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Trauma Ties in Paul Auster’s Invention of Solitude

Houaria Righi


Véritable pierre angulaire de l’œuvre de Paul Auster, L’Invention de la solitude mêle les principaux thèmes développés par l’écrivain américain. À la fois autobiographie et essai, cette œuvre hybride inspirée par un trauma familial marquant et déterminant pour l’auteur interroge la notion même de relation et entraîne le lecteur dans le dédale de la création. Nous essaierons de montrer comment le trauma donne à repenser la notion même de relation.

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1Published in 1982, that is to say at the very beginning of his literary career The Invention of Solitude is Paul Auster’s first major work. Based on an autobiographical event, this unclassifiable piece of work mingles the main themes, which the American writer has always dealt with through his fiction. Loss, writing, reading and memory thus occupy the front scene of this long personal narrative and usher the reader into a fragmented world where the very efficiency of language is put into question.

2Divided into two books respectively entitled “Portrait of an Invisible Man” and “The Book of Memory” this piece of work dedicates its first part to the relationship Auster had with his deceased father while the second part is a real reflection, a deep meditation on the themes of fatherhood and of memory. Far from being a mere autobiographical work, The Invention of Solitude explores the different ties which the narrator easily identifiable as Auster himself bonded both with a father whose omnipresent absence is constantly alluded to and with a son who grew up away from his father because of the divorce of his parents. Absence becomes the space around which the writer threads his long narrative, which as the title indicates results in the creation of a solitude of his own.

3Paradoxically enough and in spite of the deep feeling of seclusion which emanates from Auster’s book, The Invention of Solitude is not only the story of an absence, or of a lack of ties. Conversely, Auster manages to question the very nature of relationship by showing that far from expected, the traumatic experience underwent by Samuel Auster does not annihilate ties between him and his son, but establishes a perennial relationship between them. Moreover, the very word “relationship” has to be taken in its broad meaning, as connections also have to be made between The Invention of Solitude and other previous literary works. Finally, this narrative is also the story of another relationship as the reader is given a key role in its understanding.

Tracking the father.

  • 1  See Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience, Trauma, Narrative and History, 1996

4Drawing from Freud’s definition of trauma in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Cathy Caruth points out that trauma is “a wound of the mind, “a breach in mind’s experience of time, self and the world.”1This rupture, this gap lies at the core of Auster’s Invention of Solitude in many respects.

  • 2  Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude, 7. The title of this book will appear hereafter as IS, fol (...)
  • 3  IS, 9.

5Indeed, as he is packing the recently deceased’s belongings, Auster reveals the relationship he had with a father he refers to as the “Invisible Man”. Samuel Auster, is described as a ghost who “haunted an enormous house, all by himself,”2 he is also presented as a “tourist, who could never be located.”3

  • 4  IS, 6
  • 5  See Silvana Rabinovich, La Trace dans le palimpseste, Lectures de Levinas, and more specifically p (...)

6This profound sense of absence is epitomized by the negative epiphany the writer goes through when he realizes that his father has left little to be remembered by : “What disturbed me was something else, something unrelated to death or my response to it: the realization my father had left no traces.”4  This feeling of a lack urges the writer to resort to writing in order to understand the personality of Samuel Auster, who, and this is idiosyncratic to any ghost, has supposedly left no trace to his son. Also, here is mentioned the heavy complexity of the trace, as a trace is both the sign of an absence but also, a sign of presence in itself.5

  • 6  Gilles Deleuze, Le Pli, Leibniz et le Baroque, collection « Critique », Paris, les Editions de Min (...)

7This dichotomy, this impression of duality is echoed by the ambivalent description, which is made of the father, both as a stranger, a tourist, a careless man, but also as a funny and loving character. Throughout the pages, the mystery enveloping his personality is gradually unveiled, so that the narrative folds and unfolds at the same time.6

  • 7  IS, 38.
  • 8  IS, 39.
  • 9  IS, 14.

8Indeed, Auster unfolds or reveals a family secret, which sheds light on the traumatic experience his father underwent. Anna Auster, Paul Auster’s grandmother murdered her husband. The writer does not linger over details but he manages, with a heavy sense of decency, to depict his father’s ambivalent feelings. Doomed to silence by his own mother who asks him never to betray her, Samuel Auster is trasformed into a mute character staged outside of the world. Paul Auster acknowledges the consequences of such a promise of loyalty on his father: “A boy cannot live through this kind of thing without being affected by it as a man”7, but what is interesting is that he is conscious of the effects of this story on his own mind: “I read these articles as history. But also as a cave drawing discovered on the inner walls of my skulls.”8 Here, he contradicts his previous statement. Traces have been left not in spite of the absence of his father but because of it. Besides, by the use of the genitive “my” the writer shows how he also bears the stigmata of that traumatic experience. As the writer is excavating this family secret, he finally understands, or attempts to understand, the distance that kept his father apart from the world. Not only was he a stranger to his son, but he also was a stranger to the others. For instance, as he is holding the picture of his father’s family, he has the impression of meeting “him for the first time.”9

  • 10  IS, 34.

So great was my need to write that I thought the story would be written by itself […] Never before have I been so aware of the rift between thinking and writing […] There has been a wound, and I realize now that it is very deep. Instead of healing me as I thought it would, the act of writing has kept it open. At times I have even felt the pain of it concentrated on my right hand, as if each time I picked up the pen and pressed it against the page, my hand were being torn apart. Instead of burying my father for me, these words have kept him alive.10 (My emphasis)

  • 11  Anne, Whitehead, 2004, p3.

9The reader clearly experiences a feeling of separation, a cleavage which, in spite of Auster’s attempts of reconciliation through writing remains wide open. But still, his “need to write” cannot be fulfilled. Loss is echoed by a void, which no word can grasp fully and which finds its root in the traumatic absence of the father. The use of the present perfect in this passage also emphasizes the link between past and present, that is to say between father and son, and foreshadows the chronological collapse characteristic of trauma fiction. But it underlines at the same time one of the many paradoxes of trauma fiction. As Whitehead pointed: “The term “trauma fiction” represents a paradox or contradiction: if trauma comprises an event or experience which overwhelms the individual and resists language or representation, how then can it be narrativised in fiction?”11

  • 12  IS, 69.

10Indeed, the first part of the book is an attempt to ward off the death of his father “When I step into silence, it will mean that my father has vanished forever.”12 Through writing, father and son are thus related one to the other. But the helplessness that results from absence and then loss is represented through to whole book as an impossibility to tell, as the narrator, A., indicates in “The Book of Memory” in the chapter symbolically entitled “The Invention of Solitude”:

  • 13  IS, 159.

He wants to say. That is to say, he means. As in the French, “vouloir dire,” which means, literally, to want to say, but which means, in fact, to mean. He means to say what he wants. He wants to say what he means. He says what he wants to mean. He means what he says.13

11In this passage, the gap between the “will to say” and the “ability to express a meaning” is illustrated by the difference between the French expression “vouloir dire” and the English verb “to mean”. As if his own native language were not sufficient, the writer resorts to another one, but still, the impossibility for the writer to express what he means, or what he wants to say foreshadows the aporia of language. Furthermore, the musicality of this passage is enhanced by the various repetitions, which give the impression of a never-ending circular pattern. Buthere is an example of the obsessive circular pattern at work in The Invention of Solitude.

Obsession as a motif and a leitmotiv: the haunt of death.

12If the first part of The Invention of Solitude is largely dedicated to the relationship Auster had with his father, “The Book of Memory” unveils a constellations of doubles, which the reader is invited to relate one to the other.

13On a diegetic space, plethora of examples emphasize the various repetitions, both trough the recurrences or through experiences for instance when A. mentions a boy he and his friend happened to meet twice at the same place.

  • 14   See Marc Amfreville, Écrits en souffrance, chapter entitled “ Rimes et mises-en-abymes”pp 139-163

14Through the numerous doubles which haunt the text – Gepetto and Pinocchio, Paul and his son, Mallarmé and Anatole, Jonah and the Whale (which obviously illustrates Melville’s influence on Auster’s work)– only to quote the most significant, “sons and fathers” occupy a significant position in the 13 books which compose the “Book of Memory.”14

  • 15  See Sigmund Freud, Au-delà du principe de plaisir and more especially pp : 60-62.

15Also, we are forced to acknowledge that most of Auster’s novels follow the same pattern, which even leads us to think, retrospectively, that The New York Trilogy, Moon Palace, Oracle Night or, and this is the most explicit example, The Book of Illusions, are only repetitions of one another, or even variations on The Invention of Solitude. This aesthetic of the double can sometimes irritate readers longing for originality in Auster’s work, but it also shows that the diegetic space in his work is so haunted by the return of the same15, that obsession can be seen both as a motif and also as a leitmotiv.

  • 16  See Sigmund Freud, L’homme aux rats. Un cas de névrose obsessionnelle, 2010.

16In The Rat Man,16 and in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud has largely described the link between obsession and trauma. What is quite significant here is to see how the text bears the stigmata of the traumatic loss of the father, how the cleavage which the narrator is in the grip of finds shape in the text, as if the narrative became a space both invaded by obsession itself and by its symptoms. Indeed, the first book dedicated to the father is “separated” from the book dedicated to the “sons” (although the figure of the lost father haunts the second part); but while the events are related following a cause and effect relationship, the “Book of Memory” becomes a space where the mind of the narrator A. wanders from a thought to another, from a place to another, from a moment in time to another, reflecting a fragmented self as the division in 13 books and in many paragraph illustrates.

  • 17  Indeed, the book opens onto a photograph of the Samuel Auster’s family and which is torn. IS, 4.

17Just like the picture of Samuel Auster’s family, which appears torn at the beginning of the book17, time undergoes a split throughout the second part of the book, transforming narration into an ode to memory both of a missing father but also of literary and philosophical influences too. As Marc Amfreville pointed out:

  • 18  Marc Amfreville, ibid, p.140

Le temps chronologique, chronos, disparaît au profit du temps de l’occasion, de l’événement, kairos, et pareille conception est à son tour liée à la représentation littéraire du trauma. De même que l’après-coup, dans son acceptation clinique, désigne le retour sur un premier événement à la faveur du second […], la fiction s’est souvent attachée à mettre en scène l’effacement du temps linéaire au profit de la répétition du surgissement.18

  • 19  IS, 125.

18Even more surprising is the fact that that the narrator A. links this constant resort to the mise en abyme, to the repetitions of the traumatic absence of his father: “Reality was a Chinese box, an infinite series of containers within containers. For here again, in most unlikely places, the theme had reappeared: the curse of the absent father.” 19 (My emphasis)

19Reality is doomed to repeat itself and this constant return of events/deferred action is orchestrated by the void provoked by loss. The “curse” of the absent father can be both read as the curse which Samuel Auster was the victim of, but also as the one Auster suffers from and which is the cause to the Invention of Solitude. But the image of the Chinese box which is a variation of the numerous “rooms” present in the book – Anne Frank’s, E. Dickinson’s, Van Gogh’s and the most significant the belly of the whale - also refer to the empty sarcophagus which the writer- digger is faced to face:

  • 20  IS, 82.

These four walls hold only the signs of his own disquiet, and in order to find some measure of peace in these surroundings, he must dig more and more deeply into himself. But the more he digs, the less there will be to go on digging into. This is undeniable to him. Sooner or later, he is bound to use himself up.20

  • 21  See Melville, Pierre, or the Ambiguities Book XXI, chapter 1: “Yet now, forsooth, because Pierre b (...)

20Here is another echo to Melville and to the image of the man who plunges so dear to the 19th -century novelist.21

  • 22  IS, 85.

21Just like the text itself which resorts to numerous intertextual references and quotations, the three characters Samuel, Paul and Daniel are contaminated with the image of the box as they give the impression to encompass each other: “When the father dies, he writes, the son becomes his own father and his own son.”22 The beginning of The Invention of Solitude gathers the three of them, but while we discover Samuel in the first part, Daniel is referred to in the second part, leaving the writer in the middle of the room of solitude. In other words, the “binary” relationship “father & son” turns into a tripartite connection.

  • 23  IS, 122.

22The characters are tied up to another in spite of the fact that they do not share the same space and time. Past, present, and future are superimposed even if there is a rupture between each of the three characters. The traumatic experience of the father echoes in his son’s and therefore resonates in the grandson’s. Not only is Paul’s wound reactivated when he remembers the possible loss of his son or when he is translating Mallarmé’s poems to his deceased child Anatole, but it is also the moment when he comes to grasp “the full scope of his fatherhood”.23

23So, Auster’s narrative contains folds that are gradually unfolded as if finally trauma didn’t only establish a breach within and between the characters, but it connects them one to another even more deeply.

  • 24  Whitehead, 3.

24As Whitehead points out: “trauma can only adequately be represented by mimicking its form so that temporality and chronology collapse and narratives are characterised by repetition and indirection.”24  This “chronology collapse” is contained in the allusions to the moments of writing (metalepses if it were a novel) So, the repetitive aspect of the narrative, which emerges from an impossibility to tell, can be read as a motif and a leitmotiv. However, the question of meaning arises. Indeed, how can meaning emerge from a narrative dictated by chaos and repetition?

Ties and bonds: narrating trauma.

  • 25  IS, 90.
  • 26  IS, 185.

25The heavy sense of a fragmented reality enhanced by the unceasing movements of the narrator’s inner thoughts finds an end where it begins, for “The Book of Memory” ends at the place and time it had started: Christmas Eve, 1979, 6 Varick Street. The end of the book epitomizes this ring-shaped narrative, as its incipit and excipit are identical. Time and space obey an obsessive circular pattern, which finds an echo in the “series of concentric circles”25 A. describes when referring to Amsterdam. But, the conclusion of Auster’s book and more specifically its last word can be heard as an invitation to recollect moments of beings. “ It was. It will never be again. Remember.”26

  • 27  IS, 79.

26Just like the long catalogue of reminiscences evoked in the 13th book, the narrator invites the reader to plunge simultaneously into a reflection on fatherhood but also on writing. The room becomes a shell dedicated to remembering, a synechdochial space for memory where the narrator A. is making connections between moments of his life: past, present and future meet: “Then he writes. It was. It will never be again.”27

27However, A. makes a distinction between the voluntary memory and the involuntary one. His scheme is totally different from the Proustian reflection of the passage of time:

  • 28  IS, 149.

What he experienced, perhaps, during those few moments on Christmas Eve, 1979, as he sat alone in his room on Varick Street, was this: the sudden knowledge that came over him that even alone, in the deepest solitude of his room, he was not alone, or more precisely, that the moment he began to try to speak of that solitude, he had become more than just himself. Memory, therefore, not simply as the resurrection of one’s private past, but as an immersion in the past of others, which is to say: history – which one participates in and is a witness to, is a part and apart from.28

  • 29  “The words rhyme, and even if there is no real connection between them, he cannot help of thinking (...)

28What is interesting here is the fact that Auster includes the reader as a witness of his traumatic experience. He is both “a part and apart from” a text, where, like an archaeologist, he is given the task to collect traces and to establish connections in a fragmented narrative. To the rhyming connection, which the A. makes of the words room, tomb and womb, the reader is inclined to adding the word wound.29

29Besides the heavy intertextuality and the constant resort to quotations also demands of the reader that he establishes connections between Auster’s work and the ones he refers to, so that his text is tied up to others. In this respect, not only his father but also his literary and philosophical fathers are sepulchred in a room where the writer tries to give shape to his memories.

  • 30  IS, 80.

30The reader is asked to witness the trauma of another and given the arduous task to reconcile signifiers and signified in a fragmented reality. To the narrator, words are connected : “As in the meanings of words, thinks take on meaning only in relationship to each other. ‘Two faces are alike’, writes Pascal”30 but how can the reader establish connections in a chaotic fiction where meaninglessness prevails?

31A clue is given by A. himself when he alludes to his job as a translator:

  • 31   IS, 146

A. sits down in his own room to translate another man’s book, and it is as though he were entering that man’s solitude and making it his own. But surely that it is impossible. For once a solitude as been breached, once a solitude has been taken on by another, it is no longer solitude but a companionship.31 (My emphasis)

32Here, the highly significant word “breached” which underlines once again the idea of a gap. However, what it interesting is the fact that the translator or the reader, are invited to enter this solitude. Just like the writer who mingles different literary influences, the reader is besought to establish connections in a narrative based on collage of subjective memories and of traces from the writer’s literary heritage.

33Commenting upon  the story of Tancred, which Freud chose as an illustration of his definition of the trauma, Caruth states:

  • 32  Caruth, ibid, 8.

But we can also read the address of the voice here, not as the story of the individual in relation to the events of his own past, but as the story of the way in which one’s own trauma is tied up with the trauma of another, the way in which trauma may lead, therefore, to the encounter with another, through the very possibility and surprise of listening to another’s wound. 32

The Invention of Solitude may turn the reader into this “Other”.

34The Invention of Solitude is certainly Auster’s most personal work. When referring to the disposing of clothes and personal items of dress, he writes: “More than seeing the coffin itself being lowered into the ground, the act of throwing away these ties seemed to embody for me the idea of burial. I finally understand that my father was dead”. (My emphasis).

35The ambivalence of the word tie really illustrates the complexity of the traumatic relationship, which sons and father share in the book. Absence and presence are connected one to another; more than that: they depend on one another.

36 But The Invention of Solitude also foreshadows most of the themes that his major novels are pervaded with. Writing, reading, imagination, fatherhood and memory are entangled in a narrative, which can also be read as an ode to literary creation. The womb of the whale isn’t only the room of solitude; for it is also a place where the reader follows the writer on the path of understanding. Although the - Paul relationship seems impossible, another one emerges from the book: the writer – the text – the reader.

37In this attempt at concluding, here is the decision of the narrator of The Brooklyn Follies.

  • 33  Paul Auster, Brooklyn Follies, p 302.

My idea was this: to form a company that would publish books about the forgotten ones, to rescue their stories and facts and documents before they disappeared- and shape them into continuous narrative, the narrative of a life. They would have absorbed the death by then, but they still wouldn’t be over it, and now that everyday life had started for them again, they would understand that they would never be over it. They would want to bring their loved one back to life, and I would do everything humanly possible to grant their wish. I would resurrect that person in words, and once the pages had been printed and the story had been between covers, they would have something to hold on to for the rest of their lives. Not only that, but something that would outlive them, that would outlive us all.33(My emphasis.)

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Marc Amfreville, Écrits en souffrance, Paris : Michel Houdiard Éditeur, 2009.

Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude, USA: Faber & Faber, 1982.

----------------Brooklyn Follies, England: Faber & Faber, 2005

Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience, Trauma, Narrative and History, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Gilles Deleuze, Le Pli, Leibniz et le Baroque, collection « Critique », Paris : les Editions de Minuit, 1988.

Sigmund Freud, Au delà du principe de plaisir, Paris : Éditions Payot & Rivages, 2010.

L’homme aux rats. Un cas de névrose obsessionnelle, Paris : Éditions Payot & Rivages, 2010.

Herman Melville, Pierre, or the Ambiguities, New York: Penguin Book USA, 1996.

Rabinovich Silvana, La Trace dans le palimpseste, Lectures de Levinas, Paris : L’Harmattan, 2003.

Anne, Whitehead, Trauma Fiction, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004.

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1  See Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience, Trauma, Narrative and History, 1996

2  Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude, 7. The title of this book will appear hereafter as IS, followed by the number of the page where the quote is taken from.

3  IS, 9.

4  IS, 6

5  See Silvana Rabinovich, La Trace dans le palimpseste, Lectures de Levinas, and more specifically pp139-140 : “ Pourquoi précisément trace ? Ce qui distingue la trace du reste des signes c’est, selon Levinas, qu’elle signifie hors de toute intention de signifier : la trace se résiste à être signe, justement qui essaie d’effacer des traces en laisse d’autres inintentionnellement et ce sont ces dernières qui nous intéressent. Le signe ne parvient pas à la capturer, la trace échappe à la signification et de ce fait appartient à l’ordre du sinistre – dans le sens freudien de Unheimlich, le familier qui apparaît de façon inattendue. La – sinistre – trace perturbe inexorablement l’ordre du monde, car elle échappe à la présence et « signifie » une absence, signifie sans faire apparaître.”

6  Gilles Deleuze, Le Pli, Leibniz et le Baroque, collection « Critique », Paris, les Editions de Minuit, 1988, (see his definition of the Baroque fold : “ Le Baroque ne revoie pas à une essence, mais plutôt à une fonction opératoire, à un trait. Il ne cesse de faire des plis. Il n’invente pas la chose : il y a tous les plis venus d’Orient, les plis grecs, romains, romans, gothiques, classiques… Mais il courbe et recourbe les plis, les pousse à l’infini, pli sur plus, pli selon pli. Le trait du Baroque, c’est le pli qui va à l’infini. Et d’abord il les différencie suivant deux directions, suivant deux infinis, comme si l’infini avait deux étages : les replis de la matière, et les plis dans l’âme.” 5.

7  IS, 38.

8  IS, 39.

9  IS, 14.

10  IS, 34.

11  Anne, Whitehead, 2004, p3.

12  IS, 69.

13  IS, 159.

14   See Marc Amfreville, Écrits en souffrance, chapter entitled “ Rimes et mises-en-abymes”pp 139-163.

15  See Sigmund Freud, Au-delà du principe de plaisir and more especially pp : 60-62.

16  See Sigmund Freud, L’homme aux rats. Un cas de névrose obsessionnelle, 2010.

17  Indeed, the book opens onto a photograph of the Samuel Auster’s family and which is torn. IS, 4.

18  Marc Amfreville, ibid, p.140

19  IS, 125.

20  IS, 82.

21  See Melville, Pierre, or the Ambiguities Book XXI, chapter 1: “Yet now, forsooth, because Pierre began to see through the superficiality of the world, he fondly weens he has come to the unlayered substance. But, far as any geologists has yet gone down into the world, it is found to consist of nothing but surface stratified on surface. To its axis, the world being nothing but superinduced superficies. By vast pains we mine into the pyramid; but by horrible gropings we come to the central room; with joy we espy the sarcophagus; but we lift the lid-and no body is there! – appallingly vacant as vast is the soul of a man!” p. 285.

22  IS, 85.

23  IS, 122.

24  Whitehead, 3.

25  IS, 90.

26  IS, 185.

27  IS, 79.

28  IS, 149.

29  “The words rhyme, and even if there is no real connection between them, he cannot help of thinking of them together. Room and tomb, tomb and womb, womb and room. Breath and death. Or the fact that the letters of the word ‘live’ can be rearranged to spell out the word ‘evil’.” IS,71.

30  IS, 80.

31   IS, 146

32  Caruth, ibid, 8.

33  Paul Auster, Brooklyn Follies, p 302.

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Houaria Righi, « Trauma Ties in Paul Auster’s Invention of Solitude », Sillages critiques [En ligne], 19 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2015, consulté le 23 mars 2017. URL :

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Houaria Righi

Doctorante en littérature américaine, (“L’Obsession comme principe d’écriture chez Herman Melville et Paul Auster”), Houaria Righi enseigne également l’anglais dans le secondaire. Son travail porte sur les représentations littéraires du trauma et plus spécifiquement sur le motif de “l’obsession” dans Moby Dick, or the Whale de H. Melville et Leviathan de P. Auster.
Phd Candidate in American Literature, Houaria Righi also teaches English as a second language. Her research deals with the literary representations of trauma and more specifically with the motif of  “Obsession” in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, or the Whale and Paul Auster’s Leviathan.

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