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Jewish World Review Nov. 18, 2002 / 13 Kislev, 5763

D. T. Max

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'The Book of Illusions': Paul Auster's Professor of Despair | Everyone thought he was dead.'' So begins Paul Auster's 10th novel, ''The Book of Illusions.'' Hector Mann is the man referred to. Born Chaim Mandelbaum, he was a comedian in the silent film era. ''Tango Tangle'' and ''Mr. Nobody'' had many fans. And his off-screen exploits caught the attention of the bare-knuckled gossip columnists of the period. At the time of his disappearance, he had just fought with the exploitative producer of the nearly-bankrupt Kaleidoscope Pictures and was on the point of signing with Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures. One day he walked out of his North Orange Drive home, never to be seen again. Was his disappearance a publicity stunt by the legendary Cohn? Was he murdered? Hot topics in 1929. But after a decent interval and some moderate fuss, people stopped caring: Mann was at least as dead as the silent era in which he flourished. But at book's beginning, his biographer, David Zimmer, gets a note from a woman claiming to be his widow. Mann, the note says, is alive and living in New Mexico. Can this be true? And if so, where has he been for the last 60 years?

It's a classic set up for Auster, an opening for metaphysics and noir complications. We have met Zimmer before, briefly. He was in Auster's fifth novel ''Moon Palace,'' a professor, a family man, the author of boring film books, a bourgeois foil to the tormented narrator. Happiness is always an unstable state in Auster's fiction. In the six years since, Zimmer's illusions were efficiently destroyed. His wife and children have died in a plane crash; he has taken a leave from his teaching job and found himself unable to return. He has joined what Auster calls elsewhere ''the ghosts.'' In a white-hot heat, he wrote a study of Mann that was both brilliant and brought out the hidden brilliance of its subject. Despair gave Zimmer's work an authenticity tenure couldn't. Now he is working on a new translation of the famously morose Chateaubriand's ''Memoirs d'outre-tombe.''

The letter from Mann's wife contains an invitation. The great comedian would like to meet his perceptive critic. And there is news: Mann has been working all this time, quietly making films in the desert. Zimmer is tempted. ''I didn't know who I was, and I didn't know what I wanted, and until I found a way to live with other people again, I would continue to be something only half human,'' he says. Still, he doesn't want to go. The letter may be a prank. His life ended with the plane crash. ''I wasn't capable of being in the world, and I knew that if I tried to go back into it before I was ready, I would be crushed.'' Alma, the daughter of Mann's leading lady, comes to persuade him. She is another ghost, another of ''those people so thin, they are sometimes blown away.'' And also a writer, Mann having given her the right to be his biographer. Zimmer demurs. Alma threatens. She will shoot Zimmer if he won't come -- he says, go ahead finish the job. She drops the gun. They make love.

The romance piles on with the allusions. Zimmer heads south with Alma (''soul'' in Spanish) to Mann's ranch in Tierra del Sueno (''Dreamland''). There they screen one of Mann's unseen masterpieces, ''The Inner Life of Martin Frost.'' It is the story of a writer whose character makes love to her lonely author. In the end he tears up his short story rather than finish it and face life alone. He will grow old together with his creation. But happiness turns out to be more elusive for Zimmer and Alma. Mann dies the night Zimmer arrives. His wife moves to destroy his oeuvre: she claims he made it only on the condition no one else ever see it. Zimmer flees north to his home in Vermont, expecting Alma to follow. When she doesn't, it becomes clear that Zimmer underestimated what Mann's widow was willing to do to keep her husband's life a secret. And for the first time the reader wonders, amidst all this secrecy, how we came to be reading this ''book of fragments, a compilation of sorrows and half-remembered dreams.'' The hints have been dropped in along the way. Mann wouldn't let his later films be screened in his lifetime. Chateaubriand would not allow his memoir to be published until after his death. Then you realize: ''Memoirs d'outre-tombe'' is not the only memoir of a dead man here.

''The Book of Illusions'' sits somewhere in the middle of Auster's work, between the tricky postmodern mysteries like the New York Trilogy and the more earnest '70s-style questing novels like ''Moon Palace'' and ''Leviathan.'' It is a book with considerable pleasures, augmented by Auster's graceful, muted narrative voice -- a man telling us a sad story through a concrete wall. It contains a fine evocation of Mann's imaginary silent films that seems to owe something to Auster's own efforts as a screenwriter. He is brilliant at making the intellectual life sexy. But ''The Book of Illusions'' doesn't quite reach the New York Trilogy's taut grace, in which every sentence feels metaphysically ordained, or his film work's warmth. It feels messy without being quite human. Why isn't the offer to see the unscreened masterpieces of Mann enough to entice Zimmer south? Why does Alma have to come to get him with a gun? And why would Zimmer leave Tierra del Sueno without taking her with him? ''In eight short days,'' as he notes, she ''brought me back from the dead.'' Even for a man writing to us from the other side of the grave, that's no small thing.

To be fair, Auster has set a high bar for himself. Meta-narratives demand something close to perfection from the writer. The great only seem good, because the form is thin. Each added cleverness brings dimishing returns. At one point in ''The Book of Illusions,'' Auster narrates Zimmer narrating Mann narrating Frost narrating his story. What are we to make of this? Auster has been here before, too. This is the genre where he first won renown. Throughout his work he has created characters who refuse to repeat themselves. For example, when Mann gets to the desert, he blossoms from comedian to director. Hugh Effington in ''Moon Palace'' won't paint the way he painted before. It's clear Auster considers this the hallmark of the true artist. Recently, he has taken his own lesson to heart. In ''Mr. Vertigo,'' he tried out an American exuberance, trading the Poe-like for the Bellow-esque. In ''Timbuktu,'' the protagonist is a very human dog. The deeper goal is always, as Auster writes in ''Moon Palace,'' ''a method of understanding, a way of penetrating the world and finding one's place in it,'' the relationship between the creative imagination and the world and the word and salvation. But there was great pleasure in watching the gifted Auster testing the walls of his cell, looking for his way out. Seen thus, the ''The Book of Illusions'' for all its pleasures seems an acknowledgment of the cage.

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© 2002, D.T. Max. This column first appeared in The New York Times. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.