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All the World’s a Folly : Theatricality and Intertextuality in Paul Auster’s «The Brooklyn Follies»

Par Brigitte Friant-Kessler : Maître de conférences - Université de Valenciennes
Publié par Clifford Armion le 11/12/2009

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There is a manner in which Auster's revisiting classic sources is not merely a simple lift or a citation from the work when he playfully offers a postmodern context to old texts, especially with major literary figures in the wings. As J. Dupont argues in his introductory note to ((The Brooklyn Follies)) : "It would however be an exhaustingly vain task to try and undertake a census of the literary intertexts that run beneath the surface of Auster's work". Such an attempt is all the more so destined to be a failure as there are, beside the clearly stated references, less obvious, possibly unavowed though not any the less significant, undercurrents of intertextuality to be traced in Auster's ((Brooklyn Follies)). Were there only one idiosyncratic trait to be highlighted in Auster's style, it would obviously be his taste for patch-working...

"Once the conversation begins, further stage directions will be kept to a minimum"

1. Overture : why intertextuality and theatricality ?

Ever since J. Kristeva coined the term in 1969, intertextuality has been both remarkably fruitful and problematic. As defined by Graham Allen, it is "a split, multiple concept, which poses questions and requires one to engage with them rather than forcing one to produce definite answers" (Allen 2000, 59). Theatricality as a concept has been shown to resist a clear cut definition too. While theatre theorists like Davis and Postlewait, for instance, have attempted to circumscribe theatricality to the world of drama, Litvak borrowed it to look at performance in major English nineteenty-century novels. As Anne Ubersfeld reminds us of Barthes's definition of "theatricality"  in the lines from Critical Essays "What is theatricality ? It is theater-minus-text, it is a density of signs and sensations built up on stage starting from the written argument" (Bartes 1972, 25 cited by Ubersfeld), she simultaneously questions it as an "endlessly confusing definition" (Ubersfeld 1999, 7). The notion of writers who theatricalize their novels, on the contrary, is one that may apply to Auster's work, The Brooklyn Follies ((All references to The Brooklyn Follies, hereafter abridged as BF, are to Auster 2006.)). Whereas theatricality often tends to be opposed to authenticity, which in itself is a ambivalent concept when dealing with fiction, or even performance, drama as a trope may be viewed as a mode of writing. The latter enables Auster to enhance the way his characters try to come to terms with reality, oscillating between staged melancholy and histrionic spectacle, as in the case of Tom Wood or Harry Brightman. Furthermore, when one thinks of Harry, the comparison may be put to yet another end insofar as he often occupies the position of the court jester in the book. Auster denies being a writer who has any sort of power over his characters ((See Auster's interview "The Mechanics of Reality" on his work and the writers who influenced him. Accessed 20 October, 2009.)), but his stylistic device is one of a master puppeteer's who sets up all kinds of contraptions. And when least expected, he even produces a deus ex machina. As an author, Auster conveys therefore a strong sense of theatricality which is both successfully astonishing and diverse.

Fundamentally, the much of the novel is to be read and enjoyed as a spectacle. There is a manner in which Auster's revisiting classic sources is not merely a simple lift or a citation from the work when he playfully offers a postmodern context to old texts, especially with major literary figures in the wings. As J. Dupont argues in his introductory note to The Brooklyn Follies : "It would however be an exhaustingly vain task to try and undertake a census of the literary intertexts that run beneath the surface of Auster's work" ((On Auster's intertexts, see for instance, J. Dupont "Paul Auster : A General Introduction". Accessed April 30, 2009.)). Such an attempt is all the more so destined to be a failure as there are, beside the clearly stated references, less obvious, possibly unavowed though not any the less significant, undercurrents of intertextuality to be traced in Auster's Brooklyn Follies. Were there only one idiosyncratic trait to be highlighted in Auster's style, it would obviously be his taste for patch-working. No wonder Nathan Glass's attempt to define his Book of Human Folly ends up in a list of medley fragments which form a seemingly incongruous mix:

I called the project a book, but in fact it wasn't a book at all. Working from yellow legal pads, loose sheet of paper, the backs of envelopes and junk-mail form letters for credit cards and home-improvement loans, I was compiling what amounted to a collection of random jottings, a hodgepodge of unrelated antidotes that I would throw into a cardboard box each time another story was finished. (BF 6)

The definition of "pastiche", as suggested by F. Gallix ((See François Gallix : "Une réécriture gourmande du roman de langue anglaise : celle du pasticheur".)), minus the satirical intent, matches the list of the "ingredients" Nathan uses. Simultaneously, Auster never really conceals the strings of his puppets and, as in theatre, the props and the staging are part and parcel of accepted conventions. Allegedgly no one watches a play without being aware of the tricks and the illusionism. It simply is a case of tacitly agreeing to do so. Donning masks fit for more than one role, acting more than one part and staging both one's life and one's discourse thus foregrounds the theatricality of many a passage in the novel. In this essay, it will be argued that one implicit influence is the dramatic strain and the hybridity of a baroque vein, of which Harry Dunkel/Bright-man may be perceived as a living example. Auster excels in the art of suffusing his narrative with drama, and more importantly, allows the reader to apprehend the text "as you like it" without ever relinquishing his position as a director.

Auster's Follies and Nathan's Book of Human Folly lend themselves to a critical view through the prism of drama as a trope and various theatrical modes. Two excerpts will be explored to show how Auster uses theatricality and intertextuality to stage the self : at the beginning of the novel, Nathan's re-encounter with his nephew Tom who unexpectedly stages in public, albeit for a very limited audience, Walter Raleigh's Farewell to the Court ; the second example is the conversation at the restaurant (BF 99-110) which revolves around two utopian locations that Harry calls The Hotel Existence and which are a direct brainchild of his (and Auster's) oneiric fantasy, where visuality plays a major role. The spreading of theatre as a mode of writing pervades other aspects of the novel, and theatricality as a way to teach Auster's book is yet another facet of how drama impacts the reading of the novel.

2. When Auster meets Raleigh : intertextuality and self-derision front stage

In his role of the artist as playwright, Auster provides the reader with occasions to enjoy a number of shows put on in the course of the book, and several conversations may be read as scenes taken from one big play ((Auster has not only written prose fiction but also poetry and screenplays for films.)). The length of each act varies. So do the participants. Those conversational exchanges, to cite but a few, range in length from the jocular one-liner, such as the anecdote in the bagel shop, to ordinary chit-chat. A conversation may develop into a whole chapter, as in the central scene entitled "A night of eating and drinking" (BF 98-110). Furthermore, when focusing on theatrical modes in The Brooklyn Follies, the effect of silence is essential too insofar as it contributes to enhancing the role of speech, precisely by punctuating non-spoken text with body language. Young Lucy's pledge and her adamant refusal to speak is thus part of a pantomime which makes the passages where the little girl effectively decides to speak all the more forceful, and even downright amusing. As Joseph Litvak formulates it, theatricality "signifies not a single unitary style or content, but a set of shifting, contradictory energies" (Litvak xvii). Thus, in a narrative which begins with "I was looking for a quiet place to die" (BF 1), the opposing energy to a morbid impulse is generated by the characters' ability to stage both their stories and their selves, as for instance Tom upon meeting again his uncle Nat.

How to stage despair with the appropriate degree of melancholy but without lapsing into tragedy is one of the questions raised by Auster's novel, in which not only characters but locations also have symbolic names. Their connotation can be ironic as the "Garden of Earthly Delights", evocative of Bosch's tryptich, where Tom celebrates a lonely birthday. Or the Cosmic Diner which echoes the lost glory of Tom's "Imaginary Edens" and becomes then a stage onto which he delivers a poignant soliloquy. In fact, his soliloquy is a direct lift from Raleigh and Tom is acting it out. The diner thus morphs into the setting for a fictional collision between two genres: the novel and poetry. Moreover, the poem chosen is a piece by a well-known figure of the Renaissance literary scene in Britain. Raleigh's lines allude to a sad moment in his life as a courtier (1593) and, in that sense, it aptly mirrors Tom's feeling of failure and dejection. The way he recites Raleigh has also similarities with Shakespeare's Jacques in As You Like It inasmuch as Tom's character is profoundly melancholic, as Nathan notes : "A touch of melancholy had been added to it" (BF 19). Incidentally, Raleigh's trial is recorded as being one occasion of making a rhetorical use of adoxography, the art of praising worthless things or values which are otherwise not recommended. The other famous example of this stylistic device being the Morias Enkomion, better known as Erasmus's The Praise of Folly (1512) there are hints at another layer of intertextuality.

However, the passage is both about Tom's bout of melancholy and about staging the borrowing of a literary piece, thus making a spectacle of unconcealed intertextuality. The narrator's citing the source creates a temporal distance while it manages to conjure the image of the speaker suddenly cloaked in Elizabethan garb, in front of the reader's eyes. Since Raleigh's piece of poetry is accompanied by specific stage directions, the poem becomes a means to expressing emotions related to Tom's own past, a way to debunk intellectualism and perhaps even undermine the power of books, otherwise so much praised:

The ex-Dr. Thumb closed his eyes, tilted back his head and shot a forefinger into the air, as if trying to remember something he'd forgotten long ago. Then, in a somber, mock-theatrical voice, he recited the opening lines of Raleigh's Farewell to the Court (BF 22).

In spite of the poem's cathartic dimension, as staged by Tom, the speaker's attitude seems in direct contradiction with the positive virtues books (and literature at large) with which they are endowed all through the novel. Such a restorative power is illustrated by the story of Kafka's doll, but also by Nathan's project to write (auto)biogaphies for others, and it is eventually put in a nutshell in one sentence whose illocutionary force is not to be ignored : "one should never underestimate the power of books" (BF 307). Nor should one disregard the impact of what, at first sight, is merely an ordinary social gathering with interchange of thoughts.

3. Peeping behind the scenes of existence : theatricality and visuality

The chapter "A night eating and drinking" is a conversation in its entirety. It contains all the formal features of an excerpt from a screen-play but Auster makes it difficult to elicit generic limits. Since this central conversation is set amidst a larger piece, dominantly in prose, the status of the reader abruptly changes: there is a shift from external apprehension to actively taking part in the text as a member of a private audience that has been invited to eavesdrop a conversation. Contrary to other dialogues, this one is printed with the proper layout of a play. In addition, with its reference to "the world as a big black hole", the line could be taken straight from a play by Beckett, an author whom Auster met and has always admired ((See Auster on Beckett in "Laughter in the dark".)). The connection between Auster and Beckett may not come as a surprise, as shown by Julie Campbell whose essays demonstrate to what extent Auster is indebted to Beckett. Auster also recollects his personal conversations with Beckett and the Irish writer is clearly to be listed among the most striking influences on the American writer's way of dealing with solitude and the meaning of life in his fiction.

The conversation at the French restaurant is preceded by a page in italics which stands out visually and is stuctured so as to read both as a description and stage direction. Bearing in mind that the definition of "stage direction" is : "an instruction written into the script of a play, indicating stage actions, movements of performers, or production requirements" ((Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 1997.)), at that point, the narrator shifts from descriptive to prescriptive, and even preceptive since the Greek etymology "didaskein" also applies to the word "didactic". Auster / Nathan makes it obvious that this is a piece of drama inserted in the narrative: "Once the conversation begins, further stage directions will be kept to a minimum. It is the author's opinion that only the words spoken by the above-mentioned characters are of any importance to the narrative" (BF 98). Referring explicitly to didascalia sets immediately the tone, and is yet another common point with Beckett, who is well known for his recurrent use of stage directions. However, the truthfulness of the narrator's statement is soon challenged by at least two other instances. The first echoes Tom's attitude when reciting Raleigh: "Harry (closing his eyes; pressing his forefinger against his temples)" (BF 102). The second is in the same vein: "Tom (a long silence; then in a low voice, as if speaking to himself)" (BF 107). As speaking for others rapidly turns into a soliloquy, there is also a degree of solipsism to be traced in those characters. The self is undoubtedly put front stage, but one may wonder what happens behind the scenes.

Nathan, as the author of The Book of Human Folly is cast in the role of a spectator of the outer world, at times akin to a social anthropologist, but also often shown in a Narcissistic pose, poring over his own image, so much so that spectacle and specularity combine and reinforce each other. This is particularly striking in the comically staged retrieval of the buzzing razor and the ultimate attempt to be perceived as a hero in his daughter's eyes. At the other end of that spectrum, the warped and, to Tom, disturbing representation of Aurora in the role of a pornographic model serves as a catalyst for the negativity-enhancing discourse, intimately linked to ex-Dr Thumb's character. Whilst Tom's vision of his own pitiful existence is corporeally duplicated by his deflated penis when he discovers the pictures of his sister at the sperm bank, masturbation opens for Nathan the doors (of perception) of a surrogate if not satisfactory sex life with the young waitress Marina. Feeling his bodily functions restored, be it through a dramatised scenario in a dream, indicates a first step to regaining access to life. The inner gaze and those dreams are the essence of Nathan's revival, Tom's melancholy and Harry's utopia. "Jerk off material" as Tom notes (BF 106) is the stuff their dreams are made on. The characters feed on those dreams, for dreams, though with opposite results, are in fact equally central to all three. The male self is shown through the prism of an onanistic oneirism and the mirror Auster holds up to the reader's eye is the looking-glass/Glass in which both existentialism as a philosophical tenet and vanity as a human folly are reflected and simultaneously deflected.

Vanity, as manifested in Rory's scandalous poses in the magazine, is also reminiscent of "vanity", as a synonym for the painterly genre, commonly referred to as "still life". The fixed images in the magazine are described in very graphic terms by the narrator and there is an ekphrastic quality to that enumeration which accelerates the reading rhythm in a way that simulates a pulse that would beat increasingly faster. The context of the sperm bank and Tom's activity coalesce in the reader's mind and generate a reception horizon with a climax to be experienced. But instead of satisfying a voyeuristic drive, there are two opposing energies at work. The pleasure derived by the model from exhibiting her body collides with the visual impact of those images which so deeply entrance Tom that they act like epitaphs on the tombstone of lost innocence. It is that sense of loss which prevents him from performing sexually when he is in the lab. Fixity and phallic rigidity counteract each other. In its condensed acception, the word still life' implies a lack of (e)motion, as it is traditionally attached to memento mori signifiers. Yet for Tom, there is no petite mort on that occasion, but only the despair caused by the view of his sister's degraded body. The antidote to Tom's negative perception may then be found in the bountiful baroque vein in Auster's novel, especially as epitomised in the settings of Harry's two distinct Hotel Existence, for which the status of dreams is essential.

Harry's two-layered identity and renaming bears on the transfer from one language to another, and as such tallies with the notion of multiplicity - and even duplicity. Nathan's observation "that the kid needs to talk" (BF 107) shows that, whether based on literary figures or not, the characters' speech has to become an "act" and as such, it has the performative effect of a fictional cure to resist the darkest side of human nature. The performative power of words and speech-acts, in the sense J. L. Austin gave to the term ((For more details on pragmatics and Austin's definition of performative utterances and speech-act see How to Do Things with Words.)), is indeed at the heart of the narrative. Behind its onomastic mask, Harry Bright-man/Dunkel is a name which evokes a somewhat shady character, as is made clear by his daughter's remark to Tom : "It means dark, in case you didn't know. My father is a dark man, and he lives in a dark wood. He pretends he's a bright man now, but that's only a trick" (BF 36). Mad Flora, whose folly reminds us of the insanity of a rambling Ophelia, elicits the echo to Tom's surname "In the middle of life's journey, I lost my way in a dark wood" and by doing so she not only adds another shade to Harry's portrait but aims at reinforcing the fact that Wood is "a wood", changing thus the essence of language. Beside the obvious game with the moral values on bright/dark, there is also a visual dimension to it, as in the baroque technique of chiaroscuro whose main purpose was to apply a stylistic device that would dramatically enhance the effects of contrast between light and dark. Indeed Harry seems to best encapsulate it all when reminiscing the second Hotel Existence : "the first move was always with the eyes and the place is explicitly associated with hobnob, chiaroscuro, fate" (BF 105).

Visuality and theatricality go together in several other scenes. For instance when Nathan and Lucy hide to spy on Tom and Honey : "Like two secret agents, our girl and yours truly hid behind one of the bookcases and observed the following exchange" (BF 238). The latter is in fact a long dialogue which could be part of a play, if not a soap opera. On a different level, visual effects are created when a character is described as if wearing a mask. From the start, Harry's flamboyant character is a spectacle in its own right. The moment he is introduced to the reader, his appearance is theatricalised by the allusion to a Halloween mask:

His broad, jowly face, his exceedingly round, somewhat bulging blue eyes, and the curious configuration of his upper teeth which fanned out in a way that suggested a jack-o'-lantern, with small gaps between them. He was a strange little pumpkinhead of man (BF 57).

The gaps suggest a source of light that might irradiate in an irregular fashion from his mouth if he were indeed a Halloween pumpkin with a candle inside. Candle-lit figures being typical of baroque art, more specifically 'tenebrism' (("Tenebrism" is the name given to the period of the Renaissance when painters like Carravagio or Rubens would develop a genre which predominantly represented nocturnal candle-lit scenes. Artists such as George de la Tour in France or Wright of Derby in England are often associated with that type of artistic device too.)), the unnatural quality of a that vegetal-like visage has both a fascinating and disturbing effect that augments the discrepancy between reality and fiction, and reinforces the message that all the world - fictional or not - is a stage.

4. Theatrum mundi as a modus scribendi

Auster's novel teems with theatrical elements which allow the reader to perceive the impact of what one might call soundscapes. Gordon Dryer is announced in didascalic terms : "Enter a young artist named Gordon Dryer" (BF 43). Theatre-within-theatre is also present, for instance, in the argument during the conversation at the restaurant: "those were the props that helped get things started" (BF 105). While Harry's second Hotel Existence is narrated in cinematographic terms, with references to actors and directors, the first one is set in an imaginary Hungarian landscape and is "a baroque castle plucked from the boulevards of Baden-Baden" (BF 104). Although the trip to Vermont may be associated with the road movie genre, the scene conveys the impression of those old black and white films, shot in the studio. They were fairly static and directed as if the actors were performing on a stage rather than in front of a camera. As a matter of fact, the passage does not contain any specific reference to either change of landscape or motion of the car but insists on speech : "Tom and I talked in the front" (BF 148).

Harry Brightman, who introduces himself with a number of identities, is a mix of stand up comedy and one-man show. Nathan features a first person narrator who overtly stages his own fictitious autobiographical account by framing it carefully in a metafictional mise en abyme (and mise en scene) entitled The Book of Human Folly which records the many acts and mishaps in his life. His nephew Tom and the former convict Harry Brightman seem to aptly correspond to Shakespeare's lines in As You Like It (Act. II, sc. 7) :

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players :
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.

Toward the end of the novel, when Nathan plays the film noir protagonist who threatens to bust Gordon Dryer, he puts on the temporary mask of a Philip Marlowe whose parodic (and improvised) Chandlerian tone turns out to be vivifying in the last chapters of the book whilst aptly illustrating the earlier comment in the novel of life as "the great spectacle of human crookedness." This again is a striking example of the power of spoken words since Nathan has no other weapon really with which he can effectively be menacing to Gordon. Both Dryer and the reader are deluded into believing that Nathan might indeed be a challenging adversary and for a moment we forget that this is an elderly man in remission of a lung cancer addressing a dangerous criminal.

Finally, the tension between sound and silence in Auster's narrative is a further dimension of theatricality. Tina Hott's performances, as Nathan discovers on the day of Harry's funeral foregrounds artificiality while Lucy's pantomimic mode of communication is another kind of still life. Although the girl introduces a degree of jest and comic relief, for example by filling the gas tank with coca cola, deep down she is often grave. Her absence of speech is combined with theatrical gestures which compensate for the lack of words : "A shrug, followed by a large, ever more beautiful smile as if to say, We'll figure out" (BF 127). Auster's novel is thus simultaneously a demonstration of the power of words and a narrative which features characters whose attempts to express themselves either falter or require props. As with the gestures that accompany the "X marks the spot" game designed for children to associate words and the effect on the body when interpreted in a certain sense, Auster's novel turns out to be an ideal ground for acting.

5. Teaching The Brooklyn Follies, or how to flesh out the text

From a pedagogical viewpoint, reading and being "caught in the act", as Litvak put it, helps the students to become aware of subtle details, as for instance in the case of Tom's reciting Raleigh. The re-enactment of that literary scene allows students to apprehend Tom's dejection and the self-derision that is so characteristic of his melancholic temper. By getting to grips with the text via body language, theatricality also elicits a "total physical response" ((The total physical response approach for language teaching was initiated in the seventies. The concept is based on the idea that students acquire language skills by moving and getting physically involved in the learning task. The method relies on the assumption that second language learning might be similar to first language development.)) from the students. Since the book is studied by non-native speakers, the visual and non verbal dimension becomes helpful, all the more so as the comments made by the narrator on Tom's body language, and the scene in the restaurant smack of chirologia ((Chirologia is a seventeenth-century theory, often applied by comedians, and which was based on the idea that the hand was an accessory to enhancing rhetorical aspects of the language.)). But body language serves more than one purpose in The Brooklyn Follies.

Unlike reading silently, acting out and reading aloud for an audience helps to identify and pinpoint the key elements in the text. Much like illustrating fictional scenes with pictures, using the classroom as a stage is a means to interpreting the text in the multiplicity of its possible meanings, as well as running the gamut of phonological possibilities. Depending on the stress pattern and the accompanying body language that is applied, the text will be given a different meaning. This can be neatly experimented in the classroom, for instance, when Nathan is described as "flirting a little more aggressively" with Marina at the Cosmic Diner. In fact, Auster's style gives the impression to have anticipated such a transposition in several passages, thus laying bare the threads of his puppeteering. This may well be due to his experience as a scriptwriter. As an amateur director, a teacher may feel he has been passed the baton and will then relate differently to the object of study. Since directing implies a degree of interpretative liberty, which may then be taken (or not) with the text, new avenues open up from this perspective. Similarly, when Nathan refuses to inform the reader about Tom and Honey's first night together, he simply opens an elliptic space for the reader to complete 'as you like it' :

Tom and Honey deserve their privacy, and for that reason I will end my report of the night's activities here. If some readers object, I ask them to close their eyes and use their imaginations. (BF 195)

The absence of graphic details, elsewhere provided in the novel, situates this passage at the other end of the theatrical spectrum, as if to say that, although precise stage directions are frequently given in the narrative, there are still sufficient blanks left for the reader-director-actor to fill in.

From Harry's teeth to the blanks generated by Lucy's silence, the text is performed as well as perforated. The first of those holes is to be found in the middle of the bagel mentioned in the chapter "Overture". The importance of this small edible piece of Jewish bakery dawns only with hindsight on the reader when the latter puts the book down after the last page. There are, though perhaps in an oblique manner, aspects of Auster's play on temporal dislocation that point to an invitation for the reader to engage with the text backward and forward at once. Such a reading pattern induces a circularity for which the first anecdote of the cinnamon-raisin-pumpernixon bagel, logged in Nathan's Book of Folly under an accidental "slip of the tongue", offers a neat metafictional mise en abyme, as well as a visual counterpart to the object of amusement. As matter of fact, the geometrically-designed bagel plays more than one part, and staging the joke, though merely as a one-liner, contributes to improving the appraisal of what happens to Nathan at that point. It is an example of the kind of food (for thought) the reader - the one who purportedly is meant to get access to Nathan's reminiscences and the external implied reader of Auster's text - is to nibble at throughout the subsequent chapters. As this first mishap is also the first instance in a series of staged slapstick episodes which enhance the comic facet of The Brooklyn Follies. For all the subsequent acts and scenes, the curtain may then rise against the backdrop of a constant oscillation between comedy and tragedy, between opera and cabaret which, in turn, reflects on Auster's novel as a tragi-comic piece written in a baroque and macaronic fashion ((The term "macaronic" is to be apprehended in the sense of a burlesque composition based on hybridity. A typically macaronic aspect of Auster's novel is, for instance, the mixture of Spanish and English when Nathan displays the necklace to Marina. Her "Qué linda!" is an exclamation that conveys exoticism and adds to her seductive powers whilst resorting to what Bakhtin named "heteroglossia" contributes to enhancing the vividness and theatricality of this particular scene.)).


Beside renovating autofiction as a genre by adding a political stance, something which has been discussed in M. Thévenon's essay on autofiction before and after 9/11 ((See Marie Thévenon. 2009. "A reading of The Brooklyn Follies through the lens of autofiction".  Accessed November 27, 2009.)), there is, in Auster's work, a drive for an harmonious resolution. As long as Nathan struggles to regain stamina and find a meaning to his life, the latter is a muteless existence which is akin to a still life painting. The denouement, with its deus ex machina, is thus twofold. In spite of the impending disaster, the final reversal hints at comic relief and clearly demonstrates that, although all had come to stand still, there still is life. As the narrative unfolds, Auster sheds a raking light on the concentric circles of sympathy and thus variegated shades contaminate the word "performance". Indeed, he both adapts and adopts the baroque theatrum mundi as his modus scribendi by inserting didascalia so that the passage may be acted out almost verbatim, and by displaying a range of visual effects which highlight elements in the layout, such as Tom's letter about Pamela (BF 140) or the type on the surface of the page (italics, BF 98).

Masks, visuality and the sound of the text when spoken rather than simply read, add to the author/director's resourceful paraphernalia of theatrical mimetism. Such narrative devices, some of which close to contraptions, create a motif where spectacle and specularity combine, thus making a convincing and often entertaining show of what lies at the heart of this writer's work : the constantly shifting boundaries of genres and the notion of floating self. Rufus's dis-located cabaret number, performed by Tina Hott who is lip-synching and is so aptly described in a sentence that conflates at once the masculine and the feminine, demonstrates the fact that there are no discernable lines between reality and fantasy. The scene puts in a nutshell the essence of what the book is about, namely contrasts and the striving for harmony. "It was magnificent and absurd. It was funny and heartbreaking. It was moving and comical" (BF 228). Arguably the terms that best summarise the whole novel.

The more Nathan narrates his encounters, the more the reader feels that there must be some kind of force manoeuvring behind the wings for, although towards the end the narrator believes his last hour has come, he is only briefly threatened in fact. Indeed Nathan's final coup reads like a miracle, and here Walt Whitman, both as a transcendentalist and as someone who lived in Brooklyn, like Auster, comes back to the reader's mind:

As for me, I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky ((Walt Whitman. Poem of Perfect Miracles. Leaves of Grass. 1856.Accessed November 25, 2009.))

It is the teetering on the cusp of veracity and illusion that breathes life into a narrative of death and despair, but there is no desire to hide the trappings and mechanisms behind the work. Through a pattern of ever-expanding circles of theatrical modes Auster constructs of narrative made of scattered fragments, which eventually fit in a larger picture, that of a common literary heritage and singular eccentricities drawn to each other.


Allen, Graham. Intertextuality. London : Routledge, 2000.

Auster on Beckett : Laughter in the Dark. Accessed 20 October, 2009.

Auster, Paul. The Brooklyn Follies. New York : Picador, 2006.

Auster, Paul. The City of Glass. London : Faber & Faber, 1987.

Campbell, Julie. "Samuel Beckett and Paul Auster: fathers and sons and the creativity of misreading." Ben Zvi, Linda and Moorjani, Angela (eds.) Beckett at 100: Revolving it All. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2007): 299-310, 300.

Davis. Tracy. C. and Postlewait Thomas eds. Theatricality. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2003.

François Gallix (Université Paris Sorbonne - Paris IV). 2009. "Une réécriture gourmande du roman de langue anglaise : celle du pasticheur".La Clé des Langues (Lyon: ENS LSH/DGESCO). Accessed 20 October, 2009.

Litvak, Joseph. Caught in the Act : Theatricality in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1992.

Luckhurst, Mary. Dramaturgy. A Revolution in Theatre. Cambridge : Cambridge U Press, 2006.

Ubersfeld, Anne. Reading Theatre, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Brigitte Friant-Kessler, "All the World’s a Folly : Theatricality and Intertextuality in Paul Auster’s «The Brooklyn Follies»", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), décembre 2009. Consulté le 29/05/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-americaine/dossier-paul-auster/all-the-world-s-a-folly-theatricality-and-intertextuality-in-paul-auster-s-the-brooklyn-follies