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What’s real, imagined and homage

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Times Staff Writer

WHEN it comes to good writing, the distinction between artful and artifice is a matter of some consequence.

It is the distinction implicit in, say, the differing connotations of the words generative and masturbatory.

Over the years, it’s an issue that loomed rather large for practitioners of postmodern fiction with its conventions of sly self-reference and archly self-conscious sophistication. It’s a testament to how fine a writer Paul Auster really is that, even though he made his reputation as a leading American postmodernist, he always has seemed more ingenious than merely clever -- and never without a purpose.

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Now, at 60 and with a dozen novels behind him, Auster seems -- at first blush -- to have returned to his metaphysical roots with “Travels in the Scriptorium,” a novella-length fiction that ruminates on issues of identity, purpose, responsibility and knowledge in a setting that harks back in a deliciously retro, knowing sort of way to French existentialist conventions.

His aging protagonist, Mr. Blank, awakes in a spare, cell-like room. A camera in the ceiling and a microphone in the wall record his every move for an unseen narrator’s report. On the room’s desk is an unfinished manuscript, which Blank is instructed to read and, ultimately, to finish. It too may be a report or it may be a work of fiction, the account of an imagined America and its conflict with “primitives” who may be Native Americans ... or perhaps not. Various visitors float in and out of Blank’s locked room -- nurses, a doctor, a policeman -- and make various suggestions about his possible identity, his possible complicity in crimes, or perhaps those of some other person. He is treated kindly by one person, given noxious drugs by another -- sometimes both by the same person. He may be a former spymaster, or a writer or character in somebody else’s report -- or fiction or both. The book’s final sequence provides a resolution that will strike some readers as clarifying and others as a rare loss of authorial nerve by a masterful writer.

Certain postmodern conventions are observed. Readers familiar with Auster’s work, for example, will recognize, even in this minimally populated landscape, characters from “The New York Trilogy,” “In the Country of Last Things,” “Moon Palace,” “Leviathan” and “Oracle Night.” The last of Mr. Blank’s visitors shares a name with the detective in Auster’s first novel, “City of Glass.”

But something else is at work here. As Blank reads the account of the conflict between the nation called the “Confederation” and the “Primitives,” he muses “What better way to unite the people than to invent a common enemy and start a war?” It is possible to read the entire narrative as a fable on the fate of this nation’s detainees in places such as Guantanamo or the CIA’s secret prison network.

It also is possible to read it as an homage to the modernist master in whose shadow Auster always has worked, Samuel Beckett. Blank and the Irish Nobel laureate’s heartbreakingly comedic character Krapp have more than a little in common.

What always has distinguished Auster’s work, in fact, is his spiritual fidelity to this most austere and humane of the English language’s modernist masters. Auster served as editor of the magisterial Grove Centenary edition of Beckett’s work, which he has called “unequalled in the universe of words.”

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Elsewhere, Auster has written of his several one-on-one conversations with Beckett in Paris in the early 1970s. He has recalled, in particular, one in which Beckett mentioned finishing an English language translation of a novel -- “Mercier et Camier” -- that he had written in French years before. Auster writes:

“I had read the book in French and liked it very much, and I said, ‘A wonderful book.’ I was just a kid, after all. I couldn’t suppress my enthusiasm.

“Beckett shook his head and said, ‘Oh no, no, not very good. In fact, I’ve cut out about 25% of the original. The English version’s going to be a lot shorter than the French.’

“And I said (remember how young I was), ‘Why would you do such a thing? It’s a wonderful book. You shouldn’t have taken a word out.’

“He shook his head and he said, ‘No, no, not very good, not very good.’

“We went on to talk about other things, and then, out of the blue, 10 or 15 minutes later, apropos of nothing, he leaned forward across the table and he said to me, very earnestly, ‘You really liked it, huh? You really thought it was good?’

“This was Samuel Beckett, remember. And not even he had any idea of what his work was worth. Good or bad, meaningful or not, no writer ever knows, not even the best ones.”

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Given its ending, it is possible, of course, to read “Travels in the Scriptorium” as an exploration of the angst and insecurity implicit in the serious writer’s life -- though that life, authentically lived, must be a metaphor of every other life. Here we enter postmodernism’s hall of solipsistic mirrors. To this reader’s eye, however, Auster has posted at various points in his narrative discreet exit signs to wider possibilities.

What does it all signify?

More than 20 years ago, Auster wrote this sentence: “The question is the story itself, and whether or not it means something is not for the story to tell.”

With that in mind, the word “scriptorium” in this novel’s title becomes resonant. First because the scriptoria of the late classic and medieval worlds were chambers of received wisdom, places where copyists took the work of others and duplicated it, often with visual embellishments of various kinds, sometimes with subtle emendations, additions and occasionally outright changes. In the process of transmission, time might even elevate the scribe’s simple mechanical mistake to canonical status.

Moreover, the earliest manuscripts produced by the scriptoria were composed in scripta continua, that is, without paragraphs, capitalization or punctuation. Authors and their copyists simply presumed the existence of an artful reader, who would supply those interpretative essentials in the course of their individual reading.

Punctuation arose, in part, as an extension of the church’s wish for a single, orthodox reading of sacred texts. The secular parsing of manuscripts fell under the gravest suspicion. “Satan,” Peter the Lombard proclaimed, “was the first grammarian.”

In “Travels in the Scriptorium,” Auster subtly invokes the humane authority of Beckett, then elegantly withdraws, respectfully presuming the artfulness of his readers. They may choose to read this elegant little book as an allegory of their country’s current predicament, as a writerly conceit, or as a wider comment on the modern condition ... perhaps all those things -- or something else.

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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