REPORT FROM THE INTERIOR by Paul Auster (Faber & Faber, 2013).
Given that this is the fifth autobiographical work Paul Auster has written, he is surely being a tad disingenuous when, in a recent NPR interview, he said: “I really have no interest in myself, I find it a very boring topic”.
He sought to explain this paradox by saying “what I’m interested in is trying to remember things from my life that will somehow connect with things that other people have experienced”.
In the first, and best, section of this book Auster, who was born in 1947, takes a mental journey back to his early years up to the age of 12. This cut off point is chosen because after that age, he maintains, you are no longer a child but moving, albeit tentatively, into the world of adulthood.
A curiosity is that Auster writes in the second person singular as though to distance himself from the person he once was as he attempts to “explore the internal geography of your boyhood”. His aim is to dredge up some notion of when his own personality was forged. This includes trying to locate the moment when he first realized that he was American and how this knowledge affected his character. The growing awareness that he was also Jewish was another crucial and uncomfortable part of his identity.
He notes how he seems to be looking back on another person rather than an earlier version of himself: “In spite of who you were you are no longer the same person”.
It has to be admitted that some experiences are more universal than others. Most readers will be able to relate to the tortuous onset of adolescence when he recalls : “By eleven, you were mutating into a creature of the herd, struggling through that grotesque period of prepubescent dislocation when everyone is thrust into the microcosm of a closed society”. Other memories are so personal that it’s hard to see how to connect with them especially since Auster makes no overt attempt to place them in a wider context.
He examines the gulf between the inner self and the public version, something which has become a recurring theme in Auster’s fiction: “you had always considered the act of writing to be a gesture that moved from the inside to the outside”.
The second section is called Two Blows To The Head and consists of detailed plot descriptions of two movies that made a big impact on him – The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) which he saw at the age of 10 and I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932) which he encountered four years later. In these pieces you learn more about the movies than about Auster.
In Time Capsule, the third and weakest section, Auster spends an increasingly tedious 100 pages dwelling upon a batch of letters that he wrote to the woman who was to become his first wife. This period of his past has already been covered in a book – Hand To Mouth – but is revisited here on the pretext that he was not previously aware that this correspondence still existed.
Lengthy extracts come with the caveat that “you have no intention of turning these pages into a rehash of the romantic dramas you lived through forty-five years ago” yet it’s hard to know what insights he feels a general reader can glean from the contents. For example, he discovers that he returned to New York after a lengthy sojourn in Paris in mid-November rather than the second half of October but such small details hardly seem to justify a reappraisal of his memoirs from this period.
We are left to wade through turgid reflections like “I hate myself for what I feel to be an impatience with others , and yet can do nothing about it”.
This book is self-indulgent but worth reading for the first part. The conclusion we can reach is that the interior is where memories lie and where the future is made and Auster’s own particular slant on this is that “the world is in my head, my body is in the world” .