A reading of «The Brooklyn Follies» through the lens of autofiction
After a debut as a poet and translator, Paul Auster turned to prose writing following the death of his father. His first autobiographical novel, entitled The Invention of Solitude (1982), marks the basis of his novels to come, many elements contained in this book reappearing throughout his fiction. As Dennis Barone explains: "Auster's fiction often draws on autobiographical material, but [...] it does so in a very complex manner. One reads Auster's fiction and the general outline of his life becomes clear" (1995, 1). It is thus from the very beginning of his literary career that Paul Auster started exploiting his real life experience in his novels.
This mixture between autobiography and fiction was given the name "autofiction" by Serge Doubrovsky, a term which he used for the first time in the blurb of his novel Fils (1977). Gérard Genette then used the term to analyse Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, in which the writer identifies with his fictional character. A la recherche du temps perdu is considered as one of the paradigms of the genre and influenced many modern writers such as Céline, Kerouac or Charyn... Autofiction has taken different forms over the years and it is precisely around this mixture of autobiography and fiction that we propose to analyse The Brooklyn Follies (2005) in this article.
We will start by examining the autobiographical elements which appear in this novel: the similarities between the author and his fictional characters, whether situational or locational, We will also pay close attention to the intertextuality present throughout the novel. We will then analyse the metafictional side of the novel: both the narrator and Paul Auster are or become writers and an emphasis is placed upon this act of writing in The Brooklyn Follies as is also the case in other novels by the author. And finally, we will place this novel among Paul Auster's other works and see if there has been an evolution in his writing, if despite common themes, there is not a new side to his writing, which could be linked to a form of commitment which Auster is putting forward much more explicitly than in his first novels.
1. Autobiographical elements in The Brooklyn Follies
1.1 Recurring Austerian themes
Paul Auster's novels have often been described as "recognizable". Indeed, despite the different stories they tell, the same themes never cease to reappear: the impact of chance on his characters' lives, reflections on the notion of destiny, the importance of language, changing identities in a quest to find the self, penance, solitude and death... The Brooklyn Follies continues along these lines, and we shall observe in what way these common themes can be linked to autobiographical events which Paul Auster inserts into his fiction.
From the very beginning of the novel a typically Austerian setting is presented. "I was looking for a quiet place to die. Someone recommended Brooklyn, and so the next morning I traveled down there from Westchester to scope out the terrain" read the first two sentences of the first Overture chapter. The reference to Brooklyn in the second sentence sets the scene in a very familiar setting, since nearly all of Paul Auster's novels start and/or finish in this same place. The use of Auster's home town, New York, is a key element throughout his work, and we can see right from the start that The Brooklyn Follies - and the title alone emphasizes this - won't deviate from Austerian habits.
The theme of death appears in the very first sentence of the novel. The narrator, Nathan Glass, is in the same depressive state of solitude at the beginning of his narration as many other Austerian narrators, starting with the narrator of his autobiographical novel, The Invention of Solitude, which also starts with death ; the beginning of The Book of Illusions (2002) presents a narrator who is in a state of intense depression after the loss of his family in an aeroplane crash and in Oracle Night (2003), the narrator has just recovered from a near fatal illness. The visibly depressed narrator of The Brooklyn Follies has just taken early retirement from a career in life insurance, following a divorce and lung cancer. Although he is in remission, he explains that "the shock of the cancer had been so great, I still didn't believe in the possibility of surviving it. I had given myself up for dead [...]. [O]nce I'd suffered [...] the loss of hair, the loss of will, the loss of job, the loss of wife, it was difficult for me to imagine how to go on." (p 3).
Loss, death and intense solitude are the key words to the beginning of this narration. The fact that most of Auster's novels begin in this way seems to show this solitary experience as one which Paul Auster himself has lived through. Indeed, he too was faced with death, was put through a difficult divorce, experienced solitude and the retreat to a small room. As he explains in The Invention of Solitude, writing was the only way to help him grieve and continue living. This experience he has in common with his characters who also come back to life through writing thus seems to contribute to the autofictionality of his work.
As in most Austerian novels, this "situation de départ" is in fact the end of an era and the beginning of another. In the same way that the death of Auster's father triggered the beginning of a writing career for the son, the narrator's seemingly ending life will lead to the beginning of a new era of adventures. The element which provokes this great change in the narrator's routine is linked to language, an important Austerian theme. It is following an "inadvertant slip of the tongue" (p 5) which puts the narrator in a comical situation, that he comes up with the idea of writing "The Book of Human Folly", a compilation of accounts of "every blunder, every pratfall, every embarrassment, every idiocy, every foible, and every inane act" (p 5) that he or others have committed during their lives. This project interestingly resembles a work which Paul Auster contributed to following a radio program during which he asked listeners to send in true stories of incredible things which had happened to them. He received so many replies that he made them into a book entitled I Thought My Father Was God, and Other True Tales from NPR's National Story Project (2001). Although the object of these compilations is not exactly the same, Nathan's project can be seen as derived from Auster's own. The appearance of this new project in the narrator's empty life will keep him "entertained" (p 6) and active, showing how writing can have an impact on one's life.
This would also explain why many Austerian characters are writers, and those who aren't usually end up writing in order to tell the extraordinary story they have just lived through. Nathan Glass is not a writer as such (unlike Peter Aaron and Benjamin Sachs in Leviathan (1992), Quinn in The New York Trilogy (1987) or Sidney Orr in Oracle Night) but writing suddenly takes an important place in his retired man's routine. We shall see in the course of the narration how this initial pastime project will transform into a much bigger and important idea in our second part on metafiction. What is important to note as far as autobiographical references are concerned, is that Auster and Glass both work as writers, an activity which brings them together on many points. As writers, both are influenced by other writers and artists and most of these are common to both author and narrator, contributing yet again to the autofictional dimension of the novel.
1.2 Life and artistic influences
Intertextuality is an important aspect of Paul Auster's fiction, especially when we are looking at it through the prism of autofiction. As Ilana Shiloh explains, "from an intertextual perspective, Auster's fiction constantly draws on other fictions and myths ; like his protagonist Quinn, 'What interested him about the stories he wrote was not their relation to the world but their relation to other stories' (Trilogy p 7)" (2002, 201). Indeed, many references to the same books, writers and various other artists appear throughout Auster's works, and The Brooklyn Follies is not an exception to this tradition.
Auster's characters are usually well-educated men who make references to various authors, books, films, actors, painters and works of art throughout their narratives. It is clear from the start that Nathan Glass is a cultivated person. He explains on page 13 that after having majored in English he would have liked to carry on studying literature but that "life got in the way". Despite having chosen a different career, he never lost his interest in books: "Reading was my escape and my comfort, my consolation, my stimulant of choice" (p 13). The fact that Tom, his nephew and "Hero of this book", has always shared this same love with him permits many literary conversations between them, mainly about Tom's studies which he, unlike his uncle, has continued up to his doctoral thesis. This thesis is entitled "Imaginary Edens: The Life of the Mind in Pre-Civil War America" and is based on two authors who have already appeared in Auster's works: Edgar Allan Poe ("the first true writer America gave the world", p 150) and Thoreau (references to whom appear throughout Leviathan). This special literary relationship between uncle and nephew will lead to interesting conversations which contain many intertextual references. We will mention but a few which reappear more than once in the novel and have already made an appearance in previous Austerian novels.
One of these is the great American writer Nathanial Hawthorne. It is no secret that Paul Auster has always had great admiration for Hawthorne, placing implicit references to the author in his works. Fanshawe, the "vanished friend" in The Locked Room indeed "calls to mind the golden Fanshawe of Hawthorne's first novel" (Stephen Schiff, 1987) and it is interesting to note that the same autofictional mixture of autobiography and fiction with which Auster is very familiar seems to have been used in this novel, as Stephen Schiff explains: "Hawthorne plainly viewed his solitary hero as some noble and untarnished aspect of himself [...]. [Auster's] Fanshawe's early life has been borrowed wholesale from Mr. Auster's own". Hawthorne reappears several times in The Brooklyn Follies, under a more explicit light. The forgery planned by Harry and Gorden concerns the manuscript of The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne. The description of all the work needed in order to do a perfect job shows the extent of Auster's knowledge of this author: "You have to know every one of Hawthorne's private tics, the errors he made, his idiosyncratic use of hyphens, his inability to spell certain words correctly" (p 128). Auster also names a chapter after him: "Hawthorn Street or Hawthorne Street?" (p 239).
Despite the number of references contained in the novel, we will mention but one other: Franz Kafka, described as Tom's favorite writer (p 152). He too has already appeared in other Austerian novels and is mentioned several times in The Brooklyn Follies (p 27, 148, 151-155). We can spot an implicit reference to him in Tom's burning of his thesis, much like Kafka asked his friend Max Brod to do with his works after his death (an anecdote which is present also in The Book of Illusions in which Hector Mann wishes all his films to be burned after his death). However, more explicit references to Kafka appear in the novel too. Some of his works are mentioned (Amerika and his description of the Statue of Liberty, another important symbol in Austerian novels), as well as elements of his life such as his age of death (and that of many other authors). One chapter ends with "the story of the doll" (p 153-155) in which Kafka helps a little girl recover from the loss of her doll with the help of imaginary letters. The conclusion of this anecdote is that stories can cure people of unhappiness by allowing them to live in an imaginary world, making the pains of the real world disappear. This is a thesis which Auster stands by.
Many other artistic references appear in this novel, drawing a clear link between the author and his characters. It is through his characters' narrations that Auster speaks of his love for other artists, writers, film-makers, actors, painters... Sometimes, they mention people that Auster has met, who made quite an impression on him, and it would seem that their inclusion in his novels under various forms can be seen as a homage to these interesting people. An example of this can be found in the "B.P.M.'"s name, Nancy Mazzucchelli, which is also the name of the artist who illustrated the "Graphic Novel" adaptation of Paul Auster's City of Glass: David Mazzucchelli. This is not intertextuality in the strictest sense but the mixture between fiction and reality as far as references to people is concerned is derived from autobiographical experience and thus forms part of the fictionalisation of the self present in autofiction. The use of these references shows that all these people have had an impact on Auster's writing by having an impact on him as a person and as an avid reader. His characters portray this aspect of Auster's influences.
We have thus observed the great extent to which Auster and his characters have readings in common and we will now move on to Auster's experience as a writer which he also shares with his narrators.
Metafiction plays a very important role in Paul Auster's novels. As David Lodge explains: "Metafiction is fiction about fiction: novels and stories that call attention to their fictional status and their own compositional procedures." (1992, 206). It draws the reader's attention towards the artifice that fiction is and reminds him unceasingly that what he is reading is nothing more (but nothing less!) than a work of fiction. This enables the author to throw the reader into a questioning of the relation between reality and fiction, between autobiography and fiction.
As we have previously explained, most of Paul Auster's narrators are writers, but even when this is not their main activity, as is the case of Nathan Glass, the act of writing their narration is emphasized. In so doing, the narrator takes the place of the author and explains clearly that the book that the reader is reading was written by himself. It is not uncommon to find the title of Auster's books within the narratives, blurring the boundary between reality and fiction, between author and narrator (examples of this can be found in Peter Aaron's narrative in Leviathan, or in Travels in the Scriptorium (2006)).
The fact that Paul Auster's narrators are presented as authors permits a theatrical "mise en scène" of the act of writing. In The Brooklyn Follies, the narrator feels the need to introduce himself from the start, at the beginning of the second chapter, because he feels that the reader will understand the narration better if he knows who it has been written by and in what circumstances. Paul Auster seems to be playing with psychological readings of the text, in which what is written is determined by he who has written it, a reading which has often been applied to his own texts by researchers. This play on the act of writing can also be used by the writer as a way of forestalling critics by criticizing his own text before they have a chance to set their eyes on it. As David Lodge notes: "Metafictional writers have a sneaky habit of incorporating potential criticism into their texts and thus 'fictionalizing' it" (1992, 208). This metafictional game shows the extent of such authors' knowledge of the workings of literature and what surrounds it.
If we take a closer look at the authorial introduction in The Brooklyn Follies, we can observe that the narrator clearly identifies himself as the author of the text and uses a specific vocabulary in order to do so, stressing the fact that he is the one who is addressing the reader and that it is thus his role to "set the scene" for the novel we are about to read :
I have rattled on for a dozen pages , but until now my sole object has been to introduce myself to the reader and set the scene for the story I am about to tell. I am not the central character of that story. The distinction of bearing the title of Hero of this book belongs to my nephew, Tom Wood [...]. (p 12)
There are many metafictional references in the vocabulary used in these lines: "pages," "reader", "story", "tell", "central character", "Hero". We also have the incorporation of criticism ("I have rattled on..."). These "authorial intrusions [...] seem to explain the work" (Barone, 1995, 7) and place the narrator-writer under the spotlight, exposing the mechanism of the writing process.
Throughout the narration, many other references to the act of writing appear. Some insist on the "truth" of the narration, as in many 18th century novels in which fictions are described as true stories: "Truth be told (how can I write this book if I don't tell the truth?) [...]" (p 66). Others insist on the notion of time in relation to the act of writing by placing emphasis on narrated time and narrating time. Auster likes to play on this relation between "living" and "telling". It is common in his novels to have a running narrating time which advances along with the narrated action. This is the case in Leviathan in which Peter Aaron is struggling to finish his book before the detectives find out the truth about his friend Benjamin Sachs, without ever knowing when exactly this will be. The Brooklyn Follies resembles The Book of Illusions as regards narrating time: both are written in the context of the near-death of the narrator. In The Brooklyn Follies, Nathan's true reason to write comes after he suffers what seems to be a heart attack (p 295) (which is in fact an "inflamed esophagus" (p 296) as he is told the next day). He wakes up in hospital and meets two other patients who share the same room with him for a few hours. They tell each other the stories of their lives: "When a man thinks he's about to die, he talks to anyone who will listen" (p 298). As the other patients are wheeled off to their "uncertain future" (p 300), the narrator sees the image of death symbolized by the empty bed by his side in the hospital room: "the bare bed seemed to be haunted by some mysterious force of erasure, blotting out the men who had lain on it and ushering them into a realm of darkness and oblivion" (page 300). This thought leads to a sudden revelation: to write biographies for "nobodies". The relation between death and literature is clearly exposed in these lines:
I was no one. Rodney Grant was no one. Omar Hassim-Ali was no one. Javier Rodriguez - the seventy-eight-year-old retired carpenter who took over the bed at four o'clock - was no one. Eventually, we would all die, and when our bodies were carried off and buried in the ground, only our friends and families would know we were gone. Our deaths wouldn't be announced on radio or television. There wouldn't be any obituaries in the New York Times. No books would be written about us. That is an honor reserved for the powerful and famous, for the exceptionally talented, but who bothers to publish biographies of the ordinary, the unsung, the workaday people we pass on the street and barely take the trouble to notice?
Most people vanish. A person dies, and little by little all traces of that life disappear. An inventor survives in his inventions, an architect survives in his buildings, but most people leave behind no monuments or lasting achievements: a shelf of photograph albums, a fifth-grade report card, a bowling trophy, an ashtray filched from a Florida hotel room on the final morning of some dimly remembered vacation. A few objects, a few documents, and a smattering of impressions made on other people. Those people invariably tell stories about the dead person, but more often than not dates are scrambled, facts are left out, and the truth becomes increasingly distorted, and when those people die in their turn, most of the stories vanish with them.My idea was this: to form a company that would publish books about the forgotten ones, to rescue the stories and facts and documents before they disappeared - and shape them into a continuous narrative, the narrative of a life.(p 300, 301)
The penultimate chapter finishes with these wise words: "One should never underestimate the power of books" (p 302). If metafiction plays such a great role in Paul Auster's fiction, it is because he has never ceased to insist on the importance of literature and narration which inevitably outlive us and continue to provide a trace of our existence after our death. We must bear in mind that Paul Auster truly started writing after his father's death. We can spot in the above extract some resemblances between the list of objects one leaves after one's death and those found in Auster's father's house in The Invention of Solitude: "There is nothing more terrible, I learned, than having to face the objects of a dead man. [...] What is one to think, for example, of a closetful of clothes waiting silently to be worn again by a man who will not be coming back to open the door? Or the stray packet of condoms strewn among brimming drawers of underwear and socks? Or an electric razor sitting in the bathroom, still clogged with the whisker dust of the last shave?" (1982, p 10). In the same way that Paul Auster wrote The Invention of Solitude to remember his father, Nathan wishes to write narratives for all the other people who die without leaving a trace of who they really were.
By announcing clearly this "single most important idea [he] has ever had," the narrator draws our attention back to the narrative we are reading and we are reminded of his first words concerning the "Hero" of his story: his nephew, Tom Wood. We can thus conclude that the narration which we have just read is the first narrative of the life of an "ordinary person", the beginning of Nathan's big project.
The different narratives within the narratives (otherwise called mise en abyme), another recurring leitmotiv in Paul Auster's work, thus play an important role in The Brooklyn Follies since each narrative tells the story of someone's life or past life, whether it is Harry Brightman's hidden past as Harry Dunkel, or Aurora's ever-changing existence. Telling stories is a way of existing or making others exist, and this seems to be the way in which Paul Auster uses his literary talent, emphasizing the important role of literature as a means of coping with humanity's unavoidable outcome, death, through the use of explicit metafiction.
The intention behind these narratives of people's lives corresponds to the definition of autofiction which Vincent Colonna gives in his thesis: "A la différence de l'autobiographie qui serait l'apanage des vies mémorables, l'autofiction serait le refuge des vies ordinaires. Elle permettrait à chacun de raconter sa vie, dès lors qu'il la dote des atours de la fiction. 'Les humbles qui n'ont pas droit à l'histoire, ont droit au roman' (Doubrovsky, 1980, p 90)" (1989, 14).
The importance of Nathan's project is emphasized by the very precise contemporary historical context in which it is situated: his narration finishes "just forty-six minutes before the first plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center" (p 303). Thus, the project of remembering people's lives takes a whole new dimension when faced with the number of victims of this terrorist attack. Telling these people's ordinary lives shows how what happened could have happened to anyone, yet how every life is different and just as important. As Paul Auster explains in a radio interview with Cherry Gross for 'Fresh Air' (National Public Radio, 2002), the need to talk about what happened on September 11 is important in order to remember. Let us note that this word remember ends The Invention of Solitude in a metafictional context: "He finds a fresh sheet of paper. He lays it out on the table before him and writes these words with his pen. It was. It will never be again. Remember." (1982, 185). Auster makes it clear that this never-ending remembrance process is one of the main roles of literature.
Thus, The Brooklyn Follies resembles many of Paul Auster's other works, whether it is through the use of common themes and references which usually have autobiographical origins, or the use of metafiction in order to emphasize the importance of literature. Yet, can we not also sense a certain difference between The Brooklyn Follies and Auster's other works? This is what we shall analyse in our last part.
3. An evolution in Paul Auster's writing
In terms of evolution, it seems that we can classify Paul Auster's novels into several different categories. One of these would be introspective novels, that is to say novels which concentrate on the self in a solipsistic way (The Invention of Solitude, The New York Trilogy, Travels in the Scriptorium) as opposed to novels which have a wider opening onto the world, in historical and geographical terms: whereas The New York Trilogy takes place in New York, and The Invention of Solitude and Travels in the Scriptorium take place for the most part in the "locked room" (an important Austerian symbol representing the solitude of the writer), Moon Palace (1990) takes us on a journey across the United States, to a wandering in the historical depths of America. In the same way, Leviathan places the atomic bomb in the centre of its narration and In the Country of Last Things (1987) tells the dystopic tale of what Paul Auster privately titled Anna Blume Walks Through the 20th Century.
However, it seems to us that a new possible categorization of Auster's works appeared after the tragic terrorist attacks of 9/11 took place. We will thus try and see if there is a difference between pre-9/11 Austerian novels, and post-9/11 ones.
No one can deny that the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center have had an enormous impact on people all over the world, particularly on Americans, and even more so on New Yorkers. Following the attack, many people felt the need to talk and write about it under various forms: on the television, radio, in newspapers, books, paintings, music... Paradoxically, it is interesting to note that, however much this date plays a role in Auster's post-9/11 novels, the event is never truly described: The Book of Illusions, published in 2002, speaks of a tragic plane crash which kills the narrator's wife and children, and The Brooklyn Follies finishes but a few minutes before the crash into the Twin Towers took place ; Man in the Dark (2008), on the other hand, takes place after 9/11, and describes a parallel reality in which the event never took place. Thus, the terrorist attack is never explicitly described, or even truly in the novels, as if the author wanted to tiptoe around it, without ever actually looking at it in full daylight and exposing it in all its horror.
However it would seem that Paul Auster has never been more politically engaged as a person than since 9/11 took place. The journalist James Bone illustrates this in his Times Online article: "This is Auster, the poet, translator, novelist, essayist, editor, screenwriter, radio personality and film director, in a new incarnation: intellectual 'engagé'" (2004). The writer's discontent with George W. Bush's politics is no secret to anyone and he has not hesitated to emphasize this in articles and interviews.
It would seem that The Brooklyn Follies appears in the line of this political commitment. One has but to read the first sentence of the blurb to understand that politics play a role in the novel: "Paul Auster's The Brooklyn Follies [is] set against the backdrop of the contested US presidential election of 2000". As he describes the run up to this presidential election, his characters speak more than once about how they cannot possibly foresee Bush's election. When the results come out, the narrator does not mince his words concerning the "2000 election disaster":
The entire world changed for me after that. [...] Tom and Honey sat horrified in front of their television set for the next five weeks, watching the Republican Party call in their thugs to challenge the Florida returns and then manipulate the Supreme Court into staging a legal coup on their behalf, [...] these offenses were committed against the American people and my nephew and wife marched in demonstrations, sent letters to their congressman, and signed countless protests and petitions [...]. (page 244)
It would seem that these political opinions expressed by Nathan are no different from Paul Auster's if we listen to his recent interviews following the publication of his last novel. Considered as the most political novel Auster has written so far, Man in the Dark tells the story of a retired book critic who spends his sleepless nights imagining a parallel universe in which 9/11 never took place and America never went to war in Iraq. Paul Auster has said that following Bush's election, he has had the impression of living in a parallel universe, since he still cannot believe how the elections led to an illegal President leading the American people to war. He explains how if Al Gore had been elected, 9/11 would have never taken place because the Government had been warned beforehand of what was to come. Man in the Dark and The Brooklyn Follies thus converge in their explicit criticism of America's Government and the actions it has undertaken.
Thus, fiction and reality merge through the expression of the same political opinions in interviews by the author and by his narrators in his novels. It would seem that 9/11 has struck a certain political chord in Paul Auster which has now become a recurrent element in his writing. His references to Thoreau and Sach's quest in Leviathan were of course already political, but it seems that the politically engaged Paul Auster has now chosen to use his novels as a means to express his opinions about the Bush administration, especially in the interviews he gives to promote his books.
We have thus seen that The Brooklyn Follies is an excellent example of an Austerian autofictional novel. It contains many similarities between narrator and author, many common themes and intertextual references which reappear throughout Auster's works, as well as an insistence on metafictional processes, proving that narrating and writing are key activities in order to remember and be remembered after death. The historical context of the novel, which begins just before the 2000 presidential election and finishes a few minutes before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, seems to put forward the author's preoccupations and his fight for a better world. It would seem that with Auster's explicit political engagement mirrored in his characters' dialogues, the autofiction present in his works from the very start of his prose takes a new turn in The Brooklyn Follies.
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Pour citer cette ressource :
Marie Thévenon, "A reading of «The Brooklyn Follies» through the lens of autofiction", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), octobre 2009. Consulté le 01/12/2023. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-americaine/dossier-paul-auster/a-reading-of-the-brooklyn-follies-through-the-lens-of-autofiction