Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Matthew, Book Review, *Paul Auster, *Collected Prose, *Lord Berners, *First Childhood, *A Distant Prospect

My health has kept me absent from this blog as of late, and I've got another surgery coming up so I'll be returning to absentia in the near future, but in the meantime I'm going to take care of all the reviews that've been waiting patiently for me to get around to writing them.

Collected Prose (2003) by Paul Auster is just that, a collection of the author's various nonfiction works. Two of the these, The Invention of Solitude and Hand to Mouth, have been published previously as individual books and are still widely available, but the rest of the collection is comprised of shorter works culled from a variety of sources that are harder to find. As in most collections, the works included are of varying quality and the shorter works tend towards essays on French writers and loosely organized lists of stray thoughts and anecdotes, but on the whole I found the collection reasonably interesting and enjoyable.

The Invention of Solitude (1982) focuses on the author's father, then recently deceased. Through a mixture of autobiography, biography, and philosophical rumination, Auster explores how his father's family and past shaped him into the person he became, and how his father's influence in turn shaped the person Auster himself became. The narrative falls apart towards the end as Auster's peregrinations through various abstract lines of thought begin to push everything else to the periphery, but that seems to happen more out of a reluctance to stop writing the work than any loss of focus on his part. As he explains earlier in the text,
In spite of the excuses I have made for myself, I understand what is happening. The closer I come to the end of what I am able to say, the more reluctant I am to say anything. I want to postpone the moment of ending, and in this way delude myself into thinking that I have only just begun, that the better part of my story still lies ahead. No matter how useless these words might seem to be, they have nevertheless stood between me and a silence that continues to terrify me. When I step into this silence, it will mean that my father has vanished forever.

Hand to Mouth (1997) is an account of Auster's early years as a writer and the struggles he endured as a result of his decision to make his living solely through writing. Granted, there are a great many times I found myself wanting to shout GET A DAY JOB YOU DOOF at the page, but aside from that urge I found the work to be an engaging, sobering look at the economic realities of pursuing a career as a professional writer. There's also a brief, hilarious interlude in which he tries unsuccessfully to sell a baseball card game of his own invention to various game manufacturers. (When Hand to Mouth was printed in hardback, several pages in the middle of the book were dedicated to color reproductions of every card for the game, which I suppose was his way of finally getting the damn thing published.)

When I first started reading Lord Berners' autobiography First Childhood (1934) and its sequel A Distant Prospect (1945), I wasn't sure I was going to like it terribly much. Most of the first chapter or so is comprised of descriptions of the opulence of his family and ancestral home, but after he gets done telling the reader just how rich his family is (and then telling the reader again, and again, and...) Berners settles into a fun, light narrative. First Childhood follows his life from birth up through his first four years at a boarding school, and A Distant Prospect picks up from there and follows Berners through his time as a student at Eton where he first began to indulge his interest in the arts and music in particular. I know that probably sounds like thin gruel for one book, let alone two, but the narrative is helped along by Berners' knack for understated humor:
At Eton the method of teaching the Classics was very much the same as it had been at Elmley. That is to say, no effort was spared to make them as uninteresting and unprofitable as possible. It is to be presumed that the school authorities, in making the Classics the principal item of their curriculum, had some edifying purpose in view, but if they thought that the study of pagan modes of thought was going to be useful to young Christians, it looked as if the masters thought otherwise and were bent on diverting the attention of their pupils to questions of syntax. In their hands Homer became tedious, Horace commonplace and Greek Tragedy a grammatical Inferno; and they contrived that the works were studied in so piecemeal a fashion that it was quite impossible to understand what they were about.

And I bet you thought your high school teachers were bad.