In 'Leviathan,' there's a search for artistic identity

November 15, 1992|By Jack Stephens

LEVIATHAN.

Paul Auster.

Viking.

275 pages. $21.

7/8 There is a well-known lithograph by M. C. Escher of a hand drawing the hand that's drawing it. Such an enactment of artistic creation, paradoxical as it is, succeeds in excluding its "real" artist by more than just clever design; it has to be true to itself.

When a work of art works by becoming its own originator we get that nearly mystical feeling that art does breed art, and ideas ideas, and that no matter what rein the artist (writer) thinks he has on the work, it does have a life of its own. As Peter Aaron, the novelist/narrator of Paul Auster's latest novel puts it: "No one can say where a book comes from, least of all the person who writes it. Books are born out of ignorance, and if they go on living after they are written, it's only to the degree that they cannot be understood."

In "Leviathan," a man blows himself to bits on a country road. An FBI agent tries, despite a lack of tangible evidence, to ascertain the man's identity and his motive for constructing a bomb. Another man (Aaron) attempts to recollect and reconstruct the dead man's semisecret life history. From rumors, anecdotes, memory, and other secondhand information, he races to outpace the law and lend mythical dignity to a life that the less flattering light of public scrutiny would eventually descry.

As P(aul) A(uster)'s P(eter) A(aron), self-appointed archivist of thelate Benjamin Sachs' life, proceeds to construct his friend's biography in absentia, he describes a man of such high moral character he is bound to fall. A man who went to prison for his belief that the Vietnam conflict was wrong. An artist of high intellectual standards who got swallowed up by the Reagan era's Hobbesian leviathan of right-wing conservatism the way it has tried to swallow artistic individualists from Mapplethorpe on. Ben Sachs was an ethical leviathan, a bigger-than-average man who rose for principle like an Ubermensch, but fell like any ordinary man. Or so we are told.

Beginning with his own recollections of the man -- they met in the bar where they were supposed to give a reading to which nobody came, became mutual fans and fast friends, and so on -- Aaron narrates novelist Sachs' search for his own identity as an artist/thinker. But this biography-in-a-novel is much more than that: It is a search for identity, the conscious possession of

whatever identity is.

Because as Aaron goes he must continually disclaim his authority to swear by the stories he tells ("as far as I know," "I don't recall," "the most certain proof I can think of comes from a short story . . ."), and because he paints Ben in such lovable human strokes, we come to trust him as we would any reliable witness. It's that old comfortable trick used by so many American fictioneers from Poe on down, whose narrative disarm the reader by questioning their own credibility for us: I am a liar, and now that you know the truth you can trust me -- just don't believe everything I say.

As it moves between its layers of meaning -- leviathans of state, of personal obsession, of evil incarnate -- the book's plot moves through twists and turns of interconnectedness, association, chance encounter -- the same forces at play in Mr. Auster's last novel, "Music of Chance." As in life, "anything can happen" and it does. A handful of paths cross, and recross, known and unbeknown to the passers, as they often do in life with inevitable and often disproportionate results, and "Leviathan's" few characters' identities get blended and paralleled even as they are differentiated. Aaron has the authority to depict in some detail Sachs' lovers because they were his lovers, too. Or so we are told.

Here, Mr. Auster has something to say about art and artists in the '90s. In "Leviathan," artists are introduced as brave souls who risk their own identities, public and private, in the uncharted terrains of their creative explorations. A photographer, modeled on the "real" Sophe Calle, spies on people to capture their informed essences on film, then spies on herself hiring a detective to shadow her till she becomes a stranger to herself, "as if she had been turned into an imaginary being." And so it goes for Sachs, Aaron and Mr. Auster, we presume.

The final tale, of how Sachs came to design himself the "Phantom of Liberty" -- a guerrilla artist who blows up mock statues of liberty in town squares around the country -- says a lot if you step back and examine the telling itself. For Peter Aaron (like his biblical namesake, God's first mouthpiece) must believe what his friend and fellow novelist/liar tells him is true. He must have faith that beneath the accidental fact of a man's life is the essential truth of the man's character and that it is discernible even in retelling. Which of course we believe it is.

Along with truth, "Leviathan," a novel by a novelist about a novelist writing the biography of a novelist, is a full, rich book about artistic identity, the individual and the state, privacy and publicity. It is, while not the whale of a book "Moby-Dick" is, no less ambitious and no less successful. Beautiful and complete.

Mr. Stephens is author of the novel "Triangulation" and is writer-in-residence at Goucher College.

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