Though Harold Bloom famously contended that William Shakespeare invented the human, Paul Auster believes that he did the same for solitude. His first published book, “The Invention of Solitude’’ (1982), is a memoir of his father, Samuel Auster, who had died unexpectedly; at the same time it is a personal meditation on the nature of memory and loss.
His subsequent books, including the 16 novels that have established Auster — in France at least, if not the United States — as a contemporary master, have been monuments to a Cartesian encounter with the solitary consciousness. In his latest work, his ninth book of nonfiction, the 66-year-old author reflects on himself, “a man who has spent the better part of his life sitting alone in a room.”
Many of Auster’s novels appropriate elements — childhood in New Jersey, enrollment at Columbia during the unrest of the late 1960s, down and out in Paris, mellow years in Brooklyn — of his life, and “Report from the Interior’’ is not his first stab at something like conventional autobiography. “Hand to Mouth’’ (1997), which he subtitled “A Chronicle of Early Failure,’’ recounts Auster’s desperate, futile efforts to make a living from writing prior to his breakthrough in 1985 with “City of Glass,’’ the first volume of his New York Trilogy.
In “Winter Journal,’’ published last year, Auster mulls over ailments, liaisons, residences, food, and deaths that have defined him. Throughout it and “Report from the Interior,’’ the author narrates in the second person. Early in the latter, Auster differentiates between those two autobiographical projects, contending that while the previous book was an attempt “to write about your body, to catalogue the manifold knocks and pleasures experienced by your physical self,” the goal of the present volume is “exploring your mind as you remember it from childhood.”
However, the distinction between body and mind, exterior and interior, is tenuous; the car wreck he describes in “Winter Journal’’ leaves him so shaken he never drives again, and the mental collapse in “Report from the Interior’’ has something to do with trying to survive in Paris penniless and famished. According to the paradoxical epigram Auster inscribes in a notebook: “The world is in my head. My body is in the world.”
“Report from the Interior” is a memoirist’s miscellany — an initial section of early sensations and impressions followed by selections from letters written when Auster was in his 20s, followed by a sequence of photographs. The book’s opening pages reconstruct a child’s-eye-view of a universe in which “[S]cissors could walk, telephones and teapots were first cousins, eyes and eyeglasses were brothers.” To the young boy, stars and birds are enigmas, and he is a “human bean.” The Korean War, Joe McCarthy, and the polio epidemic register only faintly, but Auster grows up nourished by cartoons, cowboys, and American triumphalism.
However, knowledge that he is Jewish makes him aware that “even in the place you called home, you were not fully at home.” And, taken to see “The War of the Worlds’’ at the tender age of 6, he learns an early lesson that God is powerless to subdue evil.
Film continues to fascinate Auster, who has written several screenplays — produced and unproduced — and even directed three low-budget indies, “Blue in the Face’’ (1995) “Lulu on the Bridge’’ (1998), and “The Inner Life of Martin Frost’’ (2007). Some of the strongest writing in “The Book of Illusions,’’ his 2002 novel about the search for an elusive, reclusive filmmaker, is devoted to summarizing the character’s fictitious films.
“Report from the Interior’’ spends more than 25 pages each on riveting synopses of two movies that made a powerful impression on young Auster. At age 10, he was himself transformed by “The Incredible Shrinking Man,’’ a Kafkaesque drama of sudden, undesired bodily transformation. And “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang’’ made the 14-year-old indelibly aware of social injustice.
Auster violates his resolve not to take his memoir beyond age 12 — “for after the age of twelve you were no longer a child . . . and you were transformed into a different kind of being from the small person whose life was a constant plunge into the new, who every day did something for the first time.”
Explaining that his first wife, novelist Lydia Davis, unexpectedly mailed him copies of a hundred letters he had written to her during the 1960s, he gives more than one-third of the book over to excerpts. Included are lonely pages sent in the summer of 1967 when, determined to write, he sequestered himself in a small room in Maine, in “an apotheosis of solitude.” The letters revisit Auster’s experiences at turbulent Columbia — “that epicenter of nervous breakdowns” — and in bohemian Paris. Together with a final section of photographs, they give the volume the feel of an author’s document-dump. “Report from the Interior’’ is stuffed with nerves and guts, but it lacks a skeleton.
Steven G. Kellman is the author of “Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth’’ and “The Translingual Imagination.’’