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The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster
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Nov 24, 11

Read in December, 2009

Paul Auster’s The Book Of Illusions offers the reader pretty much what the title promises. It’s a book and there are illusions! By the time we arrive at the end of the tale, however, we perhaps see the two terms as synonyms. Throughout, reality changes to fiction, fantasy becomes fact. An academic’s study of an actor’s comedy leads to an intimate involvement with the subject’s life. That life has itself become a fiction, lived with a declared aim of producing films that no-one will see. In the films, fantasies are enacted which later become real, and by design, thus rendering the original merely rehearsal. Meanwhile, the academic translates a biography so long it seems a lifetime’s work is needed to recreate it afresh. But who knows what in that memoir might be invention, mere illusion?

Hector Mann is a silent movie star. He has an enigmatic style that was never fully exploited in the industry because of interpersonal relationship problems with others in his studio. He would never have made it in talkies anyway because of a thick immigrant’s accent. I have just used a relative term as if it were an absolute. I meant, of course, that Hector Mann was an immigrant to the United States. Hector Mann, incidentally, is also Hector Spelling, amongst others.

Professor Zimmer, a recent victim of family loss via the indisputable finality of an air crash has spent much effort researching the life and career of Hector Mann. He has written a book on the star’s silent movies. The comedy, it seems, is all in the slight movement of the hairline moustache, the actor’s trademark. But there was much more, such as innovation, poetry and inner meaning within Hector Mann’s characters and plots.

One day, Professor Zimmer’s wife and kids are no more and, decades earlier, Hector’s tenuous working relationships dissolve to nil via conflict. The learned professor descends into booze and an apparently interminable translation of Chateaubriand’s history. Hector leaves film and wanders elsewhere, soon to make a living out of live pornography. It’s a role he was born for, but his true identity, at least the one he has publicly shared, once discovered, becomes his downfall. He runs away from the revelation of his self.

In the middle of a mid-West backwater, a place out of which Hector created a fiction only later to render it real, an act of heroism brings a couple together. They gel. But the resulting arrangement is complex. An inheritance facilitates a totally private exploration of personal interest and thus imprisoned talent. New films are made, but they are never aired. They are different, even revolutionary, but no-one ever sees them because Hector and his new partner have opted for remote obscurity.

Professor Zimmer, having assumed that Hector had died, finds out that he is still alive. There’s a chance that his book is incomplete. Another relationship gels when Alma, the daughter of one of Hector’s collaborators, visits the professor to share a project. Together they travel to New Mexico, where Hector lies close to death. There they discover a life’s work that might change the history of cinema, but it’s a life’s work that was created for purely private purposes and carrying its own death warrant.

In The Book Of Illusions, Paul Auster seems to juxtapose a reality that seems less than real with fiction that feels immediate. It’s a blurring of experience and invention, with only one reality, itself unreal, definitive. It’s a superb book, brilliantly constructed, utterly credible, but constantly surprising.

The characters’ lives turn in circles. They seem only in part control and yet they always retain the option of decision. Their creativity produces a string of illusion, much of it quite real or destined to become so. And be under no illusion, the amount of destiny that we control could depend on how ruthlessly we pursue it.
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