Saturday, April 03, 2004

Face to face

Did I mention I was going to see Paul Auster?

The line-up
I arrive with Helena about an hour ahead of time. Already a line-up. I whisk through the temporary bookstore, buy Oracle Night, find my place at the end of the line. (The buzz has it that in interview Paul Auster revealed that the favourite of his works is In the Country of Last Things. I'll look it up another time.) J-F is to show up after work to take Helena off my hands.

What if he doesn't show up? J-F, that is. (I'm pretty sure Paul Auster's committed to making an appearance. Look, there he is in the bar.) I imagine having to keep Helena entertained for the next hour, lugging baby and baby paraphernalia through the bookstore, having my book signed by Paul Auster while perching Helena on my hip, trying to maintain some poise, exude a little charm even. Maybe he'll ask what she thinks of his work. "She likes the bit about Humpty Dumpty well enough. But she finds the story troublesome on the whole — still afraid that I might lock her up in the basement to conduct language experiments on her." Ha, ha. Helena's a good egg.

Paul Auster is with a small group of people seated in the lounge area alongside which we are lined up. (I don't think many people know who he is. I recognize him only because his appearance on Charlie Rose is still fresh in my memory.) A round of drinks. He's having a rum and Coke. Maybe it's just a Coke. Is that a cigarillo? He smokes two. He enjoys a drink and a smoke while we stand in line. I'd really like a drink and a smoke.

When J-F shows up, I dare him to approach the table and bum a cigarette. He doesn't fall for it.

J-F takes Helena home, and I have my books signed.

The signing
Perhaps it's for the best — my thunder was stolen. I quietly muttered "It came at the right time in my life." He looked at me and said, "Good."

Of course. I'd intended to spout much more inspired things. To tell him how it'd healed some wounds and focused some energy. How it made me study semantics.

I'd even thought of a joke, to break the ice. A couple artsy types, three or four people ahead of me in line, had brought along a biography of Paul Auster for Paul Auster to sign. The cover was a portrait of him, dark and moody — they wanted him to sign the cover, across the face. He looked a bit puzzled at first, but they handed him a "magic" marker, a specialized writing instrument suitable to the material at hand, and he obliged. They left him a small package — the bag was from L'Aromate, so maybe a small box of gourmet olives or toothpicks. Or maybe it was just a bag. So my joke: "I didn't know we were supposed to bring gifts."

Good thing I didn't say it. Three or four people later is far too late for punchline.

The woman directly in front of me has her two-and-a-half-year-old son with her. Juan Pablo Terrible. Say it: terrrreeblay. It's his mother's turn to have her book signed and Juan Pablo is reaching his limit. He picks up a book for sale from the pile on Paul Auster's table, turns around, and slams it to the floor. The mother has her photo taken with Paul Auster. She tells him it's her birthday tomorrow and gives him a big smackeroo on his right cheek, across the signing table. Juan Pablo makes a desperate grab for the table, pulling the cloth — three, four, more books go flying. Grab, grab. Adults smile indulgently. My thunder was stolen.

It's probably for the best. Surely I would've said something stupid otherwise. Better to say nothing at all. Or very little. What bothers me is that he signed my two books while distracted. The first one — he didn't even know for whom he was signing it. The whole energy of the signing and signature was dissipated.

The price of admission
I had a little trouble getting a ticket for the reading. By the time I got out to the ticket kiosk, the event was sold out. I was devastated. I resorted to begging:

I'm writing in an act of desperation.

I was absolutely devastated on arrival at the Pierre-Mercure kiosk earlier today to find that tickets for the 7:30 public reading by Paul Auster on April 1 were no longer available. Really devastated.

Please advise me if there is any other way of procuring tickets. A single ticket. No one has been able to tell me if more tickets will become available or if they will be available at the door (standing room?).

I've been a fan of Paul Auster for fifteen years — The New York Trilogy had a profound impact on me, affecting my course of education and even my career path.

To understand my desperation, know that I'm a stay-at-home mom (of a lovely 16-month girl) who very occasionally is able to take on freelance contracts (copy editing) to work from home (and work well into the night, when baby is sleeping). I don't get out much. Nor can I afford to get out much. Sometimes it seems that books are my only hold on sanity. Apart from the promise of hearing Paul Auster, the highlight of my week this week was locating the orange plastic letter "D" belonging to my daughter's shape-sorter, which had gone missing in action some days beforehand.

I assume the article in Saturday's Gazette has something to do with the popularity of the event. Shame on me for not finding time to get to the Pierre-Mercure kiosk before it was published.

I implore you, if any tickets are being held back for this event, please release one to me. Please, please, please.

Sincerely,
Isabella
(very, very much ashamed of how pathetic she must sound in this sorry excuse for a sob-story, but she's desperate)


A little embellished perhaps, but it captured spirit of my situation. I sent my electronic plea to the Blue Metropolis festival organizers and to the kind people at CBC Blue.

Festival organizers told me I was out of luck and suggested I attend one of the French events featuring Paul Auster. Alas, my French is not so strong.

A producer at CBC Blue advised me there would be a ticket held for me at the door.

Then she called me. Sarah was intrigued. What would drive a person to such lengths? You've read the book — what is there to gain from hearing the author read it? Why do people go to readings? Could she meet me to talk about it and get my impressions.

Why do people go to readings? Many reasons (see Appendix A). I've attended a few myself (see Appendix B).

In the last weeks I've thought about why I wanted to see Paul Auster. I've read some of his stuff. I like his work. I've established that City of Glass was indeed significant to me. But why did I need to see him?

Hundreds of people stood in line to have a book signed, to have a stranger scribble illegibly on the title page. I might be worth some money someday, given the right eBay product description write-up. But it can't be that they're all here just to make a few bucks. They're buying books to own them, to take them home to read them and put them on their shelves. They want the book personalized. They want the author's mark. The transfer of ink from the pen in his hand to the page in the book you hold must mean something. Ink, the writer's lifeblood. They want to feel that the author wrote that book for them.

I grabbed a garlic-drenched panini for supper (sorry, Sarah — what was I thinking?)
and tracked down Sarah for a chat. It was pleasant, if weird, what with a microphone under my nose and trying not to look at it. I hear myself sound self-conscious about saying things in as natural a manner as possible. I think I've thought too much about these quesions in recent days.

The reading
Who are these people sitting next to me with their phoney British accents. "Oh, what a lovely string of beads." "They're from Mallorca." "Remember when we saw Mavis Gallant?" "Who's that fellow writing for the New Yorker? You know who I mean." "Chomsky's gone a bit weird, hasn't he? He's a linguist, you know." "Isn't Susan Sontag's son supposed to be somewhere?"

They have not in fact read anything by Paul Auster. "Mmm, I think my book club did a short story or an essay of his once." "Look at this crowd, a little young." "He's kind of post-modern, isn't he?" Sarah should be asking them why they're here. Their tickets should've been confiscated.

A woman follows along with the reading in her newly purchased French translation.

Why am I here?

Paul Auster is introduced by a woman who insists he's a man who needs no introduction . . . we all know who he is. No shit.

He does not preface his reading selection with any back story. He does not tell us this part is exceptionally funny or representative of a minor character's attitude. He does not regale us with an anecdote about how the passage came into being. He starts reading at the beginning.

I was only thirty-four, but for all intents and purposes the illness had turned me into an old man —

That's me. I'm 34. I'm an old woman. There hasn't been an illness, but pregnancy, childbirth, motherhood have changed me into something I don't yet know.

I understand this character. What makes us turn south one day instead of the usual north? I too know the joy of a carefully selected new notebook, new pen. Hah, there's a comment I might make.

Paul Auster looks up to explain that the book has a lot of footnotes. Footnotes! I love footnotes.

Ah, the luxury of waking up when you're finished sleeping.

The purpose of the exercise was not to write anything specific so much as to prove to myself that I still had it in me to write — which meant that it didn't matter what I wrote, just so long as I wrote something. Anything would have served, any sentence would have been as valid as any other, but still, I didn't want to break in that notebook with something stupid . . .

He has a good reading voice. Solid. I'd listen to him read books he hadn't written. In fact, that's what it sounds like. He's distanced, removed. Not a pompous, fake poet voice, like this is a work of great profundity. Normal. Like what he has to tell, you should already know.

He's not afraid to philosophize in the narration. Moviemakers learn not to tell you their story, but to show you. Similarly, writers of novels are afraid to say too much — they demand a lot of their characters. That their dialogue and actions speak for the persons they are. They're afraid to directly tell us what they think, or what we should think about them or be reminded of.

Flitcraft! From The Maltese Falcon. "He went like that," Spade said, "like a fist when you open your hand." (That's what I'd hoped for Spalding Gray.)

Paul Auster uses words I like: "excursion," "raw," "beatific."

He stops on page 27. It's been about two minutes per page.

A book within a book within a book. People leaving their lives. Random objects marking new beginnings. Anything can happen.

I can't wait to see how it all turns out.

I feel reassured. Reassured that Paul Auster is the author of things significant to me. His voice reassures me that I understand it correctly, I'm getting it right. Anything can happen.

Thus ends Isabella's longest blog entry ever. I promise.
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