Paul Auster was born in New Jersey in 1947. After attending Columbia University he lived in France for four years. Since 1947 he has published poems, essays, novels and translations. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
A writer and friend of Benjamin Sachs. Peter narrates the story. He writes the story down because he fears that Benjamin’s reputation could be destroyed. He defends his dead friend because he can’t defend himself anymore. He describes the various changes Sachs goes through and tries to give a partial understanding of who his friend was.
“I can explain who he was.”
Benjamin is a writer. Ben is appalled by the stupidity of the world. He is married to Fanny. They married young but nevertheless they stay married for twenty years although they are quite the opposite. She is like a sphinx and he is an open wound. He likes to portray himself in the most unflattering terms. His mind is rather intuition than logic. He works quick and without exhausting himself. It is nothing for him to write ten pages at a single sitting without standing up from his typewriter. The story about his life is written down by his friend Peter.
“When the time comes you’ll know how to tell my story to others.” (to Peter)
Wife of Benjamin. Was always loved by Peter, who never dared to speak to her.
Maria isn’t capable of love. She is eccentric and always starts mad compulsive projects like following strangers with her camera taking photos of what they are doing. She is extraordinary but a little bit crazy. She is a kind of artist. Maria has passions of taking risks.
Lillian and Maria were close friends when they were young, they have been like sisters. Lillian is extremely beautiful.
The first time Peter Aaron and Benjamin Sachs meet is fifteen years before Sachs’ death. Sachs is a novelist. They meet when they give a joint reading of their work. Their friendship nearly immediately begins. Sachs is generous, humorous and intelligent. They like each others writing and compliment on it. The two of them have a long conversation on this day. Benjamin Sachs starts talking and disarms Peter.
Ben is best described by being open-hearted and not judging anyone he meets. He has a talent for getting others to talk about themselves.
Ben gives the novel he wrote to Peter named The New Colossus. He had been young when he wrote it. But it is the only novel Sachs ever published. He even gave up fiction writing and began writing essays after his success because he thought fiction to be a sham. The message of the book is that America has lost its way. He expresses his anger against America and political hypocrisy. Ben is more a thinker than an artist. He started writing it in prison, where he spent seventeen month for refusing to go into the army. He stood up for his principals. Ben’s political ideas never fall into any of the conventional categories. He is fearless in confronting the authorities. Ben isn’t competitive or worried about his reputation, he does exactly what he wants to do.
After Peter read Ben’s book they start meeting regularly because they live in the same neighbourhood.
Except Fanny Peter is closer to Ben than any other person but nevertheless his childhood is a mystery to Peter. He also knows next to nothing about Sachs’ family. Everything Peter knows is that he isn’t very close to his family but cares for them. He stands slightly apart from the rest of his family.
Fanny and Ben desperately want to have children but Funny is unable to have children. Peter has problems to accept their relationship because Fanny is an ancient daydream. The whole situation, that the woman he loves is the wife of his friend, throws him off balance.
Peter’s wife Delia is pregnant and they decide to move away from the Upper West Side. Peter and Ben stay in close touch. But Peter and his wife separate after the birth of their son David and Peter moves back to New York.
One day Maria finds a notebook and by talking to all the persons in it she wants to find out something about the man who lost it. It becomes another of her weird projects. Every person in the notebook is listed by his last name but a person called Lilli. For Maria this is the sign of intimacy and she decides to talk to Lilli. When she visits her Maria finds out that Lilli is Lillian Stern an old friend of hers.
Lillian has spent the last years supporting herself as a prostitute and isn’t ashamed of it. For her it’s just a job. That her friend turned into a prostitute has two effects on Maria. On the one hand she is thrown off balance but on the other hand she envies her because Lillian hasn’t changed and is still relaxed and crazy. When Lillian learns about the project with the notebook she is very excited. She wants to help and go to talk to the people in the book.
So they switch and Maria plays the role of a prostitute.
This changes Lillian’s life because she falls in love with one of the people in the book she talks with and marries him.
Maria isn’t that lucky. She is beaten up by a client end ends up in hospital.
Three or four month after his divorce from Delia and three years after Maria being severely beaten, Peter meets Maria Turner, who is twenty eight at that time. He has a sexual alliance with her for the next two years. Peter likes this relationship although Maria sets the rules of their friendship because they make no claims on each other which is very important for him after his horrible marriage.
When Ben leaves the town one day, Peter is invited by Fanny. They eat dinner and talk a lot. On this evening Fanny comes on to Peter but he objects in the beginning because she is married to his best friend. But she tells Peter that Ben is cheating a lot on her. She goes on telling him that both of them can do what they want. She finally convinces Peter and they have an affair for the next three weeks. Peter wants to marry Fanny even if that means destroying his friendship to Ben. But even though Fanny suffers from Sachs’ sexual conduct she loves him deeply and never plans to leave Ben.
The affair ends exactly with the end of Ben’s absence. Although Fanny tells Ben about her affair with Peter the relationship between Ben and Peter doesn’t change. Fanny had problems because she thought that she had disappointed Ben because she can’t have children. She also felt like no man could really love her. Ben is convinced that the affair helped Fanny to feel desired again. Nevertheless it’s a complicated situation because the two man love Fanny and she loves both of them. For the sake of all of them Peter avoids Fanny in the next months and Maria plays a large part in holding him together.
Peter falls in love with a girl called Iris, whom he meets on one of Maria’s exhibitions. So Maria kind of made their meeting possible. Iris and Peter take each other in storm and marry the same year.
Ben’s work is more and more seen as out of step with the spirit of time. His audience grows steadily smaller and Ben begins to lose faith in himself.
During a party Ben falls from the roof and is lucky because he emerges from the accident relatively unharmed although he could have been killed. He is never the same after the accident. He never puts his life back together again. He knowingly risked his life. Knowing that he had in some way done it on purpose for reasons that are impenetrable to him he wants his life to change.
Maria who is indirectly to blame for the accident visits Ben in hospital. She begins to assume a special role in Ben’s life. They start to meet regularly. Sex is never involved in their relationship but it has a therapeutic effect for Ben. But he never returns to the life he led before.
Ben wants to end his marriage and does so by trying to explain to her that he isn’t worth her and that she should walk out on him because he doesn’t want to hurt Fanny’s feelings. He succeeds in exhausting her and wearing her down and moves to Vermont for a trial separation. He prolongs his absence until he packs his belongings and irrevocably moves to Vermont.
After their separation Fanny marries a second time. She marries a guy called Charles Spector. Ben and Iris have a little daughter called Sonia.
Ben starts writing his second novel called “Leviathan”. Less than a month later he stops working on the book.
He walks out for a walk in the woods and loses his way. A nice young guy picks him up and offers to bring him home. When the street is blocked by another car the young guy gets out of his truck and wants to help. But a guy named Dimaggio shoots him. Without thinking Ben kills Dimaggio. But he panics after realising what he did and eliminates all traces. Then he takes Dimaggio’s car and runs away. In the trunk of the car he finds a lot of money. He flees to Maria. When Ben shows her the passport of Dimaggio she recognises him. The dead man was the husband of Lillian Stern. So Maria becomes the link between Ben and Lillian. Because Lillian had suffered from Dimaggio Ben decides to give all the money to her.
Sachs is convinced that Reed Dimaggio took Lillian’s life and he himself took Dimaggio’s life. Now it is time for his life to be taken from him. By handing the money over to Lillian he is putting himself in her hands. He risks everything on a dream of mercy, forgiveness and justice.
From the newspaper Ben learns that Dimaggio wasn’t an ordinary criminal but a crazed idealist, a believer in a cause and a person that much like himself wanted to change the world.
Ben never contacts Fanny and Peter. Only Maria knows where Ben is but she promised not to tell. Fanny and Peter learn to live with Ben’s disappearance.
With giving parts of the money to Lillian he reinvents his life.
But he keeps a lot of the money for himself and calling himself the Phantom of Liberty starts destroying copies of the Statue of Liberty with bombs preventing with enormous precaution that somebody is killed because this would ruin the entire cause. He always leaves notes saying that he wants the people to rethink their position in life. Because he thinks that fundamental changes are needed.
Ben appears in the house in Vermont where Peter is spending some time. This is the last time Peter Aaron sees Sachs He pours out his heart to Peter and lets him in on his terrible secret. On the next day he vanishes again.
Peter Aaron reads an article about a man who blew himself up by the side of a road in northern Wisconsin. It appears like the bomb he was building accidentally went off. No one has an idea who the dead man was because the car he was driving was stolen and there where no witnesses. The article says that the FBI started to investigate. Peter immediately thinks that the dead man is his friend Sachs.
Three days after the explosion two FBI agents come knocking at Peter’s door which makes him sure that Benjamin is the poor person that blew himself up. Aaron plays dumb for them and gives away as little as he can.
Peter Aaron decides to write down the true story about Benjamin Sachs’ life. He knows that the whole time he is writing the book the agents will dig into his life because he is their only lead. Peter doesn’t tell his family what happened and what he plans to do because if they discover that he is about to get into trouble with the FBI because of Sachs they would try to stop him. And so Peter begins to write the book.
Although it’s hard to believe that anything like the incidents in the book happened in reality in my opinion this book is somehow autobiographic. First of all Peter Aaron has the same initials as Paul Auster. But also their lives are similar. Both are writers, both also worked as translators and both spent over four years in Paris. And last but not least Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom Paul Auster quotes before the story actually starts, also is a figure in the historical novel “The New Colossus”, which Sachs wrote and which impressed Peter Aaron (= Paul Auster) immensely.
The author describes the lives of the people in a fascinating way.
I especially liked the book because it shows how strongly connected all our lives are. One incident leads to another. One life leads to another. Anything in the world is connected to anything else.