Summary and opinion of the book:
The Invention of Solitude has no chapters, it is split up into two parts, one about his father and one about himself. I read all of Part 1, Portrait of an Invisible Man, and a portion of Part 2, The Book of Memory. In Part 1 of his book, Paul Auster gets a phone call that his father has just died and takes his wife and young child to his father’s house to deal with all of his belongings. This experience is an intensely emotional one for Auster, who always longed for closeness with his father, but could never know him well or be known by him well. Paul Auster becomes desperately inspired to write about who his father was, as an exercise in discovering who he was and also as an attempt to preserve his father’s existence in some way. Auster makes the simple act of going through his father’s belongings a fascinating and philosophically beautiful read. So beautiful in fact that his book is very quotable, leaving this reader with a massive handful of quotes to copy down out of the book. His writing is too gorgeous and artistic to only summarize, it ought to be quoted extensively. And so I will.

“Impossible, I realize, to enter another’s solitude. If it is true that we can ever come to know another human being, even to a small degree, it is only to the extent that he is willing to make himself known. A man will say: I am cold. Or else he will say nothing, and we will see him shivering. Either way, we will know that he is cold. But what of the man who says nothing and does not shiver? Where all is intractable, where all is hermetic and evasive, one can do no more than observe. But whether one can make sense of what he observes is another matter entirely. . .He never talked about himself, never seemed to know there was anything he could talk about. It was as though his inner life eluded even him. . .If there is nothing, then, but silence, is it not presumptuous of me to speak? And yet: if there had been anything more than silence, would I have felt the need to speak in the first place?” (pg. 17)
This quote beautifully sums up the task Auster has at hand when he tries to describe the identity of his father and also makes a display of what an amazing job Auster does with the difficult subject matter.

Paul Auster, again driving home themes about parenthood, gives this especially moving description of what his dad must have felt about Paul’s very mentally ill sister. This displays an example of the use of hindsight to reflect on one’s experiences and interpret them more fully as an older adult. Auster’s memoir is chock full of these reflective insights.

“There is no greater sorrow for a parent than this helplessness. You have to accept it, even if you can’t. And the more you accept it, the greater your despair becomes.” (pg. 25)

I found it absolutely delightful that Auster so openly writes about his writing. He describes the struggle to write Invention of Solitude, within the book itself, and I found it much excitement in reading a successful author like Auster describe the sheer torment of trying to write the memoir. There is no lack of material in his mind that causes him trouble, it is the very nature of the material, and the huge importance the topic in his mind that causes him trouble getting it into words. Please forgive the length of the following excerpt, it is far too beautiful to shorten any more than I have here. . .

“When I first started, I thought it would come spontaneously, in a trance- like outpouring. So great was my need to write that I thought the story would be written by itself. But the words have come very slowly so far. Even on the best days I have not been able to write more than a page or two. I seem to be afflicted, cursed by some failure of mind to concentrate on what I am doing. Again and again I have watched my thoughts trail off from the thing in front of me. No sooner have I thought one thing than it evokes another thing, and then another thing, until there is an accumulation of detail so dense that I feel I am going to suffocate. Never before have I been so aware of the rift between thinking and writing. For the past few days, in fact, I have begun to feel that the story I am trying to tell is somehow incompatible with language, that the degree to which it resists language is an exact measure of how closely I have come to say something important, and that when the moment arrives for me to say the one truly important thing (assuming it exists), I will not be able to say it. There has been a wound, and I realize that it is very deep. Instead of healing me as I thought it would, the act of writing has kept this wound open. At times I have felt the pain of it concentrated in my right hand, as if each time I picked up the pen and pressed it against the page, my hand were being torn apart.” (pg. 30)
This excerpt is very near and dear to my heart and I imagine any writer (especially a memoirist) would feel much sympathy for these words also.

In the first 64 pages of the book we hear of Auster’s father’s death and his dealing with the belongings, we learn about his parents unhappy marriage, and of how distant his father was from everyone in the family. We learn of his sister’s mental illness that reared it’s ugly head as young as 5 years old and would later go on to debilitate her in adult life. We learn of Paul’s father’s psychological and personality traits and of the screwed up way he handles his daughters mental illness, which definitely results in worsening her situation. Auster tells this matter of factly, with no judgement in his tone. Auster then moves to France and works as a translator of French literature while working on his poetry. There is a very cute description of how Paul indulged in imagining his father reading his poetry. . .

“Once, while I was still living in Paris, he wrote to tell me he had gone to the public library to rad some of my poems that had appeared in a recent issue of Poetry. I imagined him in a large, deserted room, early in the morning before going to work: sitting at one of those long tables with his overcoat still on, hunched over words that must have been incomprehensible to him.” (pg. 62)

At the end of Part 1, Portrait of an Invisible Man, Paul Auster describes his reluctance to complete the book, because of his reluctance to let go of his father, a man that Paul strove in vain to connect with for his entire life. . .

“Nothing now for several days...
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.” (pg. 65)

Next comes Part 2 of the book. The Book of Memory. This is an amazing work. On the first page he begins a passage that I think is so key to gaining an understanding for what a brave and unique approach at describing the inner workings of the mind that this memoir is. This is also the passage in which you get to witness Auster make the odd but genius decision to describe himself in the third person, and with the name, “A”. He tells the reader that he is going to describe himself as “A” while already in the midst of using third person narrative. It’s beautifully artsy, I think.

“He decides to refer to himself as A. He walks back and forth between the table and the window. He turns on the radio and then turns it off. He smokes a cigarette.
The he writes. It was. It will never be again. Christmas Eve, 1979. His life no longer seemed to dwell in the present. Whenever he turned on his radio and listened to the news of the world, he would find himself imagining the words to be describing things that had happened long ago. Even as he stood in the present, he felt himself to be looking at it from the future, and this present-as-past was so antiquated that even the horrors of the day, which ordinarily would have filled him with outrage, seemed remote to him, as if the voice in the radio were reading from a chronicle of some lost civilization. Later, in a time of greater clarity, he would refer to this sensation as ‘nostalgia for the present’.” (pg. 73)

I get this same feeling of “nostalgia for the present” pretty regularly and did even as a child. It was a great experience to hear this elusive psychological experience described so eloquently.

At the beginning of the Book of Memory, Auster is acting a hermit in a tiny, shabby room he has rented and is attempting to write in. He describes his mental life within this room and within his occasional walks and meals in diners so vibrantly. His inner world becomes real the reader and that is a huge feat for an author to accomplish.

“By staying in this room for long stretches at a time, he can usually manage to fill it with his thoughts, and this in turn seems to dispel the dreariness, or at least make him unaware of it. Each time he goes out, he takes his thoughts with him, and during his absence the room gradually empties of his efforts to inhabit it. When he returns, he has to begin the process all over again, and that takes work, real spiritual work. . .In the interim, in the void between the moment he opens the door and the moment he begins to reconquer the emptiness, his mind flails in a wordless panic. It is as if he were being forced to watch his own disappearance, as if, by crossing the threshold of this room, he were entering another dimension, taking up residence inside a black hole.” (pg. 75)

Auster’s work in The Invention of Solitude is terribly beautiful to me. I love this book and have been changed by it. I have quoted Auster at great length already, I confess. But to re-word such amazing passages instead of letting them stand on their own would be such a shame. When writing an Auster book report, one simply has to include lots of direct quotes or will lose the inherent beauty of his work. Let me leave you with one more stunning quote.

“He was wandering inside himself, and he was lost. For from troubling him, this state of being lost became a source of happiness, of exhilaration. He breathed it into his very bones. As if on the brink of some previously hidden knowledge, he breathed it into his very bones and said to himself, almost triumphantly: I am lost.” (pg. 84)