Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Sunday Salon – Travels in the Scriptorium



It’s been a good reading week here. I started and finished Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel and Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen. It was with some relief that I finally finished Eat, Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Three very different books and I’m going to write separate posts on each of them. I’m behind with writing about these books – I just can’t keep up with my own reading. After doing the Page 123 meme on Friday I decided that I would read Travels in the Scriptorium next and I stuck to that even though Remember Me by Melvyn Bragg arrived on Saturday morning.

Yesterday was a beautiful day here and I sat for a while in the garden reading Paul Auster’s Travels In the Scriptorium. It’s a very short novel (130 pages) and I read it in one sitting. I found it to be an odd little tale about Mr Blank, an old man who wakes to find that he is alone in a room. He doesn’t know where he is, who he is or why he is in the almost empty room. At first it seems as this is the story about old age and memory, but as I read on I realised it is more than this. It’s metafiction, with a story, or rather stories within the story, posing a puzzle. Mr Blank spends his day looking at photos on the desk, reading an unfinished manuscript, thinking about his past and talking to the various people who visit him as the day progresses.

Travels in the Scriptorium is a slender book, written in beautiful but simple prose. I wasn’t sure what to expect, after all a scriptorium is a writing room in a monastery but having read it I think the clue to its contents is in the title.

If you’ve never read any of Auster’s books I suppose you could still enjoy this book, but you wouldn’t realise what it was all about and I wouldn’t recommend that you start with this book. If you like a novel to have everything explained and a complete ending with all the strands of the story neatly tied up then don’t read it either. I’ve only read two of Auster’s books – Oracle Night and The Book of Illusions and when I read that Anna, one of the characters in Travels had been married to David Zimmer light began to dawn – Zimmer is the main character in The Book of Illusions, but he wasn’t married to Anna. The title Travels in the Scriptorium is also the title of a film in The Book of Illusions, so obviously, I thought, these are not accidents – Auster is doing this on purpose. It turns out that all the characters in Travels are characters from his other books.

The manuscript story is unfinished and Mr Blank is disgusted. He is told that a man named Trause is the author. Here is a hint I thought to the puzzle, as Trause is an anagram of Auster as well as being a character in Oracle Night, a character who is also an author. So, this book is about writing, about words and characters and the nature of authorship. As the narrator says of the characters
“the paradox is that we, the figments of another mind, will outlive the mind that made us, for once we are thrown into the world, we continue to exist for ever, and our stories go on being told, even after we are dead.”
I think that it is not just the characters that continue to exist but also the authors – we can still read their words and explore what was in their minds through their books. Our interpretation may not be what the author intended (I read somewhere that the reader writes the text), but still I am fascinated by reading what (for example) Jane Austen wrote two centuries ago and what Paul Auster wrote two years ago.

I’m still thinking about Travels. If you’re a fan of Auster then you’ll read it. But is it a great book, a good book or just a book? Just for the fact that it entertained me and made me think I’m going to say it is a good book – but not a great book. I may re-read it sometime when I’ve read a few more of his novels.

This morning I’ve read some more of Les Miserables and have now finished Part One. It’s difficult to know what to write about this novel – it’s long, (nearly ten time longer than Travels), long-winded but compelling me to read on. I remember seeing a TV version some years ago and vaguely know the story. I remember in particular watching with horror after Fantine, desperate for money had sold her two front teeth. My reaction was just the same on reading about it.There’s a whole host of characters and the novel covers a broad sweep of French history in the 19th century. It’s the story of Jean Valjean the ex-prisoner who transformed himself into the respected Mayor Monsieur Madeleine and then is revealed as Valjean by the end of Part One. Part Two opens at Waterloo. I’m tempted to see the musical at the Queen’s Theatre this summer if I can get tickets.

That's all for now as later we're meeting some of the family and going on a bluebell walk. Heavy rain is forecast for today but so far there's no sign of it - I hope it keeps fine for this afternoon.

9 comments:

Table Talk said...

I haven't read any Auster, although my friend Steve, whose opinions I truly value, is a great fan, so I don't know why that is. from what you say here it sounds as though he's someone you need to read chronologically to have any hope of seeing how everything links together. I must see if I can find a site that lists his output as he wrote it.

Chayenne said...

I wasn't sure what to make of Travels either. (Read my take on it here.) Like you, I thought it was good in the sense that it was provocative. But I also found it to be maddeningly obtuse.

Alison Boon said...

I read some of Auster for my literature degree but must coness to having shunned him since.
I love the classics but for many years put off readng The conte of Monte Cristo because of the size of the novel. When I finally did read it I wish I'd not been so stubborn. It was brilliant, if a bit of work.

litlove said...

I'd really like to read some Auster but don't know where to begin. I actually have both the other novels you mention - any guidance as to which one is the better book?

BooksPlease said...

Table Talk, I'd be interested in your views on Auster's books.You can find a list on Wikipedia.

Cheyenne, yes obtuse and detailed description of everyday things - like getting dressed, also frustrating, yet somehow I found the ending to be the only ending it could have had.

Alison, sometimes studying can result in a turn-off for me. I have the Count of MC sitting on the bookshelves - unread, glad you thought it was brilliant.

Litlove, I read Oracle Night two years ago, so my memory of it is now a bit vague! I did enjoy the Book of Illusions, which I read a short while ago see my thoughts here. Which is the better book? Both kept my interest to the end - Oracle Night made me think I'd read more of Auster, maybe I'd start with that one. Dip into both and see which one grabs you most, or try reading page 69 as Cornflower suggested recently on her post on the Page 123 meme!

Lisa said...

I haven't read any Auster, but this sounds fascinating. Do you think I would be totally lost starting with this one?

BooksPlease said...

Lisa I don't think you'd be totally lost, but I find it frustrating that I can't identify the sources of all the characters. Maybe not knowing any of them could be better than knowing some - sorry, I just don't know the answer to your question.

Gentle Reader said...

I had only read The Book of Illusions when I read Travels in the Scriptorium, so I found it all a bit cryptic. I enjoyed The Book of Illusions, though, so I decided the best thing would be to go back and read Auster's other novels!

Lezlie said...

Hi, Margaret!

I just finished reading this last night. If it is alright with you, I'm going to link your review to mine as you have captured the book beautifully, and I only have a couple of personal thoughts on it to add.

Have a great day!
Lezlie