His first act after inheriting his uncle’s fortune was a definite indication that he had renounced social glory. He sold the great house in the country which contained so many treasures, and ignored all the social responsibilities of his position. Doubtless this offended a number of people very much. A man is expected to do exactly what the herd does of which he is a member. If you belong to a family whose supreme pleasure is hunting, you are expected to hunt — and to evince a delirious passion for that activity. If you don’t, there’s something wrong with you. And not only that. Your refusal is regarded by the members of your family as a criticism of them. It’s no good saying you don’t hunt because you don’t like it, for the interpretation given to that statement is that you mean that they ought not to like it. If you persist in your refusal, it is either assumed that you have a secret vice, or that you are a Bolshevik in close touch with Moscow. Argument is useless. Either you must adhere to your refusal and accept ignominy, or you must leap on t a horse and pursue a tiny and terrified animal in company with other sportsmen.
In precisely the same way a number of assumptions were made about Scrivener. He was well-born and wealthy. Very well then. He would immediately adopt the type of life lived by those so circumstanced. He would entertain and be entertained. He would adopt with enthusiasm that mode of life which consists of doing the same things, with the same people, at the same places, at the same periods, year in, year out, world without end, till gout or death do them part. That is, he would become a member of the fashionable world.
Paul Auster has taken some critical bashing lately, but I’ve always enjoyed the way he takes his characters on wild detours, getting them to abandon one life for another simply through an irresistable narrative pull. Becoming a prisoner of an eccentric couple of millionaires (as in The Music of Chance) or cataloging phone books in an abandoned bunker (as in Oracle Night) is hardly what either protagonist sets out to do, but somehow they end up in these implausible situations, and the reader follows along just to find out what happens next.
One James Wrexham, impoverished but well-educated Englishman past his first youth, is distastefully employed in a real-estate office. One day he answers an advertisement in the London Times, is accepted, becomes secretary to mysterious, invisible Jonathan Scrivener.
Secretary Wrexham never sees his employer, who goes abroad after hiring his secretary solely on the strength of his letter of application. Wrexham’s only duties are to live in Scrivener’s London flat, catalog his library, receive his friends, write occasional reports to the absent employer. One by one Scrivener’s friends turn up in search of him, get acquainted with Wrexham, tell him what they think of Scrivener. Each description is different. None of the friends have met, but through Wrexham they become intimate. Complications ensue. Soon Wrexham is convinced that the whole business is an experiment of Scrivener’s, a carefully laid plot to bring these varied types of men and women together, to see how they will react on each other.
In other words, Wrexham, in a very Auster-ian move, abandons one life and steps into another, highly implausible one, and we follow along just to find out what happens next. Why does Scrivener want him to be a secretary in absentia? And who is Scrivener, anyway?
Over the next few chapters, four characters come to Scrivener’s flat: Pauline, the beautiful and very independent-minded daughter of an Army general; Francesca Bellamy, the stylish widow of a millionaire suicide; Middleton, a hard-drinking sportsman going through an early mid-life crisis; and Rivers, a bon vivant and social climber. From each, Wrexham obtains a starkly different account of Scrivener. He struggles to fit these versions together, as each of the visitors seems to be struggling to come to their own understanding of Scrivener. Finally, after countless conversations, Wrexham answers the door one evening to greet a man who introduces himself: “I am Jonathan Scrivener.”
And there the story ends. Unfortunately, the novel long before loses its similarity with one of Paul Auster’s novels. Aside from the conversations with the various characters about Scrivener, nothing much happens. An efficient but aloof housekeeper named Matthews feeds and looks after Wrexham, but she remains another enigma. Wrexham occasionally drops something equivalent to “Note to self: find out more about Matthews” into his interior monologues, but he never follows through. Although by the end, Wrexham’s inclined to think that Scrivener threw him and the other four together as part of an ulterior scheme, he can’t figure out just what the point of the scheme was. We close the book not really knowing much more about the principle characters than when we started.
One could say the same thing about some of Auster’s novels, but at least they have the merit of a strong narrative. Somewhere around page 200 of I am Jonathan Scrivener, I stopped wondering what would happen next: it was all too clear that nothing would, except another few conversations about Scrivener. I kept with the book on the slim hope that I might be proved wrong.
Not everyone had the same opinion of I am Jonathan Scrivener, though. Henry Miller wrote in The Books in My Life that “it would have made a wonderful movie,” and Orson Welles may have drawn upon it as one of his inspirations for “Citizen Kane”. Who knows, it may even have sown a seed for another masterpiece about an absent figure, Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”. Michael Dirda discussed it in his book, Readings, concluding that it “may not be a lost masterpiece, but it is a highly diverting, philosophical novel of considerable merit.”
Dirda does note one of the most attractive features of the novel, which is the wealth of great quotes Houghton scatters throughout the text:
- “Most of us commit suicide, but the fact is only recognized if we blow our brains out.”
- “I’ve met a number of people who had endured agonies in their determination not to suffer.”
- “To solve a problem, you must have all the data or none.”
- “It is the custom of slaves to praise independence, but on the rare occasions when they encounter it they become extremely angry.”
These, and passages such as the excerpt above, go a long way to redeeming the book. And Houghton does manage to raise some intriguing questions, even if he doesn’t always put them to the effective service of a plot. Even if I don’t think the book is as successful as it could be, I’m certainly intrigued enough by Houghton’s writing to try another of his books — maybe Julian Grant Loses His Way, about a man who discovers that he’s dead (an inspiration for The Third Policeman perhaps?).
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I am Jonathan Scrivener, by Claude Houghton
London: Thornton Butterworth, 1930
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1930
London: Penguin, 1937