The Invention of Solitude by Paul Auster

★★★★★ (5/5)

“One thing must be understood: I have said nothing extraordinary or even surprising. What is extraordinary begins at the moment I stop. But I am no longer able to speak of it.”

This is an utterly moving and beautiful memoir, chronicling the author’s meditations on his father’s death, happy coincidences and driving forces of his own life which give meaning to his existence. Split in two, the first part of this book deals with the author straining to give a definite form to his father through memories. Auster wants to embody the vague image of his father, a complicated and lonely man, in concrete terms in order to resolve his unanswered question of what his father meant to him.

At times I have the feeling that I am writing about three or four different men, each one distinct, each one a contradiction of all the others.

The second part deals with Auster’s reflections on his own life, a myriad of chance occasions that have propelled his life in a certain direction. He ruminates over his own identity as a father to his son Daniel and draws parallels from his younger self to his older self as a human, a husband and a father. In urgency of recollection, Auster becomes a man of solitude much like his absent father. This is an incredibly insightful look into the author’s life in which he uses wealth of words and memories to refine the process of introspection.

As if he were going both forward and backward, into the future and into the past. And there are times, often there are times, when these feelings are so strong that his life no longer seems to dwell in the present.

Portrait of an Invisible Man

In the deepest, most unalterable sense, he was an invisible man. Invisible to others, and most likely invisible to himself as well

Auster begins the book by reflecting on his recently deceased father’s life. Sam Auster had always been an emotionally distant father to Paul and his sister. After separating from his wife, he lived an increasingly solitary life, absent from his children’s lives though investing some time with his grandchildren. He was a man of mercenary ambitions owing to privations he had lived through as a child. His fear of poverty was the one driving and motivating factor of his life. The writer begins to unveil his father’s flawed character through some incidents he experienced as a child and then later on as a young adult. A young boy always seeks his dad’s approval in all his endeavours and on most accounts Sam faltered as a father.

Like the house that was well ordered and yet falling apart from within, the man himself was calm, almost supernatural in his imperturbability, and yet prey to a roiling, unstoppable force of fury within

One of the most defining factors of Sam’s life as a lonely man is found in the house he inhabits. Paul brings to life the abode of his father, drawing countless parallels to his father’s psyche and to his residence. The house was to be sold in a few weeks but Sam’s untimely death intervened. Paul brings his wife and son along to clean the house and stumbles upon a past mystery which tends to explain his father’s absence as well as his childhood.

He uncovers the mystery of his grandfather and in the process he is able to reconcile with his father’s image as an untiring man, fearful of destitution and scrambling to hide a warm and kind heart. His father’s vulnerability was shrouded in deliberate absence interspersed with moments of familiarity.

It was negligence that governed him, not memory, and even though he went on living in that house all those years, he lived in it as a stranger might have

The writer also aims to discover the form of solitude his father had embodied throughout his life. This conscious loneliness also manifested itself in the author’s life and in trying to decipher his father, Paul undergoes the process of self-realisation. This is further commented upon in second part of the book.

Solitary in the sense of retreat. In the sense of not having to see himself, of not having to see himself being seen by anyone else.

Paul vividly describes his father’s character without reference to any distinct trait. In my mind’s eye I was able to wholly consolidate Sam as a living, breathing human being – a man who had lived through a childhood tragedy, had fathered two children with considerable taciturnity and had resolved himself within the small space he occupied. One marvels at the author’s impeccably brilliant description of his father’s solitude without making the reader pity him.

In retrospect, nothing could have been more trivial. And yet the fact that I had been included, that my father had casually asked me to share his boredom with him nearly crushed me with happiness.

After all, Paul isn’t seeking our sympathy. He is merely acknowledging the existence of a father figure, his reticence and compassion, and in doing so, the author is finding more of himself as a man and a father to his young son Daniel. The beauty of the prose lies in one of many such instances where Auster whirls the reader into his personal life, showing just enough for the reader to grapple Sam’s circumstances and leaving the rest on natural empathy so that the reader may concoct their own image of Sam Auster.

He did not seem to be a man occupying space, but rather a block of impenetrable space in the form of a man. The world bounced off him, shattered against him, at times adhered to him—but it never got through

Another aspect of story-telling which give this a deeply intimate feel is Paul’s personal interludes. Amidst narrating a somber incident, he takes a break and allows his self to intervene, complimenting the difficulty of the writing process with summoning memories which are haunting. He reveals confusions associated with writing about his father’s death, the perils his own identity faces and infuses it with obstacles of writing in order to overcome them. A particularly favourite passage of mine is:

Nothing now for several days… In spite of the excuses I have made for myself, I understand what is happening. The closer I come to the end of what I am able to say, the more reluctant I am to say anything. I want to postpone the moment of ending, and in this way delude myself into thinking that I have only just begun, that the better part of my story still lies ahead. No matter how useless these words might seem to be, they have nevertheless stood between me and a silence that continues to terrify me. When I step into this silence, it will mean that my father has vanished forever.

These interludes lend a more “human” quality to these intensely personal memoirs. Given that this was Paul’s debut work, I am mesmerised by his audacity to lay bare the most private of thoughts, many of which are cloistered within the deepest recesses of our mind.

The Book of Memory

These tiniest of images: incorrigible, lodged in the mud of memory, neither buried nor wholly retrievable. And yet each one, in itself, a fleeting resurrection, a moment otherwise lost

Second part of the book reads more like short essays, expounding on the nature of coincidence, the overarching theme of father-son relationship, the eternally prevalent question on notion of time and its passage, the present in reference to past, the significant journey from infancy to adulthood and on traversing through one’s memories to form one’s identity.

This reluctance, he began to realize, was a product of fear. But fear of what? Of walking back into his own past? Of discovering a present that would contradict the past, and thus alter it, which in turn would destroy the memory of the past he wanted to preserve?

The Book of Memory is further divided into thirteen books. In each book, the author touches upon one subject from his life, alluding to himself as A. and a myriad of other characters with only single-letter initials. He recounts his life in Paris as a struggling poet and translator, a father of an ailing son undergoing divorce, a son to his now deceased father as well as a son and friend to another well-wisher whose death brings back memories of his dad.

More than an emanation of his mind. He feels himself sliding through events, hovering like a ghost around his own presence, as if he were living somewhere to the side of himself—not really here, but not anywhere else either

The author refers to himself in third person which amplifies his quest for introspection. Seeing himself as A. and not as “I” or “me”, Paul is able to delve deeper into his incessant need for being present in the now as well as the past. He aims to reunite his personal history with factors that led to his current circumstances. This further leads to recollection of chance happenings that have strung his life and identity together. Paul refers to this as the “rhythm of life”.

A young man rents a room in Paris and then discovers that his father had hid out in this same room during the war. If these two events were to be considered separately, there would be little to say about either one of them. The rhyme they create when looked at together alters the reality of each…It is only at those rare moments when one happens to glimpse a rhyme in the world that the mind can leap out of itself and serve as a bridge for things across time and space, across seeing and memory

Concluding Thoughts

 Memory in both senses of the word: as a catalyst for remembering his own life and as an artificial structure for ordering the historical past

This was an utterly refreshing, sad but poignant read. It is a memoir devoid of extraneous self-indulgence, something I felt terribly with Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking”. Meditations on death need not be superfluous nor be embellished with fanciful attributes. Similarly, mourning the dead as Auster does is more about assembling broken connections and trying to make sense of a tragedy rather than belittling it as a mere misfortune of grand proportions. In reuniting with his father’s image, Auster discovers more about himself than he would have had, had he nourished a bygone grudge.

Far from troubling him, this state of being lost became a source of happiness, of exhilaration. He breathed it into his very bones. As if on the brink of some previously hidden knowledge, he breathed it into his very bones and said to himself, almost triumphantly: I am lost.

“The Invention of Solitude” rejoices in life and its most trivial aspects amidst loss and bereavement. It beckons the reader to embrace the oddity of life. Paul Auster’s self-analysis is brutally honest without any grandiose statements. Choppy sentences, exquisite character detail, reference to himself in third person are all used adeptly for this memoir to be deeply personal yet inviting and engaging. It is sublime and poetic. A highly recommended read!

For it is only in the darkness of solitude that the work of memory begins.

Favorite excerpts

On Solitude

  • Standing there not as objects but as remnants of thought, of consciousness, emblems of the solitude in which a man comes to make decisions about himself
  • Impossible, I realize, to enter another’s solitude. If it is true that we can ever come to know another human being, even to a small degree, it is only to the extent that he is willing to make himself known
  • Every book is an image of solitude. It is a tangible object that one can pick up, put down, open, and close, and its words represent many months, if not many years, of one man’s solitude, so that with each word one reads in a book one might say to himself that he is confronting a particle of that solitude. A man sits alone in a room and writes
  • Whether the book speaks of loneliness or companionship, it is necessarily a product of solitude
  • As in Pascal: “All the unhappiness of man stems from one thing only: that he is incapable of staying quietly in his room.”
  • To imagine a solitude so crushing, so unconsolable, that one stops breathing for hundreds of years.

On Death

  • The suddenness of it leaves no room for thought, gives the mind no chance to seek out a word that might comfort it. We are left with nothing but death, the irreducible fact of our own mortality
  • Life becomes death, and it is as if this death has owned this life all along.
  • Eventually, it would be as though he had never lived at all
  • When that life ends, the things change, even though they remain the same. They are there and yet not there: tangible ghosts, condemned to survive in a world they no longer belong to.
  • Things are inert: they have meaning only in function of the life that makes use of them
  • If A. had experienced one kind of death earlier in the year, a death so sudden that even as it gave him over to death it deprived him of the knowledge of that death, now he was experiencing death of another kind, and it was this slow, mortal exhaustion, this letting go of life in the heart of life, that finally taught him the thing he had known all along.

On Memory

  • No sooner have I thought one thing than it evokes another thing, and then another thing, until there is an accumulation of detail so dense that I feel I am going to suffocate. Never before have I been so aware of the rift between thinking and writing
  • the most important thing is always the biggest thing. Perspective is lost in favor of proportion—which is dictated not by the eye but by the demands of the mind.
  • This odor was inseparable in my mind from the idea of “grandma.”
  • As the hasp fell down and I raised the lid, there it was, all over again—that smell, wafting up towards me, immediate, palpable, as if it had been my grandmother herself. I felt as though I had just opened her coffin
  • If a man is to be truly present among his surroundings, he must be thinking not of himself, but of what he sees. He must forget himself in order to be there. And from that forgetfulness arises the power of memory. It is a way of living one’s life so that nothing is ever lost.
  • The pen will never be able to move fast enough to write down every word discovered in the space of memory
  • Even as adults, we have buried within us a memory of the way we perceived the world as children
  • Most vivid is the smell, as if poverty were more than a lack of money, but a physical sensation, a stench that invaded your head and made it impossible to think
  • There is no fixed center to any of this (“a universe in which the center is everywhere, the circumference nowhere”) except perhaps the child’s consciousness, which is itself a constantly shifting field of perceptions, memories, and utterances

On Passage of Time

  • he can feel himself alive in the present, a present that surrounds him and permeates him, that breaks through him with the sudden, overwhelming knowledge that he is alive
  • was long cured of his passion, but he had not dismissed her altogether from his mind, clinging somehow to the feeling of that passion, although she herself had lost importance for him
  • For a moment, without being aware of it, she stood in front of that picture, which had been painted nearly eighty years before, and A. saw, as though leaping incredibly across time, that the child’s face in the painting and the old woman’s face before him were exactly the same. For that one instant, he felt he had cut through the illusion of human time and had experienced it for what it was: as no more than a blink of the eyes. He had seen an entire life standing before him, and it had been collapsed into that one instant.
  • He is remembering his childhood, and it has appeared to him in the present in the form of these experiences. He is remembering his childhood, and it is writing itself out for him in the present


  • The made-up story consists entirely of meanings, whereas the story of fact is devoid of any significance beyond itself
  • A man encounters his old love on a street in a foreign city. It means only what it is. Nothing more, nothing less
  • For this is the function of the story: to make a man see the thing before his eyes by holding up another thing to view.
  • If the voice of a woman telling stories has the power to bring children into the world, it is also true that a child has the power to bring stories to life. It is said that a man would go mad if he could not dream at night. In the same way, if a child is not allowed to enter the imaginary, he will never come to grips with the real

Character of Sam Auster

  • His house was just one of many stopping places in a restless, unmoored existence, and this lack of center had the effect of turning him into a perpetual outsider, a tourist of his own life. You never had the feeling that he could be located.
  • A man without appetites. You felt that nothing could ever intrude on him, that he had no need of anything the world had to offer.
  • For as long as he lived, he was somewhere else, between here and there. But never really here. And never really there.
  • He never talked about himself, never seemed to know there was anything he could talk about. It was as though his inner life eluded even him.
  • Like everything else in his life, he saw me only through the mists of his solitude, as if at several removes from himself
  • The world was a distant place for him, I think, a place he was never truly able to enter, and out there in the distance, among all the shadows that flitted past him, I was born, became his son, and grew up, as if I were just one more shadow, appearing and disappearing in a half-lit realm of his consciousness.
  • Again and again throughout his life he would stare a thing in the face, nod his head, and then turn around and say it was not there
  • The way he spoke: as if making a great effort to rise up out of his solitude, as if his voice were rusty, had lost the habit of speaking. He always hemmed and hawed a lot, cleared his throat, seemed to sputter in mid-sentence. You felt, very definitely, that he was uncomfortable
  • There was a musical, airy quality to it. Whenever he answered the phone, it was a lilting “hellooo” that greeted you. The effect was not so much funny as endearing. It made him seem slightly daft, as if he were out of phase with the rest of the world—but not by much. Just a degree or two. Indelible tics.
  • He even pronounced his words a little oddly. “Upown,” for example, instead of “upon,” as if the flourish of his hand had its counterpart in his voice
  • In a family that had already closed in on itself, this nomadism walled them off entirely. There were no enduring points of reference: no home, no town, no friends that could be counted on. Only the family itself
  • This was rule by caprice. For a child, it meant that the sky could fall on top of him at any moment, that he could never be sure of anything.
  • Having been without money as a child, and therefore vulnerable to the whims of the world, the idea of wealth became synonymous for him with the idea of escape: from harm, from suffering, from being a victim. He was not trying to buy happiness, but simply an absence of unhappiness. Money was the panacea, the objectification of his deepest, most inexpressible desires as a human being.
  • Each thing was understood only in terms of its function, judged only by how much it cost, never as an intrinsic object with its own special properties
  • His excuse for never taking us to the movies: “Why go out and spend a fortune when it will be on television in a year or two?”
  • You did not go home because you were finished, but simply because it was late and you had run out of time. The next day all the problems would be waiting for you—and several new ones as well. It never stopped. In fifteen years he took only two vacations
  • How he managed to pick himself up and go in there every day is beyond my understanding. Force of habit, or else sheer stubbornness

S.’ Character

  • lived in a space so small that at first it seemed to defy you, to resist being entered. The presence of one person crowded the room, two people choked it
  • In his penury, he had managed to provide for himself more efficiently than many millionaires do
  • Everything became absurd and luminous in that laughter. The world was turned inside out, swept away, and then immediately reborn as a kind of metaphysical jest. There was no room in that world for a man who did not have a sense of his own ridiculousness.
  • The bond was still there, but as time went on A. began to wonder if it was not, in fact, a memory of that other bond, formed six years earlier, which sustained this bond in the present
  • A towel was never just a towel, but a “Turkish towel.” A taker of drugs was a “dope fiend.” Nor would he ever say “ I saw…,” but rather, “I’ve had an opportunity to observe.…” In so doing, he managed to inflate the world, to turn it into a more compelling and exotic place for himself

Beautifully Crafted Sentences

  • Each time I opened a drawer or poked my head into a closet, I felt like an intruder, a burglar ransacking the secret places of a man’s mind. I kept expecting my father to walk in, to stare at me in disbelief, and ask me what the hell I thought I was doing. It didn’t seem fair that he couldn’t protest. I had no right to invade his privacy.
  • But even the facts do not always tell the truth.
  • We spent a lot of time together, she in her loneliness and I in my cramps, waiting patiently in doctors’ offices for someone to quell the insurrection that continually raged in my stomach
  • My grandfather had been sitting in a chair next to his wife with one of his sons standing between his knees—and he was not there. Only his fingertips remained: as if he were trying to crawl back into the picture from some hole deep in time, as if he had been exiled to another dimension. The whole thing made me shake.
  • A whole world seems to emerge from this portrait: a distinct time, a distinct place, an indestructible sense of the past.
  • The odometer read sixty-seven miles. That also happened to have been my father’s age: sixty-seven years. The brevity of it sickened me. As if that were the distance between life and death. A tiny trip, hardly longer than a drive to the next town.
  • It is equally true, perhaps, that once this story has ended, it will go on telling itself, even after the words have been used up.
  • To follow with Bruno’s notion that the structure of human thought corresponds to the structure of nature. And therefore to conclude that everything, in some sense, is connected to everything else
  • It is not so much that he dreads climbing the ten flights of stairs when he gets back, but that he finds it disheartening to exhaust himself so thoroughly only to return to such bleakness.
  • The snores swell gradually, and at the peak of each cycle they become long, piercing, almost hysterical, as if, when night comes, the snorer had to imitate the noise of the machine that holds him captive during the day
  • The world has shrunk to the size of this room for him, and for as long as it takes him to understand it, he must stay where he is. Only one thing is certain: he cannot be anywhere until he is here. And if he does not manage to find this place, it would be absurd for him to think of looking for another.
  • When night comes, the electricity dims to half-strength, then goes up again, then comes down, for no apparent reason
  • The emaciated limbs, the shriveled testicles, the body that had shrunk to less than a hundred pounds. This was a once corpulent man, whose proud, well-stuffed belly had preceded his every step through the world, and now he was hardly there
  • Everything seemed to be repeating itself. Reality was a Chinese box, an infinite series of containers within containers. For here again, in the most unlikely of places, the theme had reappeared
  • No one is less cynical than a magician. He knows, and everyone else knows, that everything he does is a sham. The trick is not really to deceive them, but to delight them into wanting to be deceived
  • The superiority of the Collodi original to the Disney adaptation lies in its reluctance to make the inner motivations of the story explicit. They remain intact, in a pre-conscious, dream-like form, whereas in Disney these things are expressed—which sentimentalizes them, and therefore trivializes them
  • A wisp of puniness against the bulk of his father, he dreams of acquiring inordinate powers to conquer the paltry reality of himself
  • If there is to be any justice at all, it must be a justice for everyone. No one can be excluded, or else there is no such thing as justice. The conclusion is inescapable
  • He lays it out on the table before him and writes these words with his pen. It was. It will never be again. Remember.

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