Movies in Literature Part 4: Paul Auster’s ‘The Book of Illusions’

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Above are a couple of pictures of Hank Mann, a silent comedian with a big moustache. I think these can serve as nice illustrations for the character Hector Mann in Paul Auster’s Book of Illusions. In fact online I find a description of this guy that reminds me a little of the silent comedian  that Auster lovingly constructs in his novel: ‘His junkyard-dog face was softened a bit by a huge paintbrush mustache, which emphasized his expressive, almost wistful eyes.’

In the first chapter of The Book of Illusions we meet our protagonist-narrator David Zimmer, an academic in Comparative Literature who has recently lost his wife and children in a plane crash. In the depths of his depression he turns the TV on to find a retrospective of silent comedy and becomes glued to the image of the long-forgotten Hector Mann. As an academic he, of course, can’t leave it at that and with the money from his wife’s life insurance he jet-sets it across the globe, planning to watch the surviving films, in various nations’ archives. 

The three short sequences selected below come from Chapter Two of the novel, beginning with Zimmer’s description of Hector Mann’s character and moving on to his description of a late Mann film Mr Nobody, the darkness of which is attributed to production difficulties and the fears of the coming of new sound technology. In Mr Nobody Hector runs the Fizzy Pop Beverage Corporation and is turned invisible by an assistant, who wants to take control of his company. This simple comic trope is given something of a philosophical turn in Auster’s hands..

*****

  Before the body, there is the face, and before the face, there is the thin black line between Hector’s nose and upper lip. A twitching filament of anxieties, a metaphysical jump rope, a dancing thread of discombobulation, the mustache is a seismograph of Hector’s inner states, and not only does it make you laugh, it tells you what Hector is thinking, actually allows you into the machinery of his thoughts. Other elements are involved-the eyes, the mouth, the finely calibrated lurches and stumbles-but the mustache is the instrument of communication, and even though it speaks a language without words, its wriggles and flutters are as clear and comprehensible as a message tapped out in Morse code.

  None of this would be possible without the intervention of the camera. The intimacy of the talking mustache is a creation of the lens. At various moments in each of Hector’s films, the angle suddenly changes, and a wide or medium shot is replaced by a close-up. Hector’s face fills the screen, and with all references to the environment eliminated, the mustache becomes the center of the world. It begins to move, and because Hector’s skill is such that he can control the muscles in the rest of his face, the mustache appears to be moving on its own, like a small animal, with an independent consciousness and will. The mouth curls a bit at the corners, the nostrils flare ever so slightly, but as the mustache goes through its antic gyrations, the face is essentially still, and in that stillness one sees oneself as if in a mirror, for it is during these moments that Hector is most fully and convincingly human, a reflection of what we all are when we’re alone inside ourselves. These close-up sequences are reserved for the critical passages of a story, the junctures of greatest tension or surprise, and they never last longer than four or five seconds. When they occur, everything else stops. The mustache launches into its soliloquy, and for those few precious moments, action gives way to thought. We can read the content of Hector’s mind as though it were spelled out in letters across the screen, and before those letters vanish, they are no less visible than a building, a piano, or a pie in the face. 

  In motion the mustache is a tool for expressing the thoughts of all men. In repose it is little more than an ornament.

  He goes outside again and starts walking through the streets. The downtown boulevards are deserted, and Hector appears to be the only person left in the city. What has happened to the crowds and commotion that surrounded him before? Where are the cars and trolleys, the masses of people thronging the sidewalk? For a moment we wonder if the spell has not been reversed. Perhaps Hector is visible again, we think, and everyone else has vanished. Then, out of nowhere, a truck drives by, speeding through a puddle. Plumes of water rise up from the pavement, splashing everything in sight. Hector is drenched, but when the camera turns around to show us the damage, the front of his suit is spotless. It should be a funny moment, but it isn’t, and in that Hector deliberately makes it not funny (a long doleful look at his suit; the disappointment in his eyes when he sees that he is not splattered with mud), this simple trick alters the mood of the film. As night falls, we see him returning to his house. He goes in, climbs the stairs to the second floor, and enters his children’s bedroom. The little girl and the little boy are asleep, each one in a separate bed. He sits down beside the girl, studies her face for a few moments, and then lifts his hand to begin stroking her hair. Just as he is about to touch her, however, he stops himself, suddenly realizing that his hand could wake her, and if she woke up in the darkness and found no one there, she would be frightened. It’s an affecting sequence, and Hector plays it with restraint and simplicity. He has lost the right to touch his own daughter, and as we watch him hesitate and then finally withdraw his hand, we experience the full impact of the curse that has been put on him. In that one small gesture – the hand hovering in the air, the open palm no more than an inch from the girl’s head – we understand that Hector has been reduced to nothing.

  The screen fades to black. When the picture returns, it is morning, and daylight is flooding through the curtains. Cut to a shot of Hector’s wife, still asleep in bed. Then cut to Hector, asleep in the chair. His body is contorted into an impossible position, a comic tangle of splayed limbs and twisted joints, and because we aren’t prepared for the sight of this slumbering pretzel-man, we laugh, and with that laugh the mood of the film changes again. Dearest Beloved wakes first, and as she opens her eyes and sits up in bed her face tells us everything – moving rapidly from joy to disbelief to guarded optimism. She springs out of bed and rushes over to Hector. She touches his face (which is dangling backward over the arm of the chair), and Hector’s body goes into a spasm of high-voltage shocks, jumping around in a flurry of arms and legs that ultimately lands him in an upright position. Then he opens his eyes. Involuntarily, without seeming to remember that he is supposed to be invisible, he smiles at her. They kiss, but just as their lips come into contact, he recoils in confusion. Is he really there? Has the spell been broken, or is he only dreaming it? He touches his face, he runs his hands over his chest, and then he looks his wife in the eyes. Can you see me? he asks. Of course I can see you, she says, and as her eyes fill with tears, she leans forward and kisses him again. But Hector is not convinced. He stands up from his chair and walks forward to a mirror hanging on the wall. The proof is in the mirror, and if he is able to see his reflection, he will know that the nightmare is over. That he does see it is a foregone conclusion, but the beautiful thing about that moment is the slowness of his response. For a second or two, the expression on his face remains the same, and as he peers into the eyes of the man staring back at him from the wall, it’s as if he’s looking at a stranger, encountering a face he has never seen before. Then, as the camera moves in for a closer shot, Hector begins to smile. Coming on the heels of that chilling blankness, the smile suggests something more than a simple rediscovery of himself. He is no longer looking at the old Hector. He is someone else now, and however much he might resemble the person he used to be, he has been reinvented, turned inside-out, and spat forth as a new man. The smile grows larger, more radiant, more satisfied with the face that he has found in the mirror. A circle begins to close around it, and soon we can see nothing but that smiling mouth, the mouth and the mustache above it. The mustache twitches for a few seconds, and then the circle grows smaller, then smaller still. When it finally shuts, the film is over.

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8 responses to “Movies in Literature Part 4: Paul Auster’s ‘The Book of Illusions’

  1. I’m reading the novel now – Hector Mann is described as a fairly attractive “leading man” or Latin Lover type with a thin little pencil mustache. You’d be closer to the mark picturing someone like Johnny Depp in this role rather than the clown pictured above.

  2. Hi Nancy, thanks for your thoughts. Great to meet an Auster fan (assuming you’re liking the book?)

    You’re certainly right to say that apart from the moustache Hector and Hank are very different. But the pair are at least similar in the degree to which the moustache is perceived to be their personas’ defining feature and I think this in itself is a pretty curious and interesting parallel.

    I wasn’t looking for a copy of Hector for this post and don’t suppose I would have found one, since I imagine Auster was pretty careful to make sure his fictional character was unique in the world of silent cinema. I liked the similarity in the names and the sense that Hank may (perhaps) have been one of the influences on Auster’s creation.

    I haven’t watched the Pirates of the Caribbean films but the moustache doesn’t seem to be Depp’s defining feature there – and many “Latin” characters have moustaches. Anyway I wanted to keep it in the silent era really..

    Btw I’m planning to write a little something on the bits I’ve quoted here some time in the future (as I’ve done in previous examples in this series) so please pop by and take a look again! Let me know what you think of the book if you feel like it..

  3. Christian Miklavcic

    I love this book. I’m finishing it and it’s great.

    I agree with Nancy. I imagined Hector to look like Clark Gable or maybe William Powel in The Thin Man.

  4. Benjamien Calsyn

    This is a link to a picture of a young hank mann.
    http://user.pa.net/~ejjeff/hankmann.jpg
    I think it’s fair to say that what defines him here are definately his piercing, lively eyes. I do think the link presented by Ben is undeniable. Since it drove you to write an artical about it I’d like to share with you that I enjoyed the book of illusions just as much as you appearantly did Ben, Greetings from Belgium,
    Benjamien.

  5. Wow what a lovely picture you linked to there Benjamien – he looks all set to head off to law school… Then maybe he got a little side-tracked along the way!

  6. Hi Ben, I really enjoyed this post. Book of Illusions is one of my favorite novels and Auster is favorite writer. I agree, the images of Hank Mann shown above bear quite a resemblance to the Hector that Auster’s words conjured in my mind. Thanks for sharing this find & your observations.

  7. But that is not the same Hank Mann.

    Note to Moderator: please do not approve my comment above.

  8. Yes looking into it Greg it seems you are right as that photo seems to be of a figure from radio in the ’60s.

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