Friday's Book
To subtitle a book "a chronicle of early failure" suggests ruthless honesty, but in Paul Auster's case there's an element of self-justification, suggesting that he shouldn't have had to go through this: "All I wanted was a chance to do the work I had it in me to do".

Well, there's plenty of work now, and opinion has been favourable since his New York Trilogy, published after this chronicle ends in 1981. A successful writer, nearly everything he has written is in print; yet he persistently airs grudges here. "Becoming a writer is not a `career decision' like becoming a doctor... I would have to work twice as hard as anyone... The last thing I wanted was to play safe".

His "career" seems no more risk-laden than many. He wrote scripts, tended gardens, worked on an oil-tanker and spent time in Paris. He ran into some gaudy characters who caught his imagination, but now he has little interest in them. What matters is that he wasn't getting the writing done. At one point he ends up in Mexico, where things go badly wrong: a threat on his life, a girl who thinks he's a Hindu god. This is workable material, but Auster refuses to "rehash the whole complicated business". If a storyteller needs to know which story to tell, then in Hand to Mouth Auster loses the plot.

As appendices, Auster gives us samples of his work from this period: three short plays reeking of Beckett; a detective novel that never transcends the genre barrier; and an idea for a card game. As they stand, the plays and novel are merely "promising"; but they provide the groundwork for his later writing. Perhaps the "chronicle of early failure" is merely a long-winded preface to them.

Faber, pounds 15.99

Nick Kimberley

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