Once upon a time, a literary autobiography generally was the confident offspring of an author’s autumnal musings on his or her life and art, the lingering retrospective gaze over a landscape already plowed and harvested. Such productions are not wholly extinct; Anthony Powell’s multivolume To Keep the Ball Rolling (1976-1982), which appeared only after Powell’s oeuvre had survived several decades of critical examination, is a splendid example of modern literary autobiography at its best. More apparent, though, is the proliferation of memoirs at mid-career. Paul Auster’s Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure is among the most notable.
The 1990’s were good to Auster. In 1991, his novel The Music of Chancewas nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award; in 1993, his Leviathan won the prestigious French Prix Medicis Etranger; and in 1995, his screenplay for Smoke was awarded a special jury prize at the Berlin Film festival. In addition, Auster’s best-known works, The Invention of Solitude(1982) and The New York Trilogy (1987), garnered much critical admiration. Why should a writer working so manifestly at the peak of his powers decide to publish a chronicle of early failure?
Auster’s motive for writing the work remains concealed, or at best emerges only ambiguously over the course of 129 somewhat dispiriting pages of memoir (which are followed by three appendices). This brief chronicle dwells almost obsessively on a single motif in Auster’s life: his stubborn efforts over the course of several decades to survive by his literary skills alone, to abjure the “double life” that so many other writers have felt compelled, for reasons of survival, to adopt. Auster cites the usual examples: William Carlos Williams practiced medicine, Wallace Stevens sold insurance, and T. S. Eliot toiled in a London bank. Early in the narrative, Auster offers his reasons for rejecting such a path: “It’s not that I wasn’t willing to work, but the idea of punching a clock at some nine-to-five job left me cold, utterly devoid of enthusiasm.”
As for graduate school, Auster tried that for a year and then dropped out. “I quickly understood that I wanted no part of it. . . . Just on principle, it felt wrong to me for a writer to hide out in a university, to surround himself with too many like- minded people, to get too comfortable.” Given Auster’s rejection of one all-too-conventional life script, his alternative will certainly strike some readers as rather tediously unconventional:
I wanted to go out into the world and test myself . . . to explore as much as I could. . . . If this sounds like a rather old- fashioned approach, perhaps it was. Young writer bids farewell to family and friends and sets out for points unknown to discover what he’s made of.
It would show a lack of generosity to begrudge Auster his youthful idealism, but whether that idealism adds up to a stimulating reading experience is a question this autobiography elaborately begs. It is not Auster’s fault that the “writer-as-poet-tramp” motif has been done to death, but he seems embarrassed by the familiarity of the terrain, unable to turn an apparent liability to his advantage.
Auster’s spare, almost minimalist, narrative moves rapidly through his early years, providing a backdrop for the only aspect of his youth Auster deems of interest here: his awakening to the “essential inhumanity of the marketplace” and the “dreary rectitude of American life.” That by his early teens he had already begun secretly to transfer his allegiance to the “downtrodden” apparently is related to his later obsession with failure, especially flamboyant failure. This relationship, though implied, is never explored satisfactorily.
Readers who come to this memoir with expectations of learning something about Auster’s youthful literary influences will be disappointed. He does recount how he made a pilgrimage of sorts to Dublin, “for reasons that had everything to do with James Joyce and Ulysses.” That Joyce must have penetrated the young writer’s consciousness in some memorable way is evident, but the manner in which the bard of Dublin may have shaped Auster’s actual literary development is left unexplored.
At Columbia in the late 1960’s, Auster remained all but oblivious to the political self-dramatization that animated so many of his classmates. Rather, he went his own way out of an inveterate preference for his own company and that of a few other like-minded “characters.” Perhaps the most memorable of Auster’s eccentric attachments was the—even then—forgotten writer and cofounder of the Paris Review, H. L. Humes. The story of Humes’s half-psychotic scheme to undermine the American economic system by handing out free fifty dollar bills is among the most amusing developments in the narrative. All humor aside, Auster seems to have taken Humes’s failure as a writer to heart: “He was a ravaged, burnt-out writer who had run aground on the shoals of his own consciousness, and rather than give up and renounce life altogether, he had manufactured this little farce to boost his morale.”
Auster admits that as an undergraduate, he himself was...
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