I wanted a book for an hour and a half journey, something short that could prevent me from thinking over that creeping groans of planes that all of you perfectly know. I entered the bookshop with the familiar sense of Connection with the Universe that goes together with the act of Buying a Book, but I had finished Brooklyn Follies a few hours before so I was in the middle of a Paul Auster Withdrawal Syndrome. I thus pointed to his shelf like a diviner and caressed the covers until I sensed a bookish vibration. I chose a tiny, thin book. The back cover said: In my late twenties and early thirties, I went through a period of several years when everything I touched turned to failure. At that point the Message from the Universe was quite clear, but it was the following line that convinced me that it would be my plane-book: Paul Auster speaks of his initial failure and his struggle to write and earn a living.
I make a premise: I love autobiography, that badly treated genre which is the artistic expression of a life. A publisher friend of mine often tells me a belief that is the result of many years of experience: to write good literature, it is not necessary to invent. Paul Auster probably agrees because it was clear that the tiny book dealt with his life. Precisely, it dealt with that period – a golden-plated and dark inside period – between the age of twenty and thirty. A genius confessed that he had been a loser in New York during the Seventies, a ship’s boy on a Esso oil tanker, nearly an actor in Paris, nearly a toys inventor in New York, a young father coping with rent, and globally a failure under every perspective. It didn’t take me more than three minutes to decide to buy it.
During the flight, the man in front of me tried to draw my attention a couple of times with his lingering, honey eyes, but he gave up when I started dashing off my review on the boarding pass. I was far away, perhaps in a labyrinthine pub in New York at closing time (small tables, scribbled walls, dim light). Sitting in semi-darkness in front of an empty glass, I was listening to a man telling me an intimate story: the story of his Beginning, of Encounters, of Adventure.
United States of America in late Fifties: American capitalism had created one of the most prosperous moments in human history […] and the entire country had been turned into a gigantic television commercial, an incessant harangue to buy more, make more, spend more, to dance around the dollar-tree until you dropped dead from the sheer frenzy of trying to keep up with everyone else”. Paul Auster is the son of a “middle-class” couple and grows up between a mother devoted to the ceremony of buying and a father obsessed with saving. His parents’ marriage – the union of two opposites of the American soul – ends for the very impossibility to conciliate two extreme conceptions of money. As a consequence, his relationship with money is difficult from the very beginning and during his twenties it inevitably ends up in a refusal of wealth and the oppressive American capitalism.
Such a mental disorder would be sufficient to relegate him in the back room of society for the rest of his life, but Paul Auster immediately realizes that he has another defect, a lot more severe: “Becoming a writer is not a «career-decision» like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accept the fact that you’re not fit for anything else, you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days”.
However – for the reader’s pleasure! – it is a road sprinkled with magic encounters and extraordinary experiences, pearls that emerge from that scenery that Philip Roth indelibly described in American Pastoral. It is 1969 when Paul Auster sees the posters of the ten most wanted people of America and realizes that seven of them were his college mates. The dissent, the Vietnam War, the terrorism of a handful of students called “Weather Undergorund”, the Black Panthers: everything silently flows like the background of a titanic inner struggle between the desire to write and the necessity of a steady job.
Paul Auster is attracted by those “backwaters and shit holes of the world” where he can “further his education in ways he didn’t expected”, but during his search for a steady job he straight ends up into the Beast’s belly. He is a little older than twenty when he embarks on an Esso oil tanker: “I was one of millions now, an insect toiling beside countless other insects, and every task I performed was part of the great, grinding enterprise of American capitalism”. And it is this very experience that brings him to the heart of the God-of-Petroleum’s Sabbath: “I will never forget the fish, the hundreds of dead, iridescent fish floating on the rank, oil-saturated water around the refinery docks. […] The ugliness was so universal, so deeply connected to the business of making money and the power that money bestowed on the ones who made it – even to the point of disfiguring the landscape, of turning the natural world inside out – that I began to develop a grudging respect for it. Get to the bottom of things, I told myself, and this was how the world looked. Whatever you might think of it, this ugliness was the truth”.
But the pages of Hand to Mouth are also inhabited by the memory of some characters who really elevate themselves to tragic Don Quixotes fighting against gigantic dollar mills. Above all stands out the legendary forgotten novelist H. L. Humes – alias Doc – who donates money to the passers-by until he squanders his entire inheritance. “The fifty-dollar bills he handed out to strangers weren’t just gifts; they were weapons in the fight to make a better world. He wanted to set an example with his profligacy, to prove that one could disenchant oneself and break the spell that money held over our minds”.
An extraordinary Amarcord of characters and places emerges from the pages as islands on a geography of the soul. First of all, Teddy and Casey, best friends: “the spirit of Laurel and Hardy had survived in them […] but they were part of the real world, and they performed their act on the stage of life”. Then an infinity of occasional jobs until he stands “on an outdoor podium with Jean Genet and translate his speech in defense of the Black Panthers”. And Paris, where a strange manager makes him touch the world of cinema. And “that singular gentleman, the mightiest of fallen characters, the one and only Joe Reilly”. In the end that voice, “a small girl singing with a Salvation Army band early one evening as people shuffled home from work – some sad, plaintive song about human misery and the wonders of God”.
“And that voice”, writes Paul Auster, “is still inside me, a voice so crystalline as to make the toughest person fall down and weep, and the remarkable thing about it was that no one paid the slightest attention to her”. Perhaps it is that voice – I say to myself – the one I’ve continued to heard since I got off the plane. It must be that voice who has led me, this afternoon, to the British Bookshop in Frankfurt. I just wanted more Paul Auster, more Life.