Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Invisible Dante in Paul Auster's Invisible

In The Sunday Times of October 25th 2009 a reviewer wrote of Paul Auster’s newest novel Invisible that “the title word appears in the text just once, on page 15”.  The title word appears in fact not once but four times in the text; on page 15 (“my vanity – that invisible cauldron”), page 83 (“to involve myself with the spat upon and the invisible”), page 89 (“By writing about myself in the first person, I had smothered myself and made myself invisible”) and page 250 (“An invisible America lay silent in the darkness beneath me.”) A few reviewers have mentioned Dante, but never more than in passing and always simply referring to the fact that one character in Invisible, a certain Rudolf Born, shares a surname with a character in Dante’s Inferno Bertran de Born, a real troubadour poet from 13th century Provance. But the importance of Dante in Auster’s Invisible goes much deeper.  Dante is present at a structural level – in other words, if you pardon the pun, his presence is important but mainly invisible.

Inferno, part one of Dante’s masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, opens with the line: “In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.” Invisible, opens with the lines: “I shook his hand for the first time in the spring of 1967.  I was a second-year student at Columbia then, a know-nothing boy with an appetite for books and a belief (or delusion) that one day I would become good enough to call myself a poet, and because I read poetry, I had already met his namesake in Dante’s hell”. The reference to Dante so early in Auster’s work provides a clue to unravel the mystery that is Invisible.

Like many medieval thinkers, Dante was obsessed with the number three; the magical number symbolized God in the form of the Blessed Trinity – God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Dante saw God’s triple unity reflected in His creation: time consisted of past, present and future; human nature consisted of rational, appetitive and vegetative qualities; the three primary qualities of creation were form and matter, separate and conjoined.  Many numbers had a mystical significance for Dante but the number three was the big one.

Dante wanted his great work to reflect and imitate God’s creation. At the beginning of Inferno the narrator encounters three beasts.  The narrator, known by critics simply as "the pilgrim", is led on his journey through hell, purgatory and paradise by three guides. Satan, when we meet him in Dante’s hell, turns out to have three heads. Dante divided his long poem into three sections, each representing the three realms of the afterlife: Inferno (what Auster refers to as “Dante’s hell), Purgatory and Paradise.  Each of these sections, has thirty three sub-sections or canti. The first section has an extra canto that serves as a prologue; so 3 x 33 + 1 = 100, which during the Middle Ages was regarded as a perfect number. The entire work is written in terzine, short verses of three lines. Each of these follows a rhyme scheme called terza rima or third rhyme, an invention of Dante, whereby each terzina begins and ends with the middle rhyme of the previous terzina. Thus, the entire poem is linked by an interlocking chain of rhymes that binds each terzina to the previous and subsequent ones, much like the medieval concept of  God’s creation being like a great chain of being, where each thing is linked in a hierarchy to that above and below it.

So much for Dante, but what about Paul Auster?  Invisble is a novel that tells the story of a certain Adam Walker.  Like The Divine Comedy it is divided into three main sections, Spring, Summer and Fall.  Indeed, at a certain point Walker writes “The plan is to write the book in three parts, three chapters.” (page 87) He never explains why it has to be in three parts.  There are a lot of references to numbers in Invisible, but references to the number three are by far the most abundant.  Some make logical sense, they are three by necessity: “Three years of law school” (page 83) and “Margot buys him a copious three-course lunch” (page 208). Law school usually lasts three years and a French lunch usually consists of three courses. When Walker and his sister Gwyn celebrate the birthday of their deceased brother “the birthday dinner was a conversation divided into three parts.” (page136) But sometimes the number three seems like an arbitrary choice: Walker remembers an evening dinner “I believe it was on the third floor” (page 32) and he remembers “your parents moved you and your sister into adjoining bedrooms on the third floor” (page 113). Sometimes the use of “three” even seems absurd, like when Walker’s mentor Rudolf Born stabs a youth and then, when Walker suggest calling the police, asks “Do you want to spend the next three years of your life in court?” (page 66) Walker lives for a brief while in Paris as Dante once did.  He lives in the Latin Quarter, where one finds today a rue Dante, until he is wrongly deported for drug possession – “The police caught him with three kilos of drugs – marijuana, hashish, cocaine.” (page 291)  Three kilos?  Wouldn’t one kilo, or just a half kilo have been enough to frame him?  And why “marijuana, hashish, cocaine”?  Again, wasn’t just one enough? Perhaps Auster is referring to an alternative trinity.

The names of the characters in Auster’s novels always have meaning or significance, names like Brown or Stillwell or even Paul Auster (from his first novel, City of Glass).  In Invisible the names are spilling over with meaning. As we’ve seen, Dante begins his poem with: “In the middle of the journey”.  The main character in Invisible is Adam Walker.  "Adam" is obviously the first man, the first human ever created, an innocent, he will be tempted, he will be tested and he will fail and he will Fall.  All other humans are from his seed and because of him we have been locked out of the Garden and we have to undertake a journey to regain it.  “Walker” means a man who walks, a pilgrim of some sort, a man who travels, who undertakes a journey, like Dante who at the outset is in the middle of a journey.  Dante goes on: “I came to myself in a dark wood” and Walker, like the original Adam is confronted by a temptation, is tested and his failure leads to the end of innocence as well as self-knowledge: “I was less good, less strong, less brave than I had imagined myself to be.” (page 68) Walker had been tempted by Rudolf Born, the man who, as Walker points out in the book’s opening passage shares a surname with the great troubadour Bertran de Born, who appears in Dante’s hell.  But “Born” signifies the opposite of birth, Born’s stabbing of a youth brings death into Walker’s life, brings the end of innocence.  Born, according to Walker, “had shown me something about myself that filled me with revulsion, and for the first time in my life I understood what is was to hate someone.  I could never forgive him – and I would never forgive myself.” (page 71)  In other words, Born brings about the birth of hate; Born is the bearer of Walker’s self- knowledge.  In a way, Born gives birth to the journey that Walker must now undertake. Like Dante, Walker is forced to come to himself (admittedly, not exactly in a dark wood but while strolling along the edge of Riverside Park in New York). So, when we encounter Walker, although still a young man of twenty, he is, in fact, at the mid-point of his metaphysical journey. For Dante “the straight way was lost”.  What he means by the straight way is the righteous way, the moral way, the just way, and The Divine Comedy is the story of how he seeks a new way instead. A great part of Invisible is supposed to be, more or less, the words of Walker as he narrates how he changed his life, departed from the path he had been on, the straight path that would have led him to become a famous poet, and instead, after searching, he created a new life for himself.  Above all, that terrible night in 1967 in New York with Born caused him to lose the path of justice and morality and he rediscovered the just way when he became an advocate for the poor, downtrodden and invisible. Near the age of seventy, and close to death, he confides: “I’ve had ample time to ponder my motives for choosing the life I did.  In a very concrete way, I think it started that night in 1967” (page 84) The Divine Comedy in a nutshell: a walker loses the just way but undergoes a moral awakening.

By the way, when Walker writes that it all started that night in 1967, he is referring to a night in April.  Dante’s Divine Comedy takes place in April. Walker has a sister called Gwyn, a name that brings to mind King Arthur and his beloved Guinevere.  The Arthurian romances were the most popular tales at the time that Dante was writing and The Divine Comedy includes numerous references to Arthur, including one to Arthur’s incestuous relationship with his sister. Invisible is a novel with quite a lot of sex, with lengthy descriptions of Walker’s incestuous lovemaking with his sister Gwyn. At the novel’s end Gywn’s name is no longer Walker but she bears the married name “Tedesco”.  It means “German” in Italian, that is, it means German in the language of Dante.  Indeed Dante refers to “drunken Germans” in Inferno. There is more oblique nodding to Dante in Invisible, but you get the picture.

Strangly, Invisble gives us the tale of Walker’s journey in three parts, but Auster’s novel comes with a fourth part too, described as “a coda, as it were, a last little chapter” (page 260). This section concludes the novel with pages from the diary of Cecile Juin (that begin in April), a former girlfriend of Walker from his Paris days.  Juin records a meeting in 2004 she has had with Rudolf Born on a Caribbean island called Quillia. (As far as I know, no such place exists).  It is almost like a chapter out of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But why this fourth section – the four gospels or the four points of the compass or the four horsemen of the apocalypse?  Or is it that there is a fourth section to Dante’s masterpiece, a sequel of some sort? In the history of English literature there is one great work that was inspired by Dante, indeed it is possibly the greatest work ever written in the history of English poetry – Milton’s Paradise Lost. But is there any hint in Invisible that Milton is somehow present in the narrative?  In 1967 Walker spent a few months working in a library where he stumbled across a 1670 edition of Paradise Lost (by the way, no such edition exists – Paradise Lost was published in 1667 and the second edition appeared in 1674).  Writing in the second person, Walker tells us that ‘you have spent the past few months immersed in John Milton, studying Milton more closely than any poet you have ever read … one of the undergraduates enrolled in Edward Taylor’s class … you have come to love Milton and rank him above all other poets of his time”.  Juin finds Born living in the jungle of his Caribbean island, like Kurtz in Central Africa, but he is in such a state of wild delusion that, had it ever been a paradise, it is certainly now a paradise lost.

Walker’s story, narrated by Walker himself, forms the bulk of Invisible, but it is framed within a narration that is brought to us by a famous author called James or Jim Freeman.  Freeman, being a novelist, a writer of fiction, a creator of lies, is a free man – free to make things up.  Walker is an unreliable author; his memoir is based entirely on memory. Freeman seems sure of himself.  He lives with his wife in Brooklyn, as does a certain real life author called Paul Auster.  He studied at Columbia and dabbled in poetry, as did Paul Auster.  He is now an established novelist, like Paul Auster. Freeman tells us that in an early work, a memoir of some sort, he wrote the first section in the first person but wrote the second half in the second person, just like Paul Auster did in his early memoir The Invention of Solitude, a work of Auster's that, by the way, contains the number three in the opening sentence. Freeman smokes slim cigars, a habit he shares with Paul Auster.  Late in the novel we discover that Freeman actually once knew Walker’s sister Gwyn, and for a moment this perfect narrator of Walker’s story leaves down his guard and we learn of the overwhelming impact she made on Freeman nearly forty years previously: “Gwyn was ablaze with beauty, an incandescent being, a storm in the heart of every man who laid eyes on her, and seeing her for the first time ranks as one of the most astonishing moments of my life.” He adds, “from the first second I wanted her”. (page 249) Wow!  Now he tells us.  What else has he been hiding from us, I can’t help but wonder?  What else has he left out, unsaid and invisible? Furthermore, he admits that he tried, unsuccessfully, to kiss Gwyn once, while walking in Riverside Park – the very same place where Walker witnessed Born’s killing of a youth.  It sounds suspicious, doesn’t it?  We discover, more or less by accident, that Freeman also attended that seminar from Edward Taylor, in other words, that seminar on Milton's Paradise Lost. At one point Freeman tells us that he has changed all the names (it is that naming thing that Auster loves to play with): “Adam Walker is not Adam Walker, Gwyn Walker Tedesco is not Gywn Walker Tedesco… Not even Born is Born.  His real name is closer to that of another Provencal poet, and I took the liberty to substitute the translation of that other poet by non-Walker with a translation of my own, which means that the remarks about Dante’s Inferno on the first page of this book were not in not-Walker’s original manuscript.”  But this is not true – the translation that appears in Invisible, that is supposed to be a translation by Walker of a poem by the medieval Provencal poet Bertran de Born is in reality (the reality of the world outside of the novel Invisible) that of a poem by the real Bertran de Born and Paul Auster claimed in an interview that he made the translation himself.  So Jim Freeman, the reliable narrator and framer of Walker’s story turns out to be telling us lies.  Freeman goes on: “Last of all, I don’t suppose it is necessary for me to add that my name is not Jim.”  Of course it is not necessary, because Freeman is not, after all, a free man.  He, like Walker and Born are creations of Paul Auster, the author of this comedy.  Like Dante’s Divine Comedy, where Virgil is not really Virgil and where the pilgrim didn’t really pass through Inferno, Purgatory or Paradise, Invisible, is a work of fiction, an elaborate lie.  It was Nietzsche who wrote “Only the lie is divine”.

Most reviewers of Invisible have focused on the narrative, with a fleeting reference to Dante and a brief acknowledgement that Auster is a writer obsessed with the act of writing, who confronts the reader with unreliability and narrative puzzles. They have missed the deep Dantesque structure.  Perhaps because it remains invisible.


  1. Very interesting analysis. Thanks for writing it. :-)

  2. Great analysis! Thanks a lot for posting it.

  3. Very well researched. Thanks for posting this.

  4. Thank you for this enlightening analysis. In fact, you are right about Auster being the real translator of Bertran de Born's poem: it appeared in The Nation, March 9, 2009.

  5. Thank you Magor for this information regarding The Nation.

  6. I found some other hints to Dante

    Dante is accompanied by a wolf (greed), a panther (lust) and a lion (arrogance).
    That corresponds with the figures of Born, Margot and the incidence with the young black man murdered.

    Borns first name is Rudolf which means actually wolf and is a hint for greed, Margot stands for lust (margot or margarethe means pearl of light but there are although legends about "black margarethes" which have been executed in medival ages for their lust (panther), the murder shows Adam that he's been so arrogant to belive he's a better man than others(lion)

    Am I right?

  7. Interesting suggestions. I don't know. I had given some thought to the three animals that make an obscure appearance in Dante, but couldn't be sure. I also wondered about if "Rudolf" had significance. Regarding Margot, she remains enigmatic. I had thought of a connection with the patron saint of childbirth, yet she is barren, just as Born's name is linked to childbirth, but he represents death. I don't know if you are right, but thanks for the creative suggestions.

  8. Yet another three-some reference in Invisible: Cecil Juin spends three days in a row at the caribbean non- existant Quillia Island. Bingo. And, what about the black people hammering and cracking rocks that Cecil finds along the road leading her to the airport when she is about to leave Quillia? Doesn't it resemble a lot the Dantesque narrative about the damned souls purging their sins in one of the lower circles of hell?
    (Carlos Sourdis)

  9. Hi Carlos,

    Yes, those poor unfortunates hammering the stones is such a vivid scene and it struck me as very Danteesque. Thanks for that reference to the three days on the island.

  10. Your welcome, thanks to you, fist of all, for this interesting article on Visible, which I found at your web site just three minutes after I turned this book's last page. True. I find it rather impossible not to somehow relate the doomed luck of those poor unfortunates hammering stones in Quillia with the sad destiny and wretched luck Mr. Cedric Williams had in this Auster's excellent piece or work. I'm obviously talking about the social injustice based on skin colors, from NY to West Indies. Yet I'm not sure if this single detail has any danteesque element to it.

  11. Interesting analysis! Thank you.

  12. Hello Carlos!
    I've just read Invisible, and found your analysis very interesting.
    In addition to the Dante references, another idea has struck me while reading the book. It seems that Auster is making some sort of reference to the "Beat Generation" of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr. The references are quite weak, but all of them together cannot be a coincidence. Here is the list of references I've found:
    First of all, it's the Columbia University, where all of those real people have met. Then it's the french connection of Kerouac. Kerouac was a successful football player during high school, just as Adam Walker was a baseball player. Allen Ginsburg was a poet that wanted to be a labor lawyer - an opposite tot Adam Walker: the latter was a poet but ended as a lawyer. And finally, the killing in Riverside Park. Lucien Carr has killed a man, named Kammerer, in Riverside Park in 1944. This incident greatly affected both Kerouac and Ginsberg in their future works.
    I'm not sure what to make of this, but these references look interesting to me and I wanted to share my thoughts.
    What do you say?
    Thanks for reading!

    1. Hello Dima!
      Sorry I just read this so many years after mi first post. It scaped to me, I guess, your reference about the beatnik writers. It's about time to re-read Invisible. I've read some Kerouac, Ginsberg and Mark Strand, the poet, but I'm not familiar with their biographic data, even though a great deal of their writing is auto-biographical, in some sense. And thanks P. M. Doolan for your kind answer. Does anyone know if Auster himself have made any comments about these subjects regarding his book.

  13. Hi Dima,

    I really like Kerouac and Ginsberg so I'm happy to see someone finding references to them in Auster's novel. I certainly hadn't noticed this myself. Thanks for alerting me to the possibility.

  14. Dear Dima,

    VERY VERY interesting! Thank you for sharing.
    Also the opening line of "On the road" - "I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up"- is Very similar to the opening of "Invisible'. There is even more similarity here than with Dante's line. Definetely not a coincidence.


    And then - this might be far-fetched, almost on the verge of being funny: "Dean is the perfect guy for the road because he actually was born on the road". " "Born" .

    Also if we continue reading the beginning of the road:
    I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won't bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road.

    More Dante overtones here, or possibility for a danteesque reading in light of "Invisible"?

  15. Hi Lisa,
    Seems like there is material here for a Kerouac reading of Invisible.Thanks a million.

  16. Thanks for writing the analysis. I found it really intresting. But I have one question: The first time that the word Invisible appears is on page 5 when Walker describes Born "(a gneric face, somehow, a face that would become invisible in any crowd)" Have you left that one one out beause walker is talking about Bron and not himself?


  17. Awesome analysis, simply superb. Like another commenter I too found this analysis only moments after turning the last page of the novel, though I was reading it for the second time. Im still looking for the possible significance of the very last scene, depicted in the diary. Beyond the obvious slave/race symbolism, which appears in the book, why would Auster end the novel on this note? Also, if its a reference to the damned souls of Dante's Inferno, why are these people damned, except in the sense that theyre born on one of the poorest islands in the caribbean?

    Thank you again,


    Charlie Adler

  18. Hi, great analysis. Just one point, you wrote that Walker dies near the age of 70, but doesn't he die at the age of 60, which is symbolically important, because he was 20 in 1967, which gives his life a 3 part 20 year structure, not to mention, 20 goes into 60 3 times.

    Thanks for the analysis, really interesting, and it deepens my already deep respect for this magician of a novelist.