I've always liked Paul Auster as an author since reading 'New York Trilogy' in college. I went on to read just about everything he'd written.
When I had children, however, I lost patience with some of his themes - often the dissolution of a man's life, where the part of the process is walking out on a child and partner, one way or another. It seemed self-indulgent to me. So it has been a long time since I read much Auster. I was looking over my shelves for something to read recently, when this book, 'Leviathan' seemed ripe for a re-read.
*** The Storyline ***
The narrator is Peter Aaron, an author, who is writing an account of what happened to make his friend, Benjamin Sachs, leave his comfortable life as a fellow writer and start blowing up statues.
Sachs has died, currently unidentified, as a result of one of his own homemade bombs and Aaron has had a visit from the FBI after they found his phone number with the body.
There is a sense of urgency behind Aaron's writing, as he feels sure that it is only a matter of time before the FBI return and he will lose his control of the story of Sachs' life.
*** Themes ***
Of course, disappearance and dissolution of a person's life are major themes here. What Auster isn't interested in is the pain of abandonment, it's always more about the struggle of the individual, and the people left behind are strangely stoical and willing to wait.
Auster's fascination with detective fiction recurs here, with perhaps the most over-arching part, Aaron piecing together Sachs' story: the writer as detective. He references the research, the interviews that a writer would do to create a biographical piece, alongside the work a detective might do. At times the characters flirt with the idea of hiring detectives and they also engage in detective work themselves, sometimes out of whim and sometimes out of a need to know.
There is doubling - the two authors and their different paths, their relationships, their friendships. Also, for example, at one point Aaron follows Sachs secretly, unaware that someone else is also following Sachs and watching Aaron's pursuit.
There is coincidence and the idea of particular people having lynchpin roles in each other's lives, without realising or intending it. One of these is Peter Aaron himself, who brings several of the players together, another is Maria, who is perhaps the greatest of these.
There's a lot going on, with intertextuality, references to great American authors, such as Thoreau. The better read will get a lot more out of this - I'm not particularly knowledgeable about US literature.
Auster plays with identity, notably using his own initials for the character narrating. Also Sachs' sense of self has been badly shaken by events, and much of what occurs is the result of him trying to re-establish a sense of who he is. That the novel is named after the book that Sachs was supposedly writing before his disappearance blurs things further - Aaron tells the reader he intends to call it that too
Another of the big themes is about the nature of writing itself, with the two main characters as writers. The character of Aaron wonders over how people's perspectives vary and how two people's accounts of the same event can contradict yet still be their own truth. He accepts the unreliability of their narrative voices, and hints to the reader of his own unreliability - after all, he is piecing Sachs' story together out of his own memories and interpretations, and at times points out he may be wrong or that he is picking the explanation that suits him better.
*** My thoughts ***
I really enjoyed re-reading this book: it gave me a lot to think about and reminded me of why I did a degree in literature (many moons ago).
The story is interesting and you want to know why Sachs did the things he did. It's told in a slightly shifting way, through Aaron's account of other people's experiences as well as his own memories, and not always in a straightforward linear way - he follows different strands at times before winding them in together.
Ultimately the answers aren't always satisfying, as in life. You become more aware of what isn't known or knowable. If you like things neatly resolved, then Auster isn't really the author for you. This book is more about the attempt to understand another person than necessarily succeeding in doing so.
It's a clever book, more about ideas than emotions. I have to say that for a while Auster really did pall on me, but that seems to have passed. I'm regretting again the loss of the several other novels of his I had, which were in a box of books that got misplaced a couple of house moves ago.
'Leviathan' is available in paperback new at £4.19 from Amazon, currently, or for Kindle at £3.98. You may be able to find it cheaper secondhand.
As you can probably tell from the other opinions I have written, I am a bit of a Paul Auster fan. However, that doesn’t stop me from being honest and saying that this is not one of his better books. If you like Auster, there is plenty here for you to enjoy but, in general, it is just missing that certain something that has made other things I have read by him impossible to put down. The central theme of “Leviathan”, where a writer sets about trying to document the life of a friend, will be familiar to anyone who has read Auster’s “New York Trilogy”. In the “New York Trilogy” this happens in the short story “The Locked Room” where the friend who is being described is missing, presumed dead, but later turns out to be alive. In Leviathan, however, the friend is most definitely dead – blown up by a bomb he is attempting to make by a roadside in Northern Wisconsin. The narrator begins the tale by explaining that he has just been visited by a pair of FBI agents trying to determine the identity of the dead man who had been making the bomb. The narrator comes to the conclusion that the man can only be his friend Benjamin Sachs but does not reveal this to the FBI agent. Once they have gone, he sets about trying to reconstruct the events of his friend’s life, from the moment they met until he was killed by the bomb. It is the intention of the narrator to use the book he is writing as a counterweight to the lies he knows will be written about his friend once his identity is discovered by the police. There are a number of recurring themes from Auster’s other books that surface in this novel. Perhaps the most notable is the fact that the narrator’s name closely echoes Auster’s – he is called Peter Aaron. Both Aaron and Sachs, the friend about whom he is writing, are published writers. Aaron is content with his profession, but Sachs grows disillusioned and ev
entually resorts to direct action to achieve his goals. Auster is also critical of the direction America is headed in, another recurrent element of his writings. The Statue of Liberty is referred to a number of times throughout the book as a symbol that many Americans hold close to their hearts without making any effort to follow the principles behind. In the later stages of the novel the only way to wake America up to its failures is to attack replicas of the Statue of Liberty in public places. The majority of characters in the novel have been crafted with the usual Auster attention to detail. In particular, the figure of Maria, a friend to both the narrator and Sachs, is worthy of note. She is an artist who engages on odd projects that find her eating different coloured foods on different days of the week and she follows strangers through the streets in the hope of coming to understand their lives through observation. At one point she finds an address book with no owner’s name in it and becomes determined to discover who the owner is by engineering chance meetings with all those listed in the book and conducting disguised interviews. She is a vibrant character who the reader can easily identify with, as is Sachs’ wife Fanny. It is only in the character of Sachs himself that Auster seems to loose his usual flair and, since he is the central character of the novel, this detracts from the book as a whole. Sachs is initially a very interesting character, but he undergoes a significant change after a fall (that is both metaphorical and literal) and begins down the path that will eventually end in his death when the bomb he is making explodes. My complaint is that the change is Sachs is too sudden and too large. The narrator himself cannot understand the change in his friend and feels he is overreacting to events. I suppose that Auster is attempting to make his book appear as a genuine biography and so he feels justified in saying –
‘this is how it happened. I don’t understand why, but it did and so that’s that.’ The reader, however, knows that this is fiction and expects some form of explanation to events. Despite the novel’s shortfalls there are some interesting issues raised. The novel takes place in the first person and as such the reader can never be quite sure whether the narrator has reconstructed events properly from the interviews he has carried out with friends. At times the narrator is forced to admit he may be wrong and can only offer two or even three variations, one of which may have been the true sequence of events. This adds to the feeling mentioned above that this is a true biography. The contrast between the narrator’s inaction as he sticks to writing and his friend’s action when he abandons writing is also very interesting. In the end, however, this novel failed to live up the expectations I had after reading other books by Auster. The string of coincidences that lead to Sachs’ death can sometimes feel too forced and a satisfying explanation of Sachs’ motives and change in character is never properly given. All in all, a good book, but Auster has written others that are much better.
A fatal explosion opens this book and leads to an FBI investigation into the life of it's hero, Benjamin Sachs.