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Original Essays | September 15, 2014

Lois Leveen: IMG Forsooth Me Not: Shakespeare, Juliet, Her Nurse, and a Novel



There's this writer, William Shakespeare. Perhaps you've heard of him. He wrote this play, Romeo and Juliet. Maybe you've heard of it as well. It's... Continue »
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    Juliet's Nurse

    Lois Leveen 9781476757445

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2 Partner Warehouse Mystery- A to Z

Travels in the Scriptorium

by

Travels in the Scriptorium Cover

 

 

Excerpt

Excerpt

 

The old man sits on the edge of the narrow bed, palms spread out on his knees, head down, staring at the floor. He has no idea that a camera is planted in the ceiling directly above him. The shutter clicks silently once every second, producing eighty-six thousand four hundred still photos with each revolution of the earth. Even if he knew he was being watched, it wouldnt make any difference. His mind is elsewhere, stranded among the figments in his head as he searches for an answer to the question that haunts him.

 

Who is he? What is he doing here? When did he arrive and how long will he remain? With any luck, time will tell us all. For the moment, our only task is to study the pictures as attentively as we can and refrain from drawing any premature conclusions.

 

There are a number of objects in the room, and on each one a strip of white tape has been affixed to the surface, bearing a single word written out in block letters. On the bedside table, for example, the word is table. On the lamp, the word is lamp. Even on the wall, which is not strictly speaking an object, there is a strip of tape that reads wall. The old man looks up for a moment, sees the wall, sees the strip of tape attached to the wall, and pronounces the word wall in a soft voice. What cannot be known at this point is whether he is reading the word on the strip of tape or simply referring to the wall itself. It could be that he has forgotten how to read but still recognizes things for what they are and can call them by their names, or, conversely, that he has lost the ability to recognize things for what they are but still knows how to read.

 

He is dressed in blue-and-yellow striped cotton pajamas, and his feet are encased in a pair of black leather slippers. It is unclear to him exactly where he is. In the room, yes, but in what building is the room located? In a house? In a hospital? In a prison? He cant remember how long he has been here or the nature of the circumstances that precipitated his removal to this place. Perhaps he has always been here; perhaps this is where he has lived since the day he was born. What he knows is that his heart is filled with an implacable sense of guilt. At the same time, he cant escape the feeling that he is the victim of a terrible injustice.

 

There is one window in the room, but the shade is drawn, and as far as he can remember he has not yet looked out of it. Likewise with the door and its white porcelain knob. Is he locked in, or is he free to come and go as he wishes? He has yet to investigate this matter—for, as stated in the first paragraph above, his mind is elsewhere, adrift in the past as he wanders among the phantom beings that clutter his head, struggling to answer the question that haunts him.

 

The pictures do not lie, but neither do they tell the whole story. They are merely a record of time passing, the outward evidence. The old mans age, for example, is difficult to determine from the slightly out-of-focus black-and-white images. The only fact that can be set down with any certainty is that he is not young, but the word old is a flexible term and can be used to describe a person anywhere between sixty and a hundred. We will therefore drop the epithet old man and henceforth refer to the person in the room as Mr. Blank. For the time being, no first name will be necessary.

 

Mr. Blank stands up from the bed at last, pauses briefly to steady his balance, and then shuffles over to the desk at the other end of the room. He feels tired, as if he has just woken from a fitful, too short night of sleep, and as the soles of his slippers scrape along the bare wood floor, he is reminded of the sound of sandpaper. Far off in the distance, beyond the room, beyond the building in which the room is located, he hears the faint cry of a bird—perhaps a crow, perhaps a seagull, he cant tell which.

 

Mr. Blank lowers his body into the chair at the desk. It is an exceedingly comfortable chair, he decides, made of soft brown leather and equipped with broad armrests to accommodate his elbows and forearms, not to speak of an invisible spring mechanism that allows him to rock back and forth at will, which is precisely what he begins to do the moment he sits down. Rocking back and forth has a soothing effect on him, and as Mr. Blank continues to indulge in these pleasurable oscillations, he remembers the rocking horse that sat in his bedroom when he was a small boy, and then he begins to relive some of the imaginary journeys he used to take on that horse, whose name was Whitey and who, in the young Mr. Blanks mind, was not a wooden object adorned with white paint but a living being, a true horse.

 

After this brief excursion into his early boyhood, anguish rises up into Mr. Blanks throat again. He says out loud in a weary voice: I mustnt allow this to happen. Then he leans forward to examine the piles of papers and photographs stacked neatly on the surface of the mahogany desk. He takes hold of the pictures first, three dozen eight-by-ten black-and-white portraits of men and women of various ages and races. The photo on top shows a young woman in her early twenties. Her dark hair is cropped short, and there is an intense, troubled look in her eyes as she gazes into the lens. She is standing outdoors in some city, perhaps an Italian or French city, because she happens to be positioned in front of a medieval church, and because the woman is wearing a scarf and a woolen coat, it is safe to assume the picture was taken in winter. Mr. Blank stares into the eyes of the young woman and strains to remember who she is. After twenty seconds or so, he hears himself whisper a single word: Anna. A feeling of overpowering love washes through him. He wonders if Anna isnt someone he was once married to, or if, perhaps, he isnt looking at a picture of his daughter. An instant after thinking these thoughts, he is attacked by a fresh wave of guilt, and he knows that Anna is dead. Even worse, he suspects that he is responsible for her death. It might even be, he tells himself, that he was the person who killed her.

 

Mr. Blank groans in pain. Looking at the pictures is too much for him, so he pushes them aside and turns his attention to the papers. There are four piles in all, each about six inches high. For no particular reason that he is aware of, he reaches for the top page on the pile farthest to the left. The handwritten words, printed out in block letters similar to the ones on the strips of white tape, read as follows:

 

Viewed from the outermost reaches of space, the earth is no larger than a speck of dust. Remember that the next time you write the word “humanity.”

 

From the look of disgust that comes over his face as he scans these sentences, we can be fairly confident that Mr. Blank has not lost the ability to read. But who the author of these sentences might be is still open to question.

 

Mr. Blank reaches out for the next page on the pile and discovers that it is a typed manuscript of some sort. The first paragraph reads:

 

The moment I started to tell my story, they knocked me down and kicked me in the head. When I climbed to my feet and started to talk again, one of them hit me across the mouth, and then another one punched me in the stomach. I fell down. I managed to get up again, but just as I was about to begin the story for the third time, the Colonel threw me against the wall and I passed out.

 

There are two more paragraphs on the page, but before Mr. Blank can begin reading the second one, the telephone rings. It is a black rotary model from the late forties or early fifties of the past century, and since it is located on the bedside table, Mr. Blank is forced to stand up from the soft leather chair and shuffle over to the other side of the room. He picks up the receiver on the fourth ring.

 

Hello, says Mr. Blank.

 

Mr. Blank? asks the voice on the other end.

 

If you say so.

 

Are you sure? I cant take any chances.

 

Im not sure of anything. If you want to call me Mr. Blank, Im happy to answer to that name. Who am I talking to?

 

James.

 

I dont know any James.

 

James P. Flood.

 

Refresh my memory.

 

I came to visit you yesterday. We spent two hours together.

 

Ah. The policeman.

 

Ex-policeman.

 

Right. The ex-policeman. What can I do for you?

 

I want to see you again.

 

Wasnt one conversation enough?

 

Not really. I know Im just a minor character in this business, but they said I was allowed to see you twice.

 

Youre telling me I have no choice.

 

Im afraid so. But we dont have to talk in the room if you dont want to. We can go out and sit in the park if youd prefer that.

 

I dont have anything to wear. Im standing here dressed in pajamas and slippers.

 

Look in the closet. You have all the clothes you need.

 

Ah. The closet. Thank you.

 

Have you had your breakfast, Mr. Blank?

 

I dont think so. Am I allowed to eat?

 

Three meals a day. Its still a bit early, but Anna should be coming around pretty soon.

 

Anna? Did you say Anna?

 

Shes the person who takes care of you.

 

I thought she was dead.

 

Hardly.

 

Maybe its a different Anna.

 

I doubt it. Of all the people involved in this story, shes the only one whos completely on your side.

 

And the others?

 

Lets just say theres a lot of resentment, and well leave it at that.

 

Copyright © 2007 by Paul Auster. All rights reserved.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 1 comment:

megcampbell3, October 27, 2007 (view all comments by megcampbell3)
Story within story, this novel is like seeing one's self step into a painting. Sinister, mysterious, ordinary, and obscure, the tale of Mr. Blank could be the story of anyone who ever thought "how did I ever arrive at this day of my life?" Worthy of a thorough read, more than worthy of a secondary study if you've the need to dream a little about life's nature.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780312426293
Author:
Auster, Paul
Publisher:
Picador USA
Subject:
Psychological
Subject:
Suspense
Subject:
General Fiction
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Subject:
Literary
Edition Description:
Trade Paper
Publication Date:
20071231
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
160
Dimensions:
7.82 x 5.92 x 0.45 in

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Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Mystery » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Popular Fiction » Suspense

Travels in the Scriptorium Used Trade Paper
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Product details 160 pages Picador USA - English 9780312426293 Reviews:
"Review" by , "Auster fans will recognize a parade of characters from earlier works, reaching back to his famed New York Trilogy...as Auster coyly celebrates the power of the imagination and marvels over the labyrinthine nature of the mind in an archly playful and shrewdly philosophical tribute to the transcendence of stories."
"Review" by , "With a Kafkaesque protagonist in an M.C. Escher plot, Auster...returns to the themes of identity, memory, illusion and creativity that have marked his work since his breakthrough New York Trilogy."
"Review" by , "Say what one will about Auster's repetition of devices - the book within a book, the off-stage tormentor, the loss of memory - he has become frightfully good at manipulating a good story out of them."
"Synopsis" by , An old man awakens, disoriented, in an unfamiliar chamber with no memory of who he is or what has happened. Identified only as Mr. Blank, he appears to be a prisoner under surveillance. A mysterious manuscript, fluid identities, and, somewhere, an obscure tormentor — Travels in the Scriptorium is vintage Paul Auster describing a world not so very different from our own.
"Synopsis" by ,

An old man awakens, disoriented, in an unfamiliar chamber. With no memory of who he is or how he has arrived there, he pores over the relics on the desk, examining the circumstances of his confinement and searching his own hazy mind for clues.

Determining that he is locked in, the man--identified only as Mr. Blank--begins reading a manuscript he finds on the desk, the story of another prisoner, set in an unfamiliar, alternate world. As the day passes, various characters call on Mr. Blank in his cell, and each brings frustrating hints of his forgotten identity and his past.

Both chilling and poignant, Travels in the Scriptorium is vintage Paul Auster: mysterious texts, fluid identities, a hidden past, and, somewhere, an obscure tormentor. And yet, as we discover during one day in the life of Mr. Blank, his world is not so different from our own.

Paul Auster is the bestselling author of The Brooklyn Follies, Oracle Night, and The Book of Illusions, among many other works. I Thought My Father Was God, the NPR National Story Project Anthology, which he edited, was also a national bestseller. In 2006 he was awarded the Prince of Asturias Prize for Literature and inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His work has been translated into more than thirty languages. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
 
An old man awakens, disoriented, in an unfamiliar chamber. With no memory of who he is or how he has arrived there, he pores over the relics on the desk, examining the circumstances of his confinement and searching his own hazy mind for clues.

Determining that he is locked in, the man—identified only as Mr. Blank—begins reading a manuscript he finds on the desk, the story of another prisoner, set in an alternate world the man doesnt recognize. Nevertheless, the pages seem to have been left for him, along with a haunting set of photographs. As the day passes, various characters call on the man in his cell—vaguely familiar people, some who seem to resent him for crimes he cant remember—and each brings frustrating hints of his identity and his past. All the while an overhead camera clicks and clicks, recording his movements, and a microphone records every sound in the room. Someone is watching.

Both chilling and poignant, Travels in the Scriptorium is vintage Auster: mysterious texts, fluid identities, a hidden past, and, somewhere, an obscure tormentor. And yet, as we discover during one day in the life of Mr. Blank, his world is not so different from our own.

"Auster is one of our most intellectually elegant writers. He has persistently subverted the ordinary mechanisms of suspense, chronology, even genre. In certain fundamental attributes, this new novel resembles his Oracle Night, published in 2003. Yet determined readers come to savor the inimitable way Auster keeps restructuring and vivifying his novelistic obsessions. Themes are hungry ghosts, Borges said. Fortunately, Auster's ghosts are insatiable."—Howard Norman, The Washington Post
"Auster is one of our most intellectually elegant writers. He has persistently subverted the ordinary mechanisms of suspense, chronology, even genre. In certain fundamental attributes, this new novel resembles his Oracle Night, published in 2003. Yet determined readers come to savor the inimitable way Auster keeps restructuring and vivifying his novelistic obsessions. Themes are hungry ghosts, Borges said. Fortunately, Auster's ghosts are insatiable."—Howard Norman, The Washington Post
 
"Auster, a literary descendent of Kafka and Borges, is fascinated by the very act of storytelling. Consequently, his novels always involve some form of doubling as one story coils within another. In the wake of The Brooklyn Follies (2006), an expansive novel, Auster presents a spare, metaphysical fable. Mr. Blank, Auster's protagonist, is confined to an austere room, uncertain of his status or the room's location. Names carry great weight in Auster's uncanny fiction, and so it figures that Mr. Blank has lost his memory. His keepers have provided him with a stack of photographs of people who seem dimly familiar and with a typescript written by another prisoner in another time and place. As Mr. Blank reads this compelling account of violence and loss in the Confederation, a land that vaguely resembles nineteenth-century America during the genocidal assault against indigenous peoples, various visitors arrive, claiming to be Blank's victims. But what are his crimes? Auster fans will recognize a parade of characters from earlier works, reaching back to his famed New York Trilogy (1985-86), In the Country of Last Things (1987), and Leviathan (1992), as Auster coyly celebrates the power of the imagination and marvels over the labyrinthine nature of the mind in an archly playful and shrewdly philosophical tribute to the transcendence of stories."—Donna Seaman, Booklist
 
"On the centennial year of Samuel Beckett's birth, Auster's new novel nods to the old master. We open with a man sitting in a room. The man doesn't remember his name, and a camera hidden in the ceiling takes a picture of him once a second. The man—whom the third-person narrator calls Mr. Blank—spends the single day spanned by the book being looked after, questioned and reading a fragmentary narrative written by a man named Sigmund Graf from a country called the Confederation who has been given the mission of tracking down a renegade soldier named Ernesto Land. During the course of the day, a former policeman, a doctor, two attendants and Mr. Blank's lawyer visit the room, and Mr. Blank learns he is accused of horrible crimes. (His lawyer claims he is accused of everything 'from conspiracy to commit fraud to negligent homicide. From defamation of character to first-degree murder.') But this may or may not be true—the narrative veers toward ambiguity . . . Auster's lean, poker-faced prose creates a satisfyingly claustrophobic allegory."—Publishers Weekly

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