Boogie-toed prankster: Paul Auster, Mr Vertigo

Paul Auster, Mr Vertigo. Faber and Faber, 2006. First published 1994

I took this novel with me on a long journey recently. I nearly gave up after 30 pages, because the style and subject-matter were so implausible and grating. I had no other reading matter to hand, so persevered. Although the later parts of the novel showed sporadic signs of improvement, I was still left unimpressed by the end.

Paul Auster Mr Vertigo cover The central character is the whimsically named orphan Walter Rawley, just nine years old at the start of the narrative, and a wise-cracking street-smart hustler in St Louis in the 1920s. He’s taken under the wing of Master Yehudi, a theatrically flamboyant Brooklyn-Hungarian Jewish showman, and another unrealistic figure in a novel in which none of the characters bears any resemblance to a flesh-and-blood human.

Yehudi sees potential in this scruffy kid – he says he’ll teach him to fly. So the first third or so of the novel describes the gruelling ‘training’ process to which he subjects Walt. Not surprisingly, he does learn to levitate, and then to perform aerial acrobatics, developing his skills under his enigmatic master’s tutelage. Yehudi himself seems to possess preternatural powers, either satanic or shamanic (is that a word?)

Their plan is to take Walt’s act on the road. He’s to perform in country fairs in backwoods mid-America. Disaster strikes early on, and their plans change. As Walt becomes famous, playing ever larger venues, another catastrophe alters the direction of his life, and the plot veers off in even more implausible directions.

I’ve nothing against magic in fiction. Barbara Comyns employs levitation as a central feature in The Vet’s Daughter (link to my post HERE), but her idiosyncratic approach creates her own kind of surreal suburban gothic that works more successfully than Paul Auster’s novel because it has an air of almost childlike naivety that counterpoints the weirder stuff.

The tangy vernacular style Auster deploys in Walt’s dialogue is intended I think to endear him to the reader; he’s a sort of potty-mouthed Huck Finn, wiser than his years in one sense, but childlike and vulnerable in others. But this doesn’t convince me. He is often callous and cruel (although much of this behaviour, like his casual racism, is a product of his background and era). Unlike my response to Comyns’ heroine, I didn’t really care what happened to him, because he never truly became a fully rounded character.

Here’s a fairly typical random sample of Walt’s narrative voice (for we learn near the end that it is indeed supposed to be Walt himself who’s writing this book), just after he’d arrived at Yehudi’s remote country shack early in the novel:

I was a city boy who had grown up with jazz in his blood, a street kid with his eye on the main chance, and I loved the hurly-burly of crowds, the screech of trolley cars and the throb of neon, the stink of bootleg whiskey trickling in the gutters. I was a boogie-toed prankster, a midget scatman with a quick tongue and a hundred angles, and there I was stuck in the middle of nowhere, living under a sky that brought only weather – nearly all of it bad.

Walt is just too sassy and cynical to ring true. He’s only nine at this point, remember, yet he comes across like a Raymond Chandler PI. I concede that the convention is that this is the voice of Walt 68 years later, writing his own life story, so he’s projecting his mature sensibility into that of himself as a kid. Auster has always been fond of this kind of postmodern playfulness, but did it so much more interestingly in, say, the excellent New York Trilogy (1987).

I read most of his novels pre-blog, and have to say that the quality was decidedly patchy. He never again matched the quality of that trilogy. I enjoyed the first two films based on or scripted by him, however: ‘Smoke’ and ‘Blue in the Face’ (both 1995).

I daresay the Artful Dodger could be described as a cockney forerunner of Walt, but to my mind Dickens is far more skilful in conveying the faults, motivation, inner vulnerability and charm of his character than Auster is with Walt.

Another more successful literary depiction of magic and the supernatural is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes. In my post about it I cited Robert McCrum’s description of it in his ‘Hundred Best Novels’ series of articles. He emphasised how it’s much more than a charming fantasy: it’s about a repressed, disregarded woman’s quest for personal freedom and for meaning in her life – without being beholden to any man, religion or social class or institution. (Link to my post HERE).

 

 

 

 

 

A life of one’s own. Sylvia Townsend Warner: Lolly Willowes

I felt as though I had tried to make a sword only to be told what a pretty pattern there was on the blade. [STW in a letter to her friend, David Garnett, cited in the Introduction to the VMC edition by Sarah Waters]

How galling it must have been for Sylvia Townsend Warner to hear people like her mother praise this impassioned protofeminist novel Lolly Willowes for its whimsical depiction of spinstery witchcraft in the Chilterns.

Lolly WillowesSo much has been written about the plot, I won’t précis it here. There’s a succinct account and appraisal in Robert McCrum’s recent piece in the Guardian’s ‘100 Best Novels’ series (he places Lolly Willowes at no. 52), emphasising how it’s much more than a charming fantasy: it’s about a repressed, disregarded woman’s quest for personal freedom and for meaning in her life – without being beholden to any man, religion or social class or institution.

Sarah Waters’ introduction to the Virago Modern Classics edition – the one I’ve just finished – is found online, again at the Guardian website. It gives an excellent analysis of the novel’s impassioned themes of a woman’s struggle to be free in a patriarchal world soon after WWI, when the slaughter in the trenches was still a recent memory, and women’s new-found independence was being suppressed again, as it was in the Victorian and early Edwardian period.

Waters astutely positions the novel in a literary group containing both Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’.

The title of this post is from a quotation on p. 196, when Laura (the diminutive ‘Lolly’ – a name by which her family know her – sums up her lack of status or identity in the eyes of the world she inhabits) is conversing with her new master: Satan – the ‘Loving Huntsman’ as the novel’s subtitle calls him: a gentleman who once he’s netted his new witch’s soul, leaves her alone to revel in her liberated state [or is she in his thrall? Is she truly free even now?]:

One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either – a district visitor on a broomstick. It’s to escape all that – to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others, charitable refuse of their thoughts, so many ounces of stale bread of life a day…

Instead, she argues, women become witches ‘to show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure.’ This long section towards the end of the novel is one of the most powerful expressions of feminist polemic I’ve read in a work of prose fiction (Nora in A Doll’s House would understand Lolly implicitly).

Women, Lolly says to her satanic interlocutor (it’s an exchange reminiscent of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus when he first interrogates Mephistopheles), need to transcend the ‘dismal lives’ expected of them by society:

Women have such vivid imaginations, and lead such dull lives. Their pleasure in life is so soon over; they are so dependant on others, and their dependance so soon becomes a nuisance…And all the time being thrust further down into dullness when the one thing all women hate is to be thought dull…[On Sundays they are required to listen to church sermons on Sin, Grace:] All men’s things, like politics, or mathematics. Nothing for them except subjection and plaiting their hair.

What an act of wilful misreading by the author’s mother to see that as anything but a subversive call to feminist arms.

Sadly, it’s a message still relevant today.