Portrait of an Invisible Man

On Paul Auster's troubled relationship with his father
Sam Auster, courtesy of Paul Auster
'From a bag of loose pictures: a trick photograph taken in an Atlantic City studio sometime during the Forties. There are several of him sitting around a table, each image shot from a different angle, so that at first you think it must be a group of several different men. [...] There are five of him there, and yet the nature of the trick photography denies the possibility of eye contact among the various selves. Each one is condemned to go on staring into space, as if under the gaze of the others, but seeing nothing, never able to see anything. It is a picture of death, a portrait of an invisible man.'

Paul Auster, 'Portrait of an Invisible Man'
One of Paul Auster's earliest works is a stark, autobiographical portrait of his father. It was written in 1979, at a time when Auster had been living a hand-to-mouth existence, struggling to establish a reputation for himself as a poet. In some ways this personal, poignant account of his father provided an impetus for the work that was to follow, and offers its readers a convenient touchstone for the tone and character Auster's work would eventually take.

The account is named 'Portrait of an Invisible Man', a work that forms the first part of 'The Invention of Solitude'. It begins with the sudden, inexplicable death of Auster's father, and attempts to reconcile the seemingly arbitrary nature of the death with the meaning and significance of the man's life: 'for a man to die of no apparent course, for a man to die simply because he is a man, brings us so close to the invisible boundary between life and death that we no longer know which side we are on. Life becomes death, and it is as if this death has owned this life all along.'

Paul Auster recounts the experience of losing his father in a way that is emotionally touching, while attempting to resist sentimentality. The objective style lists fragments of memories and experiences that seek to in some way define the loved one that has been lost, while also finding a way to keep that memory alive. Perhaps even as a way of keeping his father alive, through his text. The book develops on the basis of a fear that his father 'will vanish' from existence, and from memory, and it has a momentum that perpetuates itself throughout the text.

Sam Auster was a quiet, unassuming man. In many ways, he was a mystery to all who knew him. He was married, for awhile, before leading an unremarkable bachelor existence in the house where Paul and his sister had grown up. And yet while the home of Auster's childhood offered a foundation for his memories and his identity, he presents his father as a shadowy figure without the comfort of such stability, 'a perpetual outsider, a tourist of his own life'. It is this indefinability that is fascinating about Sam Auster. His status as a nondescript, mysterious, evasive everyman is exactly the thing that makes him interesting.

Portrait of an Invisible Man is ultimately a selection of canny (and uncanny) recollections, reflected on by a son thinking of his father. But what fascinated me most is the fact that Auster felt so driven to evoke and describe a figure in his life that always managed to evade and escape his attempts. His father was 'Impenetrable. And because of that, at times almost serene.' But it might be said that Auster's experiences with his father, and his inability to capture the essence of a lost loved one, has informed and characterized his subsequent work as an author. From the constant evocation of shadowy, enigmatic characters to the prominence of disappearances within his narratives, there is perhaps an attempt in Auster's novels to recapture a sense of his father, and to comprehend the loss.

Paul Auster's narrative spans a lifetime, and offers more than its fair share of chance surprises and scandals. But most of all it leaves an absence at its heart, a sense of loss and incompletion. Auster hints at the influence of his father in his subsequent work with a quote from Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: 'he who is willing to work gives birth to his own father.' It occurs to me that every novel and every work could be an attempt to recapture that sense of unity, of presence, that was perhaps never there to begin with.

Looking at the photograph adorning the book's front cover, a trick photograph of Paul Auster's father, it's interesting to observe it as a complete portrait of a man from many angles at once. It appears to offer every possible perspective. But the image is false, a representation that is little more than a trick of the light, and it brings us no closer to knowing anything about him.