After having lost his wife and children in a plane crash, writer and teacher David Zimmer is on a path of self-destruction, drinking, behaving badly around people, rejecting any and all understanding and sympathy. But seeing a bit of silent film comedy on TV, he takes up the task of examining and writing a book about the work of one comedic genius from the 20’s. Soon after the book is published the wife of the supposedly dead film-maker contacts Zimmer to ask if he might like to meet the man himself.
There is much parallelism here, Zimmer with both Hector Mann, the ancient film-maker and Chateaubriand, the author of a lengthy autobiography that Zimmer is translating. In a way all three are dead. Zimmer and Mann had both attempted suicide. And a character in the book ultimately succeeds in such an attempt.
What is real and what is illusion? Hector had been in the business of illusion, then had to present an illusion of himself for most of his life. His film The Life of Martin Frost echoes the book’s theme of illusion. Sometimes an illusion can be a helpful thing, as when Zimmer is comforted by Alma on the plane (see below).There is a passage in which Mann spots what he believes to be a blue stone on the street. He has a detailed plan of what he will do with it, alive with human connection, only to find that it is a gob of spit. Yet the imagining was enough to alter his life course. Maybe illusions are what we tell ourselves, what we need, in order to survive.
I enjoyed the book very much. It was a fast read, engaging, with interesting characters and enough suspense to sustain a level of tension. There was, perhaps, too little told of Hector’s wife and why she does what she does. Well, Auster does explain, but I found it unconvincing. I wish that I had kept better track of characters. No, there are not hordes of them. I just wish that I had tracked the braiding of the stories. There is much interweaving here, much that occurs for some that also occur for others. I was too tired while reading this to devote adequate attention to that. C’est la vie. I was encouraged, however, to read more of Auster.