Leviathan by Paul Auster
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A NICE NIGHT'S ENTERTAINMENT ON THE FOURTH OF JULY:
Fireworks Over Brooklyn
We're at a party in a modern bohemian fourth floor apartment in Brooklyn.
The guests include publishers, writers, artists, film-makers, musicians and various minders, acolytes and drummers disguised as waiters.
It’s July 4, 1981 (or is it 2003 or 2012 or all three, I don't know, the script doesn't say), barely twenty minutes before the fireworks are due to begin.
LYDIA DAVIS (who has just arrived, it’s her second party of the night and she’s already tipsy): Hi, Sophie!
SOPHIE CALLE: Bon jour, Lydia. Would you like a drink?
LYDIA DAVIS: One more won’t do any damage, I guess.
Sophie notices her looking at a freshly made martini on the bar.
SOPHIE CALLE: Here. Take one of these.
LYDIA DAVIS: A votre santé.
SOPHIE CALLE: À la votre.
Lydia tilts her glass and downs the martini in one smooth movement.
SOPHIE CALLE: Another?
LYDIA DAVIS: Why not!
Don DeLillo walks past, in the direction of the kitchen. He hasn’t noticed Lydia yet. She air kisses Sophie goodbye and heads after Don, tapping him on the shoulder just as he enters the kitchen and reaches for the first hors d’ouvre on a newly-assembled tray.
DON DELILLO (turning around): Lydia, you look divine, fresh from your experience with Proust.
LYDIA DAVIS: It’s finished, mercifully. His sentences were so long.
DON DELILLO: You must be glad they’re just a remembrance of things past?
LYDIA DAVIS: In search of lost time, don’t you mean?
DON DELILLO: Oh, of course, I forgot. In search of lost punctuation marks, as well, I suppose.
Lydia has been watching over his shoulder, where through the kitchen window she has just spotted Paul Auster with a dazzling six foot tall blonde with an exquisite Scandinavian face who he has just met ten minutes before.
LYDIA DAVIS: Don, who’s that Amazon with Paul?
Don turns around to see Paul Auster sit on the railing and then swing both feet around over the top, until they dangle above the street.
DON DELILLO: Oh, um, ah, that’s Siri Hustvedt, she’s a grad student in English Literature. Columbia.
Now Don notices Paul wobble on the railing. He’s doing something indistinct with one of his feet or perhaps his shoes. Siri moves up behind him, nervously, placing her arms around his waist. Don thinks he notices her lips graze the nape of Paul’s neck. Or something.
Lydia hasn’t noticed any of this yet, apart from Paul's presence outside the kitchen window with the blonde.
LYDIA DAVIS: Don, could you hold my glass for une moment?
As elegantly as one can in her state of sobriety, Lydia lifts her left leg over the waist high window sill and places her left foot on the balcony. She tries to reclaim her glass from Don DeLillo, while pulling her right leg through behind her.
DON DELILLO: Careful, Lydia...
But, it’s too late, the glass falls onto the kitchen floor as Lydia fails to clasp it securely, and she projects backwards into Siri, striking the vicinity of her left kidney with her elbow. Siri lets go of Paul Auster in agony, and Paul falls forward into the night sky, initially holding his hands out in a diving posture, before rocketing headlong in the direction of the street.
A screaming comes up the hollow streetscape, even though barely a second has elapsed. Nobody has had time, let alone is game enough, to look down, until they hear the inevitable crash or thump.
Yet, there is no crash or thump, and the screaming gets closer again.
DON DELILLO (who seems to have some understanding of what’s happened and calls out): What was it like, Paul?
PAUL AUSTER: Fucking amazing, Don. Can you guys grab hold of the bungee cable?
Don looks at Siri and Lydia.
DON DELILLO: No.
TATTOOED EX-NEW ZEALAND ALL BLACK: It’s right, I’ll pull him up.
LYDIA DAVIS: I don’t suppose you could leave him hanging a bit longer?
DON DELILLO: My turn next.
Paul Auster climbs back over the railing, the top two buttons of his Polo shirt undone and not a hair out of place.
SIRI HUSTVEDT (resuming her grip on Paul Auster, this time front on): Oh, Paul, I think it’s love at first sight.
PAUL AUSTER: I was only ten minutes behind you, Iris.
SIRI HUSTVEDT: Iris?
PAUL AUSTER: Sorry, I meant Siri, you just looked like an Iris from down there.
LYDIA DAVIS: You were looking at her upside down.
THOMAS PYNCHON (turning to Lydia): He must have loved her from the bottom of his arc.
DON DELILLO: Tom, what are you doing here?
SOPHIE CALLE (looking at Thomas Pynchon): Jump, jump!
No reference to the name of a real person is intended to suggest that the character is or shares any of the characteristics of that real person. Very much.
Auster Railing Skepticism
While I’ve never had a negative experience with any of Paul Auster’s novels, I detect a skepticism about his works on GoodReads, so was alert to what others might find questionable.
Still, this book grabbed me from the first sentence and never let me go.
Unlike some elements of his friend Don DeLillo that you have to excuse or laugh at, I found “Leviathan” word-perfect from beginning to end.
The story is told in the first person, yet the narrator, writer Peter Aaron, is not the main character, who is another writer and Peter’s best friend, Benjamin Sachs.
Stylistically, the only reservation I have is about the detail with which Peter recounts Ben’s story, which involves events and conversations (not all of them involving Peter) from over 15 years.
Some of these conversations go for several pages. How did Peter remember them? As a writer, is he just a good listener? Is he just very retentive?
Force of Circumstance
The other issue which seems to concern some readers is the role of chance and coincidence in Auster’s novels.
While both play a role in “Leviathan”, I think they are a secondary, not a primary concern.
Coincidences occur, but they are equally confounding for the characters affected by them.
They are not [just] ridiculous set-ups or convenient solutions.
They form part of a continuum of circumstance and circumstances, in which “anything can happen”.
For Peter, the events he witnesses are similar to what he does as an author, “writing stories, putting imaginary people into unexpected and often unlikely situations”.
Auster examines individuals within their environment, some of it physical, some of it mental, some of it social.
He is interested in how Free Will, Intention, Determination, Causation, Knowledge and the Desire for Certainty interact with Determinism, Chance, Coincidence, Mystery, Randomness and Uncertainty.
To what extent are we in control of the events that occur around us?
What if the answer is very little?
What if everything is improbable and unpredictable? What is the implication for our sense of identity and self-esteem?
Can we live a life of happiness?
Are our lives destined to end in catastrophe?
This is what’s happening at an abstract, meta-fictional level, yet the novel is written in a highly realist manner, in many places like detective fiction, as Auster tells us who-dunnit on the first page and then proceeds to tell us what.
We know from the first sentence that someone blew themselves up six days before today (which is July 4, 1990) and within pages, when two FBI agents visit Peter, we learn that it was Ben Sachs.
Ben was interested in personal politics, not necessarily affiliated with any particular party, although he was idealistic and would no doubt have favoured the old-style Left Liberal Democrats over the Republicans, if he had to vote for one over the other.
He was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War and went to jail for his beliefs rather than abscond to Canada or Europe.
Since then, he has grown more and more despondent as mainstream America embraced the conservative politics of Ronald Reagan and in his view betrayed the idealism of American Democracy that should be embodied and respected in the American Flag (which is now often a divisive symbol).
"The New Colossus"
The national icon that Sachs most objectifies and identifies with is the Statue of Liberty.
It stands over New York Harbour like a new Colossus and holds the incandescent torch of Democracy and Freedom up high.
However, its brightness has faded over time, and Sachs believes that this trend is symbolized by the proliferation of 130 fake miniature Statues of Liberty around the country.
Sachs’ first novel is actually named “The New Colossus” after the poem that is engraved at the foot of the statue.
As a boy in 1951, Sachs also experienced fear and apprehension, when his family climbed the staircase inside the statue and they grew increasingly scared of heights.
Inside the Whale
This experience of being inside and frightened leads to the second metaphor of the novel, the Leviathan itself, the great whale in the Biblical books of Job and Jonah, which Hobbes adopted as a metaphor for the State in his book of the same name.
It’s interesting that the Hebrew name upon which Leviathan is based can also refer to a dragon, which in Eastern culture can be an enemy of light.
Thus, in Sachs’ eyes, the name “Leviathan” symbolizes the tendency of the State to enclose and squash individuals, restrain their freedom and plunge them into darkness.
No matter how much independence he shows in his personal life, he is gripped by the social and political claws of the Leviathan.
As Sachs realises that his literary audience is declining and the message of his writing is going unheeded, he embraces more and more radical politics and quasi-terrorist tactics.
The relatively innocent Peter Aaron sits by as he reconstructs the story of Sachs and his obsession, ultimately choosing for his own novel (and Auster’s) the name of the novel that Sachs had only partly completed at the time of his death.
Just as the Statue of Liberty symbolizes light and the ascent of humanity, the decline of Democracy represent a metaphorical fall from grace and a descent into darkness.
However, Sachs’ childhood experience is replicated by a literal fall of his own, while attending a party to celebrate Independence Day in 1986, the 100th year of the statue's dedication.
The parody at the beginning of this review is based on Aaron’s/Auster’s description of the event, which unfortunately preceded the days of widespread bungee jumping, but fortunately for Sachs was not fatal.
Sachs’ initial response to his recovery is to withdraw from those around him and maintain a silence:
"To be silent was to enclose himself in contemplation, to relive the moments of his fall again and again, as if he could suspend himself in midair for the rest of time – forever just two inches off the ground, forever waiting for the apocalypse of the last moment."
Similarly, in his private life, his self disappears within a “sanctuary of inwardness”. His retreat and silence shelter him from danger and temptation, but equally from the full experience and exuberance of life.
Ultimately, he re-engages psychically and sexually. He also becomes more engaged politically, if only as a lonely anarchist working in the darkness, dangerously, symbolically drawing attention to how America is failing its own symbols, icons and values.
When Peter Aaron discovers that Sachs has died, he starts writing his story.
Without it, he knows that the only account of Ben’s life and his activism will be the dossier prepared by the FBI agents, working inside the whale of the Leviathan, painting him as a terrorist.
He rushes to piece together the reality of their shared life, under the deadline of a return visit from the FBI:
"The fact is that everyone dies, everyone disappears in the end, and if Sachs had managed to finish his book, there’s a chance it might have outlived him."
Ultimately, the importance of Aaron’s book, Auster’s novel, is that it encapsulates Sachs’ warning even more effectively than Sachs might have been able to do himself in the end.
The novel is a warning about the oppressive power of society, conformism and the State.
These forces are the ones we have to look out for, not the distractions of chance and coincidence, which after all are mere entertainments in comparison.
No matter how much Free Will we might think we have, there are other, more powerful forces at work.
By writing Sachs’ story, Aaron and Auster ensured that Sachs’ message, “his amulet against forgetting”, outlived him, so that we might know the danger of Leviathan.
This review is dedicated to Bird Brian and the/his courage to speak out.
In the words of George Orwell (from "Inside the Whale"), he fights the temptation to perform the "Jonah act of allowing himself to be swallowed, remaining passive, accepting", in other words, "quietism".
For any non/un-Americans who mightn't be familiar with it, here is the full text of the poem at the foot of the Statue of Liberty:
The New Colossus
by Emma Lazarus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
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