A NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW NOTABLE BOOK
Six months after losing his wife and two young sons, Vermont Professor David Zimmer spends his waking hours mired in a blur of alcoholic grief and self-pity. One night, he stumbles upon a clip from a lost film by silent comedian Hector Mann. His interest is piqued, and he soon finds himself embarking on a journey around the world to research a book on this mysterious figure, who vanished from sight in 1929.
When the book is published the following year, a letter turns up in Zimmer's mailbox bearing a return address from a small town in New Mexico inviting him to meet Hector. Zimmer hesitates, until one night a strange woman appears on his doorstep and makes the decision for him, changing his life forever.
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About the Author
Hometown:Brooklyn, New York
Date of Birth:February 3, 1947
Place of Birth:Newark, New Jersey
Education:B.A., M.A., Columbia University, 1970
Read an Excerpt
THE BOOK OF ILLUSIONS
EVERYONE THOUGHT THE was dead. When my book about his films was published in 1988, Hector Mann had not been heard from in almost sixty years. Except for a handful of historians and old-time movie buffs, few people seemed to know that he had ever existed. Double or Nothing, the last of the twelve two-reel comedies he made at the end of the silent era, was released on November 23, 1928. Two months later, without saying good-bye to any of his friends or associates, without leaving behind a letter or informing anyone of his plans, he walked out of his rented house on North Orange Drive and was never seen again. His blue DeSoto was parked in the garage; the lease on the property was good for another three months; the rent had been paid in full. There was food in the kitchen, whiskey in the liquor cabinet, and not a single article of Hector's clothing was missing from the bedroom drawers. According to the Los Angles Herald Express of January 18, 1929, it looked as though he had stepped out for a short walk and would be returning at any moment. But he didn't return, and from that point on it was as if Hector Mann had vanished from the face of the earth.
For several years following his disappearance, various stories and rumors circulated about what had happened to him, but none of these conjectures ever amounted to anything. The most plausible onesthat he had committed suicide or fallen victim to foul playcould neither be proved nor disproved, since no body was ever recovered. Other accounts of Hector's fate were more imaginative, more hopeful, more in keeping with the romantic implications of such a case. In one, he had returned to his native Argentina and was now the owner of a small provincial circus. In another, he had joined the Communist Party and was working under an assumed name as an organizer among the dairy workers in Utica, New York. In still another, he was riding the rails as a Depression hobo. If Hector had been a bigger star, the stories no doubt would have persisted. He would have lived on in the things that were said about him, gradually turning into one of those symbolic figures who inhabit the nether zones of collective memory, a representative of youth and hope and the devilish twists of fortune. But none of that happened, for the fact was that Hector was only just beginning to make his mark in Hollywood when his career ended. He had come too late to exploit his talents fully, and he hadn't stayed long enough to leave a lasting impression of who he was or what he could do. A few more years went by, and little by little people stopped thinking about him. By 1932 or 1933, Hector belonged to an extinct universe, and if there were any traces of him left, it was only as a footnote in some obscure book that no one bothered to read anymore. The movies talked now, and the flickering dumb shows of the past were forgotten. No more clowns, no more pantomimists, no more pretty flapper girls dancing to the beat of unheard orchestras. They had been dead for just a few years, but already they feltprehistoric, like creatures who had roamed the earth when men still lived in caves.
I didn't give much information about Hector's life in my book. The Silent World of Hector Mann was a study of his films, not a biography, and whatever small facts I threw in about his offscreen activities came directly from the standard sources: film encyclopedias, memoirs, histories of early Hollywood. I wrote the book because I wanted to share my enthusiasm for Hector's work. The story of his life was secondary to me, and rather than speculate on what might or might not have happened to him, I stuck to a close reading of the films themselves. Given that he was born in 1900, and given that he had not been seen since 1929, it never would have occurred to me to suggest that Hector Mann was still alive. Dead men don't crawl out from their graves, and as far as I was concerned, only a dead man could have kept himself hidden for that long.
The book was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press eleven years ago this past March. Three months later, just after the first reviews had started to appear in the film quarterlies and academic journals, a letter turned up in my mailbox. The envelope was larger and squarer than the ones commonly sold in stores, and because it was made of thick, expensive paper, my initial response was to think there might be a wedding invitation or a birth announcement inside. My name and address were written out across the front in an elegant, curling script. If the writing wasn't that of a professional calligrapher, it no doubt came from someone who believed in the virtues of graceful penmanship, a person who had been schooled in the old academies of etiquette and social decorum. The stamp was postmarked Albuquerque, New Mexico, but the return address on the back flap showed that the letter had beenwritten somewhere elseassuming that there was such a place, and assuming that the name of the town was real. Top and bottom, the two lines read: Blue Stone Ranch; Tierra del Sueño, New Mexico. I might have smiled when I saw those words, but I can't remember now. No name was given, and as I opened the envelope to read the message on the card inside, I caught a faint smell of perfume, the subtlest hint of lavender essence.
Dear Professor Zimmer, the note said. Hector has read your book and would like to meet you. Are you interested in paying us a visit? Yours sincerely, Frieda Spelling (Mrs. Hector Mann).
I read it six or seven times. Then I put it down, walked to the other end of the room, and came back. When I picked up the letter again, I wasn't sure if the words would still be there. Or, if they were there, if they would still be the same words. I read it six or seven more times, and then, still not sure of anything, dismissed it as a prank. A moment later, I was filled with doubts, and the next moment after that I began to doubt those doubts. To think one thought meant thinking the opposite thought, and no sooner did that second thought destroy the first thought than a third thought rose up to destroy the second. Not knowing what else to do, I got into my car and drove to the post office. Every address in America was listed in the zip code directory, and if Tierra del Sueño wasn't there, I could throw away the card and forget all about it. But it was there. I found it in volume one on page 1933, sitting on the line between Tierra Amarilia and Tijeras, a proper town with a post office and its own five-digit number. That didn't make the letter genuine, of course, but at least it gave it an air of credibility, and by the time I returned home, I knew that I would have to answer it. A letter like that can't be ignored. Once you've read it, you know that if you don't take the trouble to sit down and write back, you'll go on thinking about it for the rest of your life.
I haven't kept a copy of my answer, but I remember that I wrote it by hand and tried to make it as short as possible, limiting what I said to just a few sentences. Without giving it much thought, I found myself adopting the flat, cryptic style of the letter I had received. I felt less exposed that way, less likely to be taken as a fool by the person who had masterminded the prankif indeed it was a prank. Give or take a word or two, my response went something like this: Dear Frieda Spelling. Of course I would like to meet Hector Mann. But how can I be sure he's alive? To the best of my knowledge, he hasn't been seen in more than half a century. Please provide details. Respectfully yours, David Zimmer.
We all want to believe in impossible things, I suppose, to persuade ourselves that miracles can happen. Considering that I was the author of the only book ever written on Hector Mann, it probably made sense that someone would think I'd jump at the chance to believe he was still alive. But I wasn't in the mood to jump. Or at least I didn't think I was. My book had been born out of a great sorrow, and now that the book was behind me, the sorrow was still there. Writing about comedy had been no more than a pretext, an odd form of medicine that I had swallowed every day for over a year on the off chance that it would dull the pain inside me. To some extent, it did. But Frieda Spelling (or whoever was posing as Frieda Spelling) couldn't have known that. She couldn't have known that on June 7, 1985, just one week short of my tenth wedding anniversary, my wife and two sons had been killed in a plane crash. She might have seen that the book was dedicated to them (For Helen, Todd, and MarcoIn Memory), but those names couldn't have meant anything to her, and even if she hadguessed their importance to the author, she couldn't have known that for him those names stood for everything that had any meaning in lifeand that when the thirty-six-year-old Helen and the seven-year-old Todd and the four-year-old Marco had died, most of him had died along with them.
They had been on their way to Milwaukee to visit Helen's parents. I had stayed behind in Vermont to correct papers and hand in the final grades for the semester that had just ended. That was my workprofessor of comparative literature at Hampton College in Hampton, Vermontand I had to do it. Normally, we all would have gone together on the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth, but Helen's father had just been operated on for a tumor in his leg, and the family consensus was that she and the boys should leave as quickly as possible. This entailed some elaborate, last-minute negotiations with Todd's school so that he would be allowed to miss the last two weeks of the second grade. The principal was reluctant but understanding, and in the end she gave in. That was one of the things I kept thinking about after the crash. If only she had turned us down, then Todd would have been forced to stay at home with me, and he wouldn't have been dead. At least one of them would have been spared that way. At least one of them wouldn't have fallen seven miles through the sky, and I wouldn't have been left alone in a house that was supposed to have four people in it. There were other things, of course, other contingencies to brood about and torture myself with, and I never seemed to tire of walking down those same dead-end roads. Everything was part of it, every link in the chain of cause and effect was an essential piece of the horrorfrom the cancer in my father-in-law's leg to the weather in the Midwest that week to the telephone number of the travel agent who had booked the airlinetickets. Worst of all, there was my own insistence on driving them down to Boston so they could be on a direct flight. I hadn't wanted them to leave from Burlington. That would have meant going to New York on an eighteen-seat prop plane to catch a connecting flight to Milwaukee, and I told Helen that I didn't like those small planes. They were too dangerous, I said, and I couldn't stand the idea of letting her and the boys go on one of them without me. So they didn'tin order to appease my worries. They went on a bigger one, and the terrible thing about it was that I rushed to get them there. The traffic was heavy that morning, and when we finally got to Springfield and hit the Mass Pike, I had to drive well over the speed limit to make it to Logan in time.
I remember very little of what happened to me that summer. For several months, I lived in a blur of alcoholic grief and self-pity, rarely stirring from the house, rarely bothering to eat or shave or change my clothes. Most of my colleagues were gone until the middle of August, and therefore I didn't have to put up with many visits, to sit through the agonizing protocols of communal mourning. They meant well, of course, and whenever any of my friends came around, I always invited them in, but their tearful embraces and long, embarrassed silences didn't help. It was better to be left alone, I found, better to gut out the days in the darkness of my own head. When I wasn't drunk or sprawled out on the living room sofa watching television, I spent my time wandering around the house. I would visit the boys' rooms and sit down on the floor, surrounding myself with their things. I wasn't able to think about them directly or summon them up in any conscious way, but as I put together their puzzles and played with their Lego pieces, building ever more complex and baroque structures, I felt that I was temporarilyinhabiting them againcarrying on their little phantom lives for them by repeating the gestures they had made when they still had bodies. I read through Todd's fairy-tale books and organized his baseball cards. I classified Marco's stuffed animals according to species, color, and size, changing the system every time I entered the room. Hours vanished in this way, whole days melted into oblivion, and when I couldn't stomach it anymore, I would go back into the living room and pour myself another drink. On those rare nights when I didn't pass out on the sofa, I usually slept in Todd's bed. In my own bed, I always dreamed that Helen was with me, and every time I reached out to take hold of her, I would wake up with a sudden, violent lurch, my hands trembling and my lungs gasping for air, feeling as if I'd been about to drown. I couldn't go into our bedroom after dark, but I spent a lot of time there during the day, standing inside Helen's closet and touching her clothes, rearranging her jackets and sweaters, lifting her dresses off their hangers and spreading them out on the floor. Once, I put one of them on, and another time I got into her underwear and made up my face with her makeup. It was a deeply satisfying experience, but after some additional experimentation, I discovered that perfume was even more effective than lipstick and mascara. It seemed to bring her back more vividly, to evoke her presence for longer periods of time. As luck would have it, I had given her a fresh supply of Chanel No. 5 for her birthday in March. By limiting myself to small doses twice a day, I was able to make the bottle last until the end of the summer.
I took a leave of absence for the fall semester, but rather than go away or look for psychological help, I stayed on in the house and continued to sink. By late September or early October, I was knocking off more than half a bottle of whiskey everynight. It kept me from feeling too much, but at the same time it deprived me of any sense of the future, and when a man has nothing to look forward to, he might as well be dead. More than once, I caught myself in the middle of lengthy daydreams about sleeping pills and carbon monoxide gas. I never went far enough to take any action, but whenever I look back on those days now, I understand how close I came to it. The pills were in the medicine cabinet, and I had already taken the bottle off the shelf three or four times; I had already held the loose pills in my hand. If the situation had gone on much longer, I doubt that I would have had the strength to resist.
That was how things stood for me when Hector Mann unexpectedly walked into my life. I had no idea who he was, had never even stumbled across a reference to his name, but one night just before the start of winter, when the trees had finally gone bare and the first snow was threatening to fall, I happened to see a clip from one of his old films on television, and it made me laugh. That might not sound important, but it was the first time I had laughed at anything since June, and when I felt that unexpected spasm rise up through my chest and begin to rattle around in my lungs, I understood that I hadn't hit bottom yet, that there was still some piece of me that wanted to go on living. From start to finish, it couldn't have lasted more than a few seconds. As laughs go, it wasn't especially loud or sustained, but it took me by surprise, and in that I didn't struggle against it, and in that I didn't feel ashamed of myself for having forgotten my unhappiness during those few moments when Hector Mann was on screen, I was forced to conclude that there was something inside me I had not previously imagined, something other than just pure death. I'm not talking about some vague intuition or sentimental yearning for what might have been. Ihad made an empirical discovery, and it carried all the weight of a mathematical proof. If I had it in me to laugh, then that meant I wasn't entirely numb. It meant that I hadn't walled myself off from the world so thoroughly that nothing could get in anymore.
It must have been a little past ten o'clock. I was anchored to my usual spot on the sofa, holding a glass of whiskey in one hand and the remote-control gadget in the other, mindlessly surfing channels. I came upon the program a few minutes after it started, but it didn't take me long to figure out that it was a documentary about silent-film comedians. All the familiar faces were thereChaplin, Keaton, Lloydbut they also included some rare footage of comics I had never heard of before, lesser-known figures such as John Bunny, Larry Semon, Lupino Lane, and Raymond Griffith. I followed the gags with a kind of measured detachment, not really paying attention to them, but absorbed enough not to switch to something else. Hector Mann didn't come on until late in the program, and when he did, they showed only one clip: a two-minute sequence from The Teller's Tale, which was set in a bank and featured Hector in the role of a hardworking assistant clerk. I can't explain why it grabbed me, but there he was in his white tropical suit and his thin black mustache, standing at a table and counting out piles of money, and he worked with such furious efficiency, such lightning speed and manic concentration, that I couldn't turn my eyes away from him. Upstairs, repairmen were installing new planks in the floor of the bank manager's office. Across the room, a pretty secretary sat at her desk, buffing her nails behind a large typewriter. At first, it looked as though nothing could distract Hector from completing his task in record time. Then, ever so gradually, little streams of sawdust began to fall on hisjacket, and not many seconds after that, he finally caught sight of the girl. One element had suddenly become three elements, and from that point on the action bounced among them in a triangular rhythm of work, vanity, and lust: the struggle to go on counting the money, the effort to protect his beloved suit, and the urge to make eye contact with the girl. Every now and then, Hector's mustache would twitch in consternation, as if to punctuate the proceedings with a faint groan or mumbled aside. It wasn't slapstick and anarchy so much as character and pace, a smoothly orchestrated mixture of objects, bodies, and minds. Each time Hector lost track of the count, he would have to start over again, and that only inspired him to work twice as fast as before. Each time he turned his head up to the ceiling to see where the dust was coming from, he would do it a split second after the workers had filled in the hole with a new plank. Each time he glanced over at the girl, she would be looking in the wrong direction. And yet, through it all, Hector somehow managed to keep his composure, refusing to allow these petty frustrations to thwart his purpose or puncture his good opinion of himself. It might not have been the most extraordinary bit of comedy I had ever seen, but it pulled me in until I was completely caught up in it, and by the second or third twitch of Hector's mustache, I was laughing, actually laughing out loud.
A narrator spoke over the action, but I was too immersed in the scene to catch everything he said. Something about Hector's mysterious exit from the film business, I think, and the fact that he was considered to have been the last of the significant two-reel comedians. By the 1920s, the most successful and innovative clowns had already moved into full-length features, and the quality of short comic films had suffered a drastic decline. Hector Mann did not add anything new to the genre,the narrator said, but he was acknowledged as a talented gagman with exceptional body control, a notable latecomer who might have gone on to achieve important work if his career hadn't ended so abruptly. At that point the scene ended, and I started listening more closely to the narrator's comments. A succession of still photographs of several dozen comic actors rolled across the screen, and the voice lamented the loss of so many films from the silent era. Once sound entered the movies, silent films had been left to rot in vaults, had been destroyed by fires, had been carted away as trash, and hundreds of performances had disappeared forever. But all hope was not dead, the voice added. Old films occasionally turned up, and a number of remarkable discoveries had been made in recent years. Consider the case of Hector Mann, it said. Until 1981, only three of his films had been available anywhere in the world. Vestiges of the other nine were buried in an assortment of secondary materialspress reports, contemporary reviews, production stills, synopsesbut the films themselves were presumed to be lost. Then, in December of that year, an anonymous package was delivered to the offices of the Cinematheque Française in Paris. Apparently mailed from somewhere in central Los Angeles, it contained a nearly pristine copy of Jumping Jacks, the seventh of Hector Mann's twelve films. At irregular intervals over the next three years, eight similar packages were sent to major film archives around the world: the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the British Film Institute in London, Eastman House in Rochester, the American Film Institute in Washington, the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, and again to the Cinematheque in Paris. By 1984, Hector Mann's entire output had been dispersed among these six organizations. Each package had emanated from a different city, traveling fromplaces as remote from one another as Cleveland and San Diego, Philadelphia and Austin, New Orleans and Seattle, and because there was never any letter or message included with the films, it was impossible to identify the donor or even to form a hypothesis about who he was or where he might have lived. Another mystery had been added to the life and career of the enigmatic Hector Mann, the narrator said, but a great service had been done, and the film community was grateful.
I wasn't attracted to mysteries or enigmas, but as I sat there watching the final credits of the program, it occurred to me that I might want to see those films. There were twelve of them scattered among six different cities in Europe and the United States, and in order to see them all, a person would have to give up a significant chunk of his time. No less than several weeks, I imagined, but perhaps as long as a month or a month and a half. At that point, the last thing I would have predicted was that I would wind up writing a book about Hector Mann. I was just looking for something to do, something to keep me occupied in a harmless sort of way until I was ready to return to work. I had spent close to half a year watching myself go to the dogs, and I knew that if I let it go on any longer, I was going to die. It didn't matter what the project was or what I hoped to get out of it. Any choice would have been arbitrary by then, but that night an idea had presented itself to me, and on the strength of two minutes of film and one short laugh, I chose to wander around the world looking at silent comedies.
I wasn't a film person. I had started teaching literature as a graduate student in my mid-twenties, and since then all my work had been connected to books, language, the written word. I had translated a number of European poets (Lorca, Eluard, Leopardi, Michaux), had written reviews for magazines andnewspapers, and had published two books of criticism. The first one, Voices in the War Zone, was a study of politics and literature that examined the work of Hamsun, Celine, and Pound in relation to their pro-Fascist activities during World War II. The second one, The Road to Abyssinia, was a book about writers who had given up writing, a meditation on silence. Rimbaud, Dashiell Hammett, Laura Riding, J. D. Salinger, and otherspoets and novelists of uncommon brilliance who, for one reason or another, had stopped. When Helen and the boys were killed, I had been planning to write a new book about Stendhal. It wasn't that I had anything against the movies, but they had never been very important to me, and not once in more than fifteen years of teaching and writing had I felt the urge to talk about them. I liked them in the way that everyone else did-as diversions, as animated wallpaper, as fluff. No matter how beautiful or hypnotic the images sometimes were, they never satisfied me as powerfully as words did. Too much was given, I felt, not enough was left to the viewer's imagination, and the paradox was that the closer movies came to simulating reality, the worse they failed at representing the worldwhich is in us as much as it is around us. That was why I had always instinctively preferred black-and-white pictures to color pictures, silent films to talkies. Cinema was a visual language, a way of telling stories by projecting images onto a two-dimensional screen. The addition of sound and color had created the illusion of a third dimension, but at the same time it had robbed the images of their purity. They no longer had to do all the work, and instead of turning film into the perfect hybrid medium, the best of all possible worlds, sound and color had weakened the language they were supposed to enhance. That night, as I watched Hector and the other comedians gothrough their paces in my Vermont living room, it struck me that I was witnessing a dead art, a wholly defunct genre that would never be practiced again. And yet, for all the changes that had occurred since then, their work was as fresh and invigorating as it had been when it was first shown. That was because they had understood the language they were speaking. They had invented a syntax of the eye, a grammar of pure kinesis, and except for the costumes and the cars and the quaint furniture in the background, none of it could possibly grow old. It was thought translated into action, human will expressing itself through the human body, and therefore it was for all time. Most silent comedies hardly even bothered to tell stories. They were like poems, like the renderings of dreams, like some intricate choreography of the spirit, and because they were dead, they probably spoke more deeply to us now than they had to the audiences of their time. We watched them across a great chasm of forgetfulness, and the very things that separated them from us were in fact what made them so arresting: their muteness, their absence of color, their fitful, speeded-up rhythms. These were obstacles, and they made viewing difficult for us, but they also relieved the images of the burden of representation. They stood between us and the film, and therefore we no longer had to pretend that we were looking at the real world. The flat screen was the world, and it existed in two dimensions. The third dimension was in our head.
There was nothing to stop me from packing my bags and leaving the next day. I was off for the semester, and the next term wouldn't begin until the middle of January. I was free to do what I wanted, free to go wherever my legs wanted to take me, and the fact was that if I needed more time I could keep on going until I was past January, past September, past all theSeptembers and Januarys for as long as I wished. Such were the ironies of my absurd and miserable life. The moment Helen and the boys were killed, I had been turned into a rich man. The first bit came from a life insurance policy that Helen and I had been talked into buying not long after I started teaching at Hamptonfor peace of mind, the man saidand because it was attached to the college health plan and didn't cost much, we had been paying in a small amount every month without bothering to think about it. I hadn't even remembered that we owned this insurance when the plane went down, but less than a month later, a man showed up at my house and handed me a check for several hundred thousand dollars. A short time after that, the airline company made a settlement with the families of the victims, and as someone who had lost three people in the crash, I wound up winning the compensation jackpot, the giant booby prize for random death and unforeseen acts of God. Helen and I had always struggled to get by on my academic salary and the occasional fees she earned from freelance writing. At any point along the way, an extra thousand dollars would have made an enormous difference to us. Now I had that thousand many times over, and it didn't mean a thing. When the checks came in, I sent half the money to Helen's parents, but they sent it back by return mail, thanking me for the gesture but assuring me that they didn't want it. I bought new playground equipment for Todd's elementary school, donated two thousand dollars' worth of books and a state-of-the-art sandbox to Marco's day-care center, and prevailed upon my sister and her music-teacher husband in Baltimore to accept a large cash contribution from the Zimmer Death Fund. If there had been more people in my family to give money to, I would have done it, but my parents were no longer alive, and Deborah was theonly sibling I had. Instead, I unloaded another sackful by establishing a fellowship at Hampton College in Helen's name: the Helen Markham Traveling Fellowship. The idea was very simple. Every year, a cash award would be given for excellence in the humanities to one graduating senior. The money had to be spent on travel, but other than that there were no rules, no conditions, no requirements to be fulfilled. The winner would be selected by a rotating committee of professors from several different departments (history, philosophy, English, and foreign languages), and as long as the grant was used to finance a trip abroad, the Markham Fellow could do anything with the money that he or she saw fit, no questions asked. A huge outlay was required to set this up, but large as that sum was (the equivalent of four years' salary), it put no more than a small dent in my assets, and even after I had disbursed those various amounts in the various ways that made sense to me, I still had more money than I knew what to do with. It was a grotesque situation, a sickening excess of wealth, and every penny of it had been procured with blood. If not for a sudden change of plans, I probably would have gone on giving away the money until there was nothing left. But one cold night in early November, I got it into my head to do some traveling of my own, and without the resources to pay for it, I never could have followed through on such an impulsive scheme. Until then, the money had been nothing but a torment to me. Now I saw it as a cure, a balm to ward off a terminal collapse of the spirit. Living in hotels and eating in restaurants was going to be an expensive proposition, but for once I didn't have to worry about whether I could afford to do what I wanted. Desperate and unhappy as I was, I was also a free man, and because I had gold in my pockets, I could dictate the conditions of that freedom on my own terms.
Half of the films were within driving distance of my house. Rochester was about six hours to the west, and New York and Washington were directly to the southroughly five hours to cover the first leg of the journey, then another five to do the second. I decided to begin with Rochester. Winter was already approaching, and the longer I put off going there, the greater the chances would be of running into storms and icy roads, of bogging down in some northern inclemency. The next morning, I called Eastman House to inquire about seeing the films in their collection. I had no idea how one went about setting up such a thing, and because I didn't want to sound too ignorant when I introduced myself over the phone, I added that I was a professor at Hampton College. I was hoping that would impress them enough to take me for a serious personand not some crank calling out of the blue, which was what I was. Oh, said the woman on the other end of the line, are you writing something about Hector Mann? She made it sound as if there was only one possible answer to the question, and after a slight pause, I mumbled the words she was expecting to hear. Yes, I said, that's it, that's it exactly. I'm writing a book about him, and I need to see the films for my research.
That was how the project began. It was a good thing it happened so early, because once I had seen the films in Rochester (The Jockey Club and The Snoop), I understood that I wasn't just wasting my time. Hector was every bit as talented and accomplished as I had hoped he would be, and if the other ten films were up to the standards of those two, then he deserved to have a book written about him, he deserved the chance to be rediscovered. Right from the start, therefore, I didn't onlywatch Hector's movies, I studied them. If not for my conversation with that woman in Rochester, it never would have occurred to me to take this approach. My original plan had been far simpler, and I doubt that it would have kept me busy much beyond Christmas or the first of the year. As it was, I didn't finish viewing all of Hector's films until the middle of February. The old idea had been to see each film once. Now I saw them many times, and instead of visiting an archive for just a few hours, I stuck around for days, running the films on flatbeds and Moviolas, watching Hector for entire mornings and afternoons at a stretch, winding and rewinding the prints until my eyes wouldn't stay open anymore. I took notes, consulted books, and wrote down exhaustive commentaries, detailing the cuts and camera angles and lighting positions, analyzing all aspects of every scene down to its most peripheral elements, and I never left a place until I was ready, until I had lived with the footage long enough to know every inch of it by heart.
I didn't question whether any of this was worth doing. I had my job, and the only thing that mattered to me was to stick with it and make sure that it got done. I knew that Hector was no more than a minor figure, an addendum to the list of also-rans and luckless contenders, but that didn't stop me from admiring his work and taking pleasure in his company. His films had been knocked off at the rate of one a month for a year, and they were made on budgets so small, so far below the amounts required to stage the spectacular stunts and breathless sequences normally associated with silent comedy, that it was a wonder he had managed to produce anything at all, let alone twelve perfectly watchable films. According to what I read, Hector had started out in Hollywood as a prop man, scenic painter, and sometime extra, had graduated tobit roles in a number of comedies, and had been given his chance to direct and star in his own films by a man named Seymour Hunt. Hunt, a banker from Cincinnati who wanted to break into the movie business, had gone out to California in early 1927 to set up his own production company, Kaleidoscope Pictures. By all accounts a blustering, duplicitous character, Hunt knew nothing about making movies and even less about running a business. (Kaleidoscope shut down after just a year and a half. Hunt, charged with stock fraud and embezzlement, hanged himself before his case ever came to trial.) Underfinanced, understaffed, and plagued by Hunt's constant interference, Hector nevertheless seized his opportunity and tried to make the most of it. There were no scripts, of course, and no prearranged setups. Just Hector and a pair of gagmen named Andrew Murphy and Jules Blaustein improvising as they went along, often shooting at night on borrowed sets with exhausted crews and secondhand equipment. They couldn't afford to wreck a dozen cars or to mount a cattle stampede. Houses couldn't collapse, and buildings couldn't explode. No floods, no hurricanes, and no exotic locations. Extras were at a premium, and if an idea didn't work, they didn't have the luxury of reshooting after the film was over. Everything had to be cranked out on schedule, and there was no time for second thoughts. Gags on command: three laughs a minute, and then put another coin in the meter. For all the drawbacks to the arrangement, Hector seemed to thrive on the limitations that had been imposed on him. The scale of his work was modest, but there was an intimacy to it that held your attention and forced you to respond to him. I understood why film scholars respected his workand also why no one was terribly excited by it. He hadn'tbroken any new ground, and now that all his films were available again, it was clear that the history of the period would not have to be rewritten. Hector's films were small contributions to the art, but they weren't negligible, and the more I saw of them, the more I liked them for their grace and subtle wit, for the droll and affecting manner of their star. As I soon discovered, no one had seen all of Hector's films yet. The last ones had turned up too recently, and not one person had taken it upon himself to travel the whole circuit of archives and museums around the world. If I managed to carry out my plan, I would be the first one.
Before leaving Rochester, I called Smits, the dean of faculty at Hampton, and told him that I wanted to extend my leave for another semester. He was a bit put out at first, claiming that my courses had already been announced in the catalogue, but then I lied to him and said that I was undergoing psychiatric treatment, and he apologized. It was a nasty trick, I suppose, but I was fighting for my life at that point, and I didn't have the strength to explain why looking at silent movies had suddenly become so important to me. We wound up having a cordial chat, and in the end he wished me luck, but even though we both pretended that I would be returning in the fall, I think he sensed that I was already slipping away, that my heart was no longer in it.
I saw Scandal and Country Weeked in New York, then moved on to Washington for The Teller's Tale and Double or Nothing. I booked reservations for the rest of the trip with a travel agent on Dupont Circle (Amtrak to California, the QE 2 to Europe), but the next morning, in a sudden burst of blind heroism, I canceled the tickets and opted to go by plane. It was pure folly, but now that I was off to such a promising start, Ididn't want to lose my momentum. Never mind that I would have to talk myself into doing the one thing I had resolved never to do again. I couldn't slacken my pace, and if that meant seeking out a pharmacological solution to the problem, then I was prepared to ingest as many knockout pills as necessary. A woman from the American Film Institute gave me the name of a doctor. I figured the appointment would take no more than five or ten minutes. I would tell him why I wanted the pills, he would write out a prescription, and that would be that. Fear of flying was a common complaint, after all, and there would be no need to talk about Helen and the boys, no need to bare my soul to him. All I wanted was to shut down my central nervous system for a few hours, and since you couldn't buy that stuff over the counter, his sole function would be to hand me a slip of paper with his signature on it. But Dr. Singh turned out to be a thorough man, and as he went about the business of taking my blood pressure and listening to my heart, he asked me enough questions to keep me in his office for three-quarters of an hour. He was too intelligent not to want to probe, and little by little the truth came out.
We're all going to die, Mr. Zimmer, he said. What makes you think you're going to die on a plane? If you believe what the statistics tell us, you have a greater chance of dying just by sitting at home.
I didn't say I was afraid of dying, I answered, I said that I was afraid to get on a plane. There's a difference.
But if the plane isn't going to crash, why should you be worried?
Because I don't trust myself anymore. I'm afraid I'll lose control, and I don't want to make a spectacle of myself.
I'm not sure I follow you.
I imagine myself boarding the plane, and before I even get to my seat, I snap.
Snap? In what sense snap? You mean snap mentally?
Yes, I break down in front of four hundred strangers and lose my mind. I go berserk.
And what do you imagine yourself doing?
It depends. Sometimes I scream. Sometimes I punch people in the face. Sometimes I rush into the cockpit and try to strangle the pilot.
Does anyone stop you?
Of course they do. They swarm all over me and wrestle me to the ground. They beat the shit out of me.
When was the last time you were in a fight, Mr. Zimmer?
I can't remember. Back when I was a boy, I suppose. Eleven, twelve years old. School-yard stuff. Defending myself against the class bully.
And what makes you think you'll start fighting now?
Nothing. I just feel it in my bones, that's all. If something rubs me the wrong way, I don't think I'll be able to stop myself. Anything is liable to happen.
But why planes? Why aren't you afraid of losing control of yourself on the ground?
Because planes are safe. Everyone knows that. Planes are safe, fast, and efficient, and once you're up in the air, nothing can happen to you. That's why I'm afraid. Not because I think I'm going to be killedbut because I know I won't.
Have you ever attempted suicide, Mr. Zimmer?
Have you ever thought about it?
Of course I have. I wouldn't be human if I hadn't.
Is that why you're here now? So you can walk off with aprescription for some nice, powerful drug and do away with yourself?
I'm looking for oblivion, Doctor, not death. The drugs will put me to sleep, and as long as I'm unconscious, I won't have to think about what I'm doing. I'll be there, but I won't be there, and to the degree that I'm not there, I'll be protected.
Protected against what?
Against myself. Against the horror of knowing that nothing is going to happen to me.
You expect to have a smooth, uneventful flight. I still don't see why that should make you afraid.
Because the odds are with me. I'm going to take off and land safely, and once I get to where I'm going, I'll step off the plane alive. Good for me, you say, but once I do that, I spit on everything I believe in. I insult the dead, Doctor. I turn a tragedy into a simple matter of bad luck. Do you understand me now? I tell the dead that they died for nothing.
He understood. I hadn't said it in so many words, but this doctor had a delicate, sophisticated mind, and he was able to figure out the rest for himself. J. M. Singh, graduate of the Royal College of Physicians, resident internist at Georgetown University Hospital, with his precise British accent and prematurely thinning hair, suddenly grasped what I had been trying to tell him in that small cubicle with the fluorescent lights and the shining metal surfaces. I was still on the examining table, buttoning my shirt and looking down at the floor (not wanting to look at him, not wanting to risk the embarrassment of tears), and just then, after what felt like a long and awkward silence, he put his hand on my shoulder. I'm sorry, he said. I'm truly sorry.
It was the first time anyone had touched me in months, andI found it disturbing, almost repulsive to be turned into an object of such compassion. I don't want your sympathy, Doctor, I said. I just want your pills.
He backed off with a slight grimace, then sat down on a stool in the corner. As I finished tucking in my shirt, I saw him pull out a prescription pad from the pocket of his white coat. I'm willing to do it, he said, but before you get up and leave, I want to ask you to reconsider your decision. I think I have an idea of what you've been through, Mr. Zimmer, and I hesitate to put you in a position that could cause you such torment. There are other methods of travel, you know. Perhaps it would be best if you avoided planes for now.
I've already been down that road, I said, and I've decided against it. The distances are just too big. My next stop is Berkeley, California, and after that I have to go to London and Paris. A train to the West Coast takes three days. Multiply that by two for the return trip, then add on another ten days to cross the Atlantic and come back, and we're talking about a minimum of sixteen lost days. What am I supposed to do with all that time? Stare out the window and soak up the scenery?
Slowing down might not be such a bad thing. It would help to take off some of the pressure.
But pressure is what I need. If I loosened my grip now, I'd fall apart. I'd fly off in a hundred different directions, and I'd never be able to put myself together again.
There was something so intense about the way I delivered those words, something so earnest and crazy in the timbre of my voice, that the doctor almost smiledor at least appeared to be suppressing a smile. Well, we don't want that to happen, do we? he said. If you're so intent on flying, then go ahead and fly. But let's make sure you do it in only one direction. Andwith that whimsical comment, he removed a pen from his pocket and scratched out a series of undecipherable marks on the pad. Here it is, he said, tearing off the top sheet and putting it in my hand. Your ticket for Air Xanax.
Never heard of it.
Xanax. A potent, highly dangerous drug. Just use as directed, Mr. Zimmer, and you'll be turned into a zombie, a being without a self, a blotted-out lump of flesh. You can fly across entire continents and oceans on this stuff, and I guarantee that you'll never even know you've left the ground.
By midafternoon the following day, I was in California. Less than twenty-four hours after that, I was walking into a private screening room at the Pacific Film Archive to watch two more Hector Mann comedies. Tango Tangle turned out to be one of his wildest, most effervescent productions; Hearth and Home was one of the most careful. I spent more than two weeks with these films, returning to the building every morning at ten sharp, and even when the place was closed (on Christmas and New Year's Day), I went on working in my hotel, reading books and consolidating my notes in preparation for the next stage of my travels. On January 7, 1986, I swallowed some more of Dr. Singh's magic pills and flew directly from San Francisco to Londonsix thousand nonstop miles on the Catatonia Express. A larger dose was required this time, but I was worried that it wouldn't be enough, and just before I boarded the plane, I took an extra pill. I should have known better than to go against the doctor's instructions, but the thought of waking up in the middle of the flight was so terrifying to me, I nearly put myself to sleep forever. There's a stamp in my old passport that proves I entered Great Britain on January eighth, but I have no memory of landing, no memory of going through customs, and nomemory of how I got to my hotel. I woke up in an unfamiliar bed on the morning of January ninth, and that was when my life started again. I had never lost track of myself so thoroughly.
There were four films leftCowpokes and Mr. Nobody in London; Jumping Jacks and The Prop Man in Parisand I realized that this would be my only chance to see them. I could always revisit the American archives if I had to, but a return trip to the BFI and the Cinematheque was out of the question. I had managed to get myself to Europe, but I didn't have it in me to attempt the impossible more than once. For that reason, I wound up staying in London and Paris much longer than was necessaryalmost seven weeks in all, burrowed in for half the winter like some mad, subterranean beast. I had been thorough and conscientious up to that point, but now the project was taken to a new level of intensity, a single-mindedness that verged on obsession. My outward purpose was to study and master the films of Hector Mann, but the truth was that I was teaching myself how to concentrate, training myself how to think about one thing and one thing only. It was the life of a monomaniac, but it was the only way I could live now without crumbling to pieces. When I finally returned to Washington in February, I slept off the effects of the Xanax in an airport hotel, and then, first thing the next morning, collected my car from the long-term parking lot and drove to New York. I wasn't ready to return to Vermont. If I meant to write the book, I would need a place to hole up in, and of all the cities in the world, New York struck me as the one least likely to wear on my nerves. I spent five days looking for an apartment in Manhattan, but nothing turned up. It was the height of the Wall Street boom then, a good twenty months before the '87 crash, and rentals and sublets were in short supply. Eventually, I drove acrossthe bridge to Brooklyn Heights and took the first place I was showna one-bedroom apartment on Pierrepont Street that had just come on the market that morning. It was expensive, dingy, and awkwardly designed, but I felt lucky to have it. I bought a mattress for one room, a desk and a chair for the other, and then I moved in. The lease was good for a year. It began on March first, and that was the day I began writing the book.
THE BOOK OF ILLUSIONS. Copyright © 2002 by Paul Auster. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide Questions
1. David Zimmer, upon first viewing Hector Mann's films, comments of the work: "It wasn't slapstick or anarchy so much as character and pace, a smoothly orchestrated mixture of objects,
bodies, and minds."(p. 11) While this may be an unusual interpretation of comedy, it's more easily applicable to storytelling and performance in general. What sort of "orchestration" is at work in
The Book of Illusions at large? What sort of orchestration is at work in David Zimmer's or Hector
2. The story of Hector Mann's transformation into Herman Loesser, of David Zimmer's transformation following the death of his family, points to the idea that there are larger forces at work in these people's lives. If the characters in The Book of Illusions seem to be defined by others or by occurrences beyond their control, who are they, really? How might Hector Mann or David
Zimmer choose to define themselves?
3. Hector was a maker of silent comedy. How does comedy (or the idea of it) resonate throughout the novel?
4. Zimmer claims that his "life begins again" when he first watches Hector's films, and through much of Auster's novel, lives are both ending and recommencing. What do you believe this says about
Auster's vision of identity, and if such reversals may occur, what does this say about his idea of fate? Furthermore, who are we if our lives may be reduced "to a pile of fragments, a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces no longer connect"(p. 83)?
5. Why do you think Zimmer chose to name his critical study of Hector Mann The Silent World?
What does the title mean to the rest of Auster's novel?
6. "The moment you see a man walking down the street in a white suit, you know that suit is going to get him into trouble…he is turning himself into a target."(p. 30-31) Both David and Alma, Hector and Frieda, seem targeted for greatness and doom. Through which lens, Hector's or Auster's,
might these be one and the same? What does this say about their author(s)?
7. David Zimmer says towards the novel's close that he had known Alma for only eight days. How does Auster play with time in the book?
8. What is real and what is imagined in The Book of Illusions? "If I never saw the moon, the moon was never there," Zimmer says of his time at the ranch. Later, he confesses: "This is a book of fragments, a compilation of sorrows and half remembered dreams."
9. Why does Hector insist on destroying his later films? What do you think Alma's motivation is for actually carrying through with their destruction?
10. What is the significance of the parallels between Hector Mann and David Zimmer?