The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster


After Paul Auster died, John Self wrote an appreciation of his work for The Times (London, that is) that was available for free for a weekend.  As a fan of both Paul Auster and John Self, I was happy to see that. It was a joy to listen to Paul Auster reading the book that John Self said is his best.

The narrator, a college professor named David Zimmer, began by telling about a book he had written about Hector Mann, a silent movie maker and actor, who had mysteriously disappeared after making a dozen movies. At the time the book was published, Hector Mann hadn’t been seen for 60 years; three months after publication, Zimmer received a letter from a woman claiming to be Hector Mann’s wife asking if he would like to meet Hector.

Then Zimmer tells us of the tragedy he had experienced, the death of his wife and two young sons in an airplane crash, and how that led to his unexpected interest in a talented but obscure film-maker of the 1920s. His sorrow had cut him off from everything in his previous life and somehow in an alcoholic haze he had watched a movie by Hector Mann that made him chuckle for the first time. He decided to watch all of Mann’s movies which necessitated travel to the East and West Coasts and to Paris. He found he must not just watch once, but study each film, then write the book.

While Zimmer had undertaken another project, translating Chateaubriand’s autobiography, he responded to Hector Mann’s wife. It happened that on a rare occasion when he drank and had an accident driving home, a woman was at his house who said he must go to New Mexico where Mann was near death, and waved a pistol to convince him. He learned from her the story of Mann’s disappearance which involved a violent death, a bank robbery, and his marriage to a young woman with money. Whew!

He learned that Mann and his wife had made more movies, none of which had ever been seen by anyone and were to be destroyed after his death. Zimmer arrived in time to briefly meet Mann and see one of his movies before more death occurred. Our narrator survived to tell us this story eleven years later. Strangely enough all these unlikely dramatic tales, sometimes tales within tales, are endlessly enthralling.

Back to John Self:  I was drawn to John Self’s blog Asylum initially because of the name; then I learned he uses the name of the main character of Martin Amis’s book Money. Although he now writes in publications that pay him, Asylum is still accessible.

Paul Auster, The Book of Illusions, Henry Holt and Co., 2002, 321 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.

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