Tag Archives: 1999

‘Timbuktu’ by Paul Auster

I recently read Paul Auster’s brilliant novel, The Music of Chance, as my contribution to AnnaBookBel’s Paul Auster Reading Week. It was fun reading all the blog posts on Auster’s works, some I’d read, but some I hadn’t. Timbuktu was one of the few of Auster’s earlier novels that I hadn’t read so I was very pleased to find that I won it as part of Annabel’s giveaway at the end of the Auster week. I was between books when it arrived, I read the first line, and as is often the case with Auster’s works, I couldn’t stop.

Mr. Bones knew that Willy wasn’t long for this world. The cough had been inside him for over six months, and by now there wasn’t a chance in hell that he would ever get rid of it.

Mr. Bones is a dog, Willy’s pet and companion. Willy’s full name is Willy G. Christmas and he is on his last legs. They have recently arrived in Baltimore in search of Willy’s old teacher, Bea Swanson, the only problem is that he’s not sure where she lives, or if he can make it there. Willy has two things to accomplish before he dies, firstly he needs to find a new owner for Mr. Bones and secondly he needs to find someone to whom he can bequeath his only valuable possessions, his manuscripts; although Willy has been homeless since the death of his mother, he is also a writer, and Bea is the only person he trusts. That he fails in both of these goals is typical of Willy.

Willy’s sidekick was a hodgepodge of genetic strains – part collie, part Labrador, part spaniel, part canine puzzle – and to make matters worse, there were burrs protruding from his ragged coat, bad smells emanating from his mouth, and a perpetual bloodshot sadness lurking in his eyes.

The story is told from Mr. Bones’ viewpoint; as Willy likes to talk and Mr. Bones likes to listen we find out about Willy’s life. Born in 1947 (the same year as Auster) as William Gurevitch, he was brought up in Brooklyn by his Polish immigrant parents. When his father died just after Willy’s twelfth birthday he was brought up by his mother alone. At university Willy took a lot of drugs and ended up in a psychiatric hospital. After he was released he switched from drugs to alcohol, which stabilised him a little, and he then had the experience that changed his life: one time whilst watching late-night T.V. he had a conversation with an on-screen Santa Claus, who convinced Willy to ‘ask nothing from the world and give it only love in return.’ Willy changed his name and had a tattoo of Santa on his right arm. His relationship with his mother was strained and it was at this point that Willy began to spend the summer months wandering around the country only to return to his mother’s apartment in the winter. He also resumed his writing. But the years went by and Willy felt the need of a dog, both for companion and protection. So he got Mr. Bones. Mr. Bones loved Willy and Willy loved Mr. Bones. Indeed, Willy believed that Mr. Bones’ body contained the soul of an angel.

When the narrative turns back to the present, an exhausted Willy has come to a stop on the steps of a building. Willy enters into a brilliant monologue about his life and then falls asleep. Mr. Bones curls up against Willy and falls asleep, then events get a little confusing.

That was when he dreamed the dream in which he saw Willy die. It began with the two of them waking up, opening their eyes and emerging from the sleep they had just fallen into – which was the sleep they were in now, the same one in which Mr. Bones was dreaming the dream.

Ok, it’s a dream within a dream, which is nothing new, but it’s done well, and when they both wake up events follow a similar course as the dream, with Mr. Bones fleeing from Willy, whom he believes to be dead, and fleeing from some policemen, whom he believes will take him into a ‘shelter’, something which Willy has warned him about. Mr. Bones now has to make his own way in the world and the narrative becomes a bit more of an adventure story.

Spoiler alert: I’m going to reveal the ending in this paragraph.
Mr. Bones has some bad times and some good times but as we get near the end of the book we realise it’s not going to end well for him. After being adopted by a loving family he is then left at a kennel whilst they go on holiday, he escapes, only to find himself out in the snow, ill and exhausted, much like Willy was earlier. He ends up running into oncoming traffic to commit suicide—an ending very similar to the ending of The Music of Chance. It made me think that both novels have similar themes: aimless/lost wandering; characters with a lack of purpose; the death of a close companion or friend; being trapped in an almost inescapable situation; escaping from situation only to commit suicide. This is not meant as criticism of Auster as I often like writers who work away on their obsessions, each time from a slightly different angle, but I probably wouldn’t have noticed the similarity between both books if I hadn’t read them so close together. Timbuktu is another excellent novel by Auster and I’m glad I finally got round to reading it.

4 Comments

Filed under Auster, Paul, Fiction

‘The Blue Room’ by Hanne Ørstavik (#WITMonth)

Image source: Pereine Press website

Hanne Ørstavik’s The Blue Room was published by Pereine Press in 2014, translated by Deborah Dawkin. Its original Norwegian title is Like sant som jeg er virkelig (1999), which Google Translate translates as ‘As true as I really am’; I personally prefer the more literal title but I can see why they went for The Blue Room; it’s more punchy and more memorable. Ørstavik has written twelve novels but this is the first one to be made available in English.

The novel opens with Johanne, a twenty-something woman who lives in a flat with her mum (or Mum in the text), discovering that her mum has locked her in before going off to work. The whole novel is Johanne’s account of recent events leading up to this event. The narrative flits back and forth a bit without a break in the flow of the narrative but it is easy to get used to Ørstavik’s technique as little clues are given in the text. We discover that Johanne is a psychology student, she’s a little odd, a little quirky and doesn’t have many friends apart from Karin, who is about to embark on becoming a minister. Johanne’s father left when she was young and she was brought up, along with her brother Edward, by her mother. Johanne’s relationship with her mother is the main subject of this book and it’s a fascinating story to read even if we’re only getting Johanne’s view. It’s tempting to think that her mother is a tyrant as she’s locked her daughter in her room and so, as the story develops, it’s interesting to hear Johanne’s views of her mother. When Karin remarks how much she likes Johanne’s mother, Johanne says:

I told her how easy it was living with Mum, like being in a collective, that she was my best friend. Apart from you, I said smiling.

Johanne is very studious, she has just embarked on a Psychology degree, and takes her studies seriously. She doesn’t drink or party, she goes to church regularly and helps out with the chores, but there’s another side to her, she keeps having images of sado-masochistic sex, or violent sex, she feels at times that she’s living with her mother only as a way of spongeing off her and she can be quite tactless at times, like the time she dragged her mother to see the film Betty Blue even though she knew that her mother would not approve of the sexual imagery of the film. Johanne likes to get to the library reading room on time so she can start studying early and disapproves of her fellow students who have a more lax attitude though at the same time she is quite envious of them.

What they display, these students who don’t arrive in the reading room until nine, or even later, is a kind of daring. They play with life, with possibilities. For me my studies are like a tightrope I’m balancing on, life will begin only when I’ve reached the other side. Only when I’m standing there triumphantly, with a glowing testimonial and glittering results, only then, I think to myself, will I be free.

But things change when Johanne meets Ivar, who works at the university canteen and is in a band. Johanne has masochistic erotic daydreams about him. It turns out that Ivar is also attracted to Johanne and he asks her to go to see his band play. Johanne is unsure whether to go but in the end she does even though her mother disapproves. Her mother tells Johanne at one point ‘Men are so simple. Controlled by sex and power. Like robots…’ So, it is easy to think of her mother as either a prude or someone who hates men and therefore doesn’t want her daughter to have any relationship with men but it’s apparent from Johanne’s narrative that her mother has a lover, or lovers, that visit regularly. It may be that her mother understands Johanne better than Johanne does herself and that she is concerned that her daughter will ruin her life over her fling with Ivar. Johanne’s mother meets Ivar when he visits and is not impressed with him, especially when he offers her, a tea-totaller, some wine. As a test she asks him to explain what love is.

Ivar asks Johanne, rather vaguely, to accompany him on a trip he’s about to take to the United States and Johanne, rather vaguely, agrees; the offer is left open. She torments herself as she wants to go, to be spontaneous for once, but worries about her studies, her mother and Karin.

I wished I could split my body in two, give one part to Mum and the other to Ivar. Then they could both have their share, and I could keep my ribcage as a little raft on which I’d curl up and float away.

But the night before Ivar is due to leave Johanne packs her bags in preparation for the trip. Johanne, who had been so studious, so caring, is now prepared to abandon everything to go off with Ivar, whom she has only known for two weeks. And so her mother locks her in her room to prevent her from going.

There is so much in this novel that I’ve had to leave out of this post but there is a lot in the novel that is left ambiguous, not least the ending. The main reason is that we’re only getting Johanne’s point of view and she’s a very unreliable narrator. But it’s all done so perfectly that the ambiguities reflect those ambiguities that we all experience in life; where not only are others’ actions are difficult to understand but our own are as well. What a brilliant novel. If Ørstavik’s other novels are as half as good we’re really missing out in not having English translations available.

I read this as part of the ‘Women In Translation Month’.

I first heard of this book from the review at BookerTalk. Thanks Karen.

7 Comments

Filed under Ørstavik, Hanne, Fiction