Magical Mystery Mann

"The Book of Illusions," by Paul Auster, Henry Holt, 336 pages, $25.

"The Book of Illusions," by Paul Auster, Henry Holt, 336 pages, $25

A man receives a mysterious summons to attend to something uncanny. That's how Franz Kafka begins his unsettling tales, and how stories about Abraham, Moses and several of the Hebrew prophets commence.

It is a formula that Paul Auster found so compelling that he used it to generate each of the novels - "City of Glass" (1985), "Ghost" (1986) and "The Locked Room" (1987) - published in one volume in 1990 as "The New York Trilogy."

What triggers the plot in "The Book of Illusions," Auster's 10th and latest novel, is a cryptic letter signed by Frieda Spelling, wife of Hector Mann, inviting the narrator to their isolated ranch in New Mexico.

Who is Hector Mann? "I wasn't attracted to mysteries or enigmas," insists the narrator, a literary scholar named David Zimmer who teaches at a college in Vermont. Auster, a connoisseur of the metaphysical puzzle whose "City of Glass" was, in fact, nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America, could not honestly say the same.

"What I am after," declared the author in the title essay of his 1992 testament "The Art of Hunger," "is to write fiction as strange as the world I live in." Hector Mann is a stranger in the strange Auster land.

In Auster's novel, Mann is the name ascribed to a neglected master of the silent cinema, a peer of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd who in 1929, after making 12 two-reel comedies, vanished from the face of the earth. No one knows where he went or even where he came from, though Zimmer eventually comes to believe that Mann was probably born to Galician Jews (as Chaim Mandelbaum) en route to Argentina on a Dutch steamship.

To distract himself from devastating grief after his wife and two sons die in a plane crash, Zimmer eventually hunts down a print for each of Mandelbaum/Mann's 12 films and publishes the only book on his work. (Zimmer has already written a book "about writers who had given up writing, a meditation on silence.")

When Zimmer initially ignores the summons from Mann's wife, he receives a visit from Alma Grund, a young woman whose exquisite beauty is marred by a birthmark that covers half her face. Grund convinces Zimmer to fly immediately with her to New Mexico; during the 60 years since his disappearance, Mann secretly made 14 films he intended to destroy at his death, and he now lies on his deathbed. If Zimmer arrives in time, he might get a glimpse of films created by "the first artist to make his work with the conscious, premeditated intention of destroying it."

That claim of primacy is overblown, of course. Tibetan sand paintings - intricate, arduous designs obliterated at the moment of their completion - are a humbling exercise in aesthetic effacement. Kafka's deathbed request that his friend Max Brod burn all his manuscripts is another precedent, as are Yves Tinguely's self-destructing sculptures. For reasons that Zimmer begins to fathom, private guilt makes Mann, like reclusive pianist Glenn Gould, shun art as public spectacle. Repudiating artist's pride in the supposed immortality of art, Mann's arcane creations are timed to expire with their creator.

"The Book of Illusions" is a meditation on the lures and limits of illusion. The most obvious illusion is the motion picture, still photographs projected onto a flat surface at just the right speed to dupe us into seeing depth and continuity. Auster, whose work in writing and directing films includes "Smoke" (1995), "Blue in the Face" (1995) and "Lulu on the Bridge" (1998), faces the challenge of inventing Mann's cinematic oeuvre and making the reader "see" some of it.

For the most part he succeeds, most notably in his deft account of "The Inner Life of Martin Frost," a 1946 piece that takes place entirely within the mind of a blocked writer. Invading that mind is a muse named Claire who forfeits her life, spectral as it is, to enable Frost to write. It is clear that Claire is a version of Alma, Zimmer's own elusive muse, and provides a skeletal key to the novel embedded within the book itself.

"The Book of Illusions" alludes to Auster's earlier works (David Zimmer is a minor character in his 1989 novel "Moon Palace"), as well as to Kafka, Arthur Rimbaud and other virtuosi of silence. Fanshawe, the missing figure in Auster's "The Locked Room," is also the title of an early, clumsy novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who tried to destroy all copies of it, and Hawthorne's melancholy ghost haunts this new book as well. Alma's facial scar surely owes something to Hawthorne's "The Birthmark," in which, pursuing perfection, a scientist named Aylmer (sounding suspiciously like Alma) destroys his almost perfect wife.

And Mann's sudden disappearance echoes "Wakefield," the Hawthorne tale about a man who walks away from his wife as well as his life.

With "The Book of Illusions," Auster offers an accessible if elusive parable about the nexus of art, love, guilt and chance. One might wonder about the Jewishness of Hector Mann, aka Herman Loessing, aka Chaim Mandelbaum - a Zelig-like chameleon who endures by adapting his identity to the shifting landscape of exile.

Though Auster makes no explicit reference to him, another American Jewish novelist, Henry Roth, offers instructive parallels to the story told in "The Book of Illusions." Like Mann, who is discovered by Zimmer 60 years after his disappearance, Roth, who abjured the literary life for a duck farm in Maine, went 60 years between his first novel, "Call It Sleep" (1934), and his second, "A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park" (1994). He, too, spent his last decades in New Mexico. Like Francois-Rene, Chateaubriand, Roth, wracked by guilt over adolescent incest, wrote his final pages for posthumous publication.

Though Auster implicates other authors in this inquest into the moral responsibilities of art, his fiction is unlike any other now being written. Readers should be grateful that he remains shamelessly productive, in brilliant prose that is not posthumous.

Steven G. Kellman, professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio, is the author of "The Translingual Imagination" (Nebraska, 2000).

By arrangement with the Forward