PAUL AUSTER AND I

Published May 12, 2024

I first ran into Paul Auster completely by chance at Liberty Books in Karachi’s Clifton area in 2003. This was entirely apt, as I was to discover later, since much of his writing played around with the role of coincidence and fortuition in our lives.

Of course, I didn’t actually run into Paul Auster, who I had no idea about before that moment. I just chanced upon one of his books called The Book of Illusions.

Under normal circumstances I might have put the book back on the shelves after reading the blurb on the back. It tried to pitch the book as a “searing portrait of grief” or something along those lines. Under normal circumstances, that might have been enough to put me off.

But I was going through some things at the time that had put me in a different frame of mind and, despite the heaviness of the blurb, I was somehow drawn to the book, its title and the fact that it apparently involved a filmmaker who had stopped making films. I decided to buy it.

When I started reading the novel, I couldn’t let go. Let me just tell you the set-up to the story and I promise this is not a spoiler. The novel begins with the young family — wife and two kids — of a college professor dying in a plane crash in the 1980s. The tragedy devastates the professor and he cuts himself off from the world and sinks into depression and alcoholism. He takes leave from the college and spends his time alone at home, drinking and mindlessly flipping through channels on television.

Six months or so later, one day while surfing TV, he comes across a documentary about a rising star silent era comedian who made only 11 films before vanishing during the American Great Depression, in 1929. Speculation was that he had either committed suicide or had been killed by someone.

I was somehow drawn to the book, its title and the fact that it apparently involved a filmmaker who had stopped making films. I decided to buy it.

One of the clips from his films makes our professor laugh for one second. He realises this is the first time in over six months that he had found any form of joy, even fleeting, and he gets obsessed about this comedian he had never heard of before.

He discovers that prints of the comic star’s handful of films are lying with various cinematheques around the world. He decides to travel to them to watch those silent films and writes a slim book about them — although he has no previous interest in writing on films — treating it like an exercise to keep himself occupied. Once this niche book comes out, he goes back to his previous routine, until he receives a letter that upends his life.

That is the set-up to a novel that builds a world that sucks you in but actually traverses ideas about healing from grief, about memory and erasure and reinventing oneself. I was so enamoured of Auster’s writing style that I would force myself not to read any more than 20 pages a night, in the hope that the book would not end. It was the first and only time I’ve ever done that.

Even with only reading 20 pages a day, however, the book did of course, inevitably, end. I am fully aware that my circumstances may not apply to other readers but, somehow, I felt this work of fiction helped me come out of the funk I had been struggling with. Most people will refer to Auster’s more well-known works, such as The New York Trilogy, or the Booker Prize-nominated 4 3 2 1 but, for me, no other had the impact of that first book of his I read.

Immediately after finishing the book, I felt compelled to write out a letter to the author, detailing my experience with his novel and expressing a desire to adapt it into a film. This is also the only time I have ever written something like this. I thought I had discovered someone brilliant and new.

But then I did some research and discovered that not only was Paul Auster a very well-known and highly regarded author, but that he had also penned scripts to and co-directed at least two films that I had already seen. I also found out he was protective of his privacy, although he was also apparently a warm and empathetic human being. To be honest, I was embarrassed by my own ignorance. I never sent the letter.

But I did start reading more of Paul Auster. And I recommended The Book of Illusions to any who asked me. In fact, I also gave away a bunch of copies to friends. Some months later, I was recommending the book to the writer and historian Nasreen Rehman — who at the time was consulting on a Bollywood film — and she surprised me by telling me that it was one of two books recommended to her by Shah Rukh Khan. I was sure at the time that this signalled that SRK was also interested in turning it into a film, but it also raised his estimation in my eyes.

I heard about Paul Auster’s passing from my friend the novelist Mohammad Hanif, who called from London to inform me of it, because he remembered my obsession with him and felt I was the only person he could condole with. I never met Paul Auster but I felt I understood at least parts of him. It’s a reminder that differences of culture, background and experiences are often secondary to the commonality of human emotions.

The Book of Illusions begins with an epigraph from French memoirist Chateaubriand who the professor is translating: “Man has not one and the same life. He has many lives, placed end to end, and that is the cause of his misery.”

I should have sent that letter.

The writer is a journalist and filmmaker and also Dawn’s Editor Magazines. X: @hyzaidi

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 12th, 2024

Opinion

Editorial

China’s concerns
23 Jun, 2024

China’s concerns

RUMOURS had been swirling that China was less than enthusiastic about forging ahead with new CPEC schemes, primarily...
War drums
23 Jun, 2024

War drums

NOT satisfied with the slaughter it has unleashed in Gaza, Israel is now preparing to turn its guns on Lebanon,...
Balochistan budget
23 Jun, 2024

Balochistan budget

BALOCHISTAN’S Rs955.6bn budget for the fiscal year 2024-25 makes many pledges to the poor citizens of Pakistan’s...
Another lynching
Updated 22 Jun, 2024

Another lynching

The chilling alternative to not doing anything — which appears to be the state’s preferred option — is the advent of mob rule.
Tax & representation
22 Jun, 2024

Tax & representation

THE taxation measures outlined in the budget for the incoming fiscal year have triggered a lot of concern among ...
Life of the party?
22 Jun, 2024

Life of the party?

THE launch of Awaam Pakistan, a party led by former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and former finance minister...