13 November 1997

Austerity

Hand to Mouth: a Chronicle of Early Failure
by Paul Auster

Call no man a failure until he is dead. Paul Auster, one of the most haunting talents in American letters today, spent his young adulthood staggering from one financial and emotional disaster to another, until he was convinced that his dream of living as a writer was simply unworkable. Hand to Mouth is partly an intimate disquisition on money; partly, as we travel with Auster around (naturally) Paris and Dublin, an ironised work of travel literature; and partly a warm sigh of relief, tempered with nostalgia for his penurious youth.

The memoir initially resembles a fluent bar monologue — but as always with Auster’s prose, that polish offers a surface more amenable to ghostly reflections. Writing of his ambition to live as frugally as possible, he says: “Life was cheap in those days” — given the historical context of campus protests against Vietnam, a pungently ambiguous remark. We are treated to fondly comical vignettes of Auster seeking enlightenment through blue-collar vacation work as a waiter, an air-conditioner installation man, and a janitor aboard an Esso oil tanker.

With a gloriously austere horror of the “proper job”, Auster then scraped by for years on freelance translation of French poetry and prose (including, bizarrely, the North Vietnamese Constitution). The only regular gig he ever had was a part-time job writing catalogues for art books. He jacked that in after seven months — when he saw Duchamp’s famous 1947 Surrealist catalogue (decorated with a rubber breast and the legend “Prière de toucher “), now swathed in bubble wrap and priced at thousands of dollars. “The joke has been turned into a deadly serious transaction, and once again money has the last word.”

Aged 30, flat broke and with his first marriage in shreds, Auster tried to turn entrepreneur, inventing a baseball card game that he hawked round toy companies to a humiliating fusillade of rejection. Then he bashed out a pulp detective novel, Squeeze Play, which he sold for a measly $900. Auster’s audacious coup de thêàtre, after the memoir stops at page 125, is to reprint as appendices his early “failures”: three quasi-Beckettian plays, the colourful felt-tipped card game, and the novel.

That he disrobes his juvenilia so breezily is the blackest joke in the book. It is confessedly a new failure, that of Auster the garlanded writer and film-maker to keep his own promise — he says of one of the plays, consigned to his desk: “My plan was to keep it there and never look inside the drawer again.” Suddenly the cosy line between past failure and present success becomes a knotted scrawl.

So Hand to Mouth in total is a contradictory text about embarrassment, nerve, and the writer’s motivations, Auster toying ruthlessly with his own values of literary decorum. And there is much here that prefigures his great work: the best play, Blackouts, has a man pay a private eye to spy on him, and we learn that Auster’s first book reviews were signed “Paul Quinn” (both tropes resurface in the New York Trilogy); a protesting student he knew at Columbia blew himself up with a home-made bomb (Leviathan ). The detective novel is a fine fiction, even though Auster has coolly given away the story’s gimmick in the memoir.

Even the title of this cunning book is doing more work than is obvious. You put your hand to your mouth to signal uncertainty, silence or surprise, or to smoke, as well as to eat — but the hand and the mouth need not even belong to the same person. Auster ends his memoir on a note of grim wonder that, despite his best efforts, he somehow wasn’t allowed to sell out. He hasn’t started now.