I had two reactions to Travels in the Scriptorium by Paul Auster (Henry Holt, 2007). The first – and perhaps thus the truest- came right when I finished reading it. Peter and I were on the ferry, on our way home. I closed the book and set it down on my lap. Peter looked up from his own book and asked,
“Finished reading your book?”
“Was it good?”
I paused. “Yes. But the ending was unsatisfying.”
Travels in the Scriptorium is good. In the way that a house may be well-constructed, well designed, without any obvious flaw and yet you don’t want to live there.
I read Travels in the Scriptorium. I developed my own theories as to its mysteries. I finished reading. Some of the theories were correct. But I didn’t love the book. It felt like eating at an expensive restaurant with tiny portions. You might appreciate the flavour and the work that went into it but you still feel ripped off and want to stop at Wendy’s on your way home.
Do I have to enjoy every book I read? Of course not. I read many books as a student that I didn’t love. I’ve read books without loving them and still appreciated them and learned from them. (Great Expectations springs to mind as an example.)
Travels in the Scriptorium is a well-crafted novel. It tells, in astonishing and sometimes uncomfortable detail, the events in a single day of Mr. Blank, an elderly man who may or may not be a prisoner. Who may or may not be a patient in a hospital and suffering from Alzheimers disease. The fact that much of the book is devoted to detailing such events as Mr. Blank going to the bathroom or sitting in a chair, and yet I wanted to keep reading is a testament to Auster’s abilities as a writer.
The ending was not a twist or a sudden revelation but rather a slowly revealed conclusion. It did not come as a surprise; I’m not sure if it was supposed to. Neither did it satisfy me. We are told what the picture is but never given the pieces of the puzzle.
I don’t normally do this but when I got home I looked Travels in the Scriptorium up on-line to read some reviews and see how other readers had felt. And then came my second reaction.
It turns out that Travels in the Scriptorium is populated with characters from other novels by Auster. No doubt if you’ve read a book or two by Auster or, better yet, all of them, you would enjoy Travels in the Scriptorium greatly.
My reaction to this knowledge though was frustration. This is a book I could have enjoyed much more if I’d been equipped with the right information, if I’d known to read City of Glass or The Brooklyn Follies first. It felt like I had been excluded from a private club.
I have no problem with authors writing stories that include nods to their previous works. The problem here is that Travels in the Scriptorium is practically nothing but nods and winks. It doesn’t work on both levels and so excludes any reader unfamiliar with Auster’s previous work. If the book should be read following another, tell me, I’ll listen! Don’t make me sit through a lecture I don’t understand when a translator is available.
It’s not hard to see Auster’s skill in Travels in the Scriptorium but on no account did it fill me with desire to read more of his work. If you’ve read Auster before though, you might enjoy it.