’s thoughts. So maybe the essay question ‘What did the author mean…? ‘ should rather be: ‘What does the novel mean to you?’.
By Moira van Leeuwen (guest writer)