The Book of Illusions Essay - Critical Essays

Paul Auster

Critical Overview

For a novel ostensibly about films, The Book of Illusions is remarkably bookish. Zimmer’s book about Mann sets the plot in motion. When contacted by Alma, Zimmer is at work on a new translation of François-René de Chateaubriand’s memoirs, from which he quotes extensively, and he discovers the same volume on Hector’s shelves. During Hector’s exile from Hollywood, he reads obsessively, and there are frequent references to other books throughout the novel. Alma is writing a biography of Hector. One of the late, unseen films is described as having no dialogue, only voice-over narration throughout, which is a very novelistic approach to film. The one late film of Hector’s that Zimmer is able to watch, The Inner Life of Martin Frost, is about a novelist working on a new story. In the film, Martin Frost’s most recent novel is called Travels in the Scriptorium, which is also the title of one of Hector Mann’s unseen films and, curiously, is a title that Paul Auster also appropriated for a later novel of his own.

Likewise, Zimmer’s narration is notable for how little visual detail he includes. Indeed, there are several passages where he comments on not noticing things. The one exception is Zimmer’s descriptions of films (of which there are several lengthy examples in the novel): These are full of visual detail, such as the twitch of Hector’s moustache, a sidelong glance, or the play of light in a scene.

The books and films quoted throughout the novel reflect the novel’s action. This reflexivity is made explicit in Zimmer’s account of Hector’s penultimate silent comedy: Made at a time when Hector’s producer was going bankrupt, cheating Hector out of money, and damaging Hector’s future prospects, the film presents Hector as a successful businessman whose partner gives him a potion to make him invisible so the partner can steal from the company. Though rarely as overt as this example, every quotation from a book or description of a film amplifies the characters or comments on the plot in some fashion. The characters are aware of this: Alma, who has a strawberry birthmark on her face, recalls reading a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne in which a chemist tries to remove the birthmark from his lover’s face only to kill her in the process.

The theme that runs through so many of these quoted passages involves death in one form or another. The memoirs of Chateaubriand, which clearly mean much to both Zimmer and Hector, are given the title Memoirs of a Dead Man in Zimmer’s translation, because Chateaubriand intended that they should not be published until after his death. This decision is echoed in Zimmer’s own story, since readers are told at the very end of the book that Zimmer has given instructions that...

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