LKE3 2000/2002 2. Klausur 13,1 14/01/2002 STOFF: Paul Auster, Mr. Vertigo (Textaufgabe)



Paul Auster Americanises a miracle and proves that nothing beats a good old yarn.

How rich American life must have looked in the 20s, how full of promise. I don’t have to tell you things became dismal around 1930, and neither does Paul Auster, but I sense he’s hoping you’ll come away from Mr. Vertigo, his eighth novel, with an overwhelming feel for the cyclical nature of American life. The book doesn’t look epic at first; it begins as the simple story of Walter Rawley, a scrappy orphan, who eventually learns to walk on air. But as the tale of his incredible life unfolds, it’s difficult to keep reading without getting some of our beliefs about America sharpened, others deflated.

We meet Walter as a no-good 9-year-old street scamp, ward of his crude and cruel uncle Slim, treading the filthy gutters of St. Louis. It is 1924. Walt is approached by a mysterious stranger who calls him "a pus-brained ragamuffin from honky-tonk row who is no more than a piece of human nothingness". Yet the stranger tells Walter that he has the "gift" and offers him a bargain: If he can’t teach the youngster to float in the air by his 13th birthday, Walter can chop off his head with an axe.

The mysterious stranger is Master Yehudi, a Hungarian Jew, and he takes Walter to a farm in Kansas to live there with Mother Sue, an Oglala Sioux and the de facto mother of the household, and Aesop, a crippled black 15-year-old boy, who is into reading books. At the master’s direction Walter endures a numbing series of bloodcurdling tests. He’s buried alive for 24 hours with only a breathing tube. He stands in the heat, skin smeared with honey, as insects crawl over him – all in the name of some mysterious training – until, lo and behold, he is able to cavort in thin air. Master Yehudi and "Walt the Wonderboy" then take their show on the road after the house is visited by the Ku Klux Klan, who lynch Mother Sue and Aesop.

Walt is our matter-of-fact first-person narrator, ostensibly writing his memoir decades after these improbable events took place. His rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches story is spiked with bits of Americana (baseball buffs will get their money’s worth), bursts of violence, condemnation of racism and a liberal sprinkling of juicy slang of the "when-the-shit-hits-the-fan" kind.

With whirlwind storytelling, Walt – or rather, Auster – details how the pair’s fame becomes widespread and how, among the ensuing razzamatazz, they wow their audiences. At one point Walt’s evil Uncle Slim unexpectedly surfaces, looking for a payoff, but is outwitted by his nephew. At the peak of his vaudevillian career, however, when the sky seems the limit, Walt’s puberty ends his levitational aspirations. In the last part of the book we are told how Walt lives out the remainder of his life against a 20th-century canvas, stretching from the Kansas farmhouse to the Californian desert to the Chicago Mob. We get a stunning array of details in a life that is at once amazing and mundane. Rich in metaphorical possibility, the polychromatic Mr. Vertigo is nothing if not ambitious, and such a book is easy to root for but not easy to evaluate. The book’s ambition makes you want Auster to pull it off without a flaw, to walk on air himself, and that’s a lot to ask.

As people talk in the novel, you are struck by the self-aware artifice in the writing – at times Auster’s characters speak in stilted, loaded language, laden with "bet your boots", "shave your tonsils" and "till the end of time". Some of Walt’s remarks just sound a bit precocious, not to say contrived. Which 9-year-old semi-illiterate street urchin would cover up his ignorance of the meaning of the word "rabbi" by coming up with the, no doubt clever, pun: "And what’s that, some lesser form of rodent?" It takes longer than it should for you to accept the dialogical flights of fancy, but when you do, you’re into it – the rhythm, the staccato-legato alternation of Auster’s too-good-to-be-true conversations. A few times the book veers into the silly, but it’s genuine Auster all right; once you’ve boarded his bus, you’ll get where you’re going, flat tires and all.

True, Auster in Mr. Vertigo departs from the cerebral fiction one has come to expect from him. Chance, coincidence and destiny are much less prominent than in Moon Palace or Leviathan, the language may not be as overpowering as in The Country of Last Things and the Kafkaesque quality of The New York Trilogy may be largely missing, but that would be nit-picking. The only real weakness of Mr. Vertigo might be the fact – but that’s for the individual reader to decide – that Auster, after the first three quarters of the novel, runs out of creative steam, as it were. The concluding two chapters of the book telescope Walt’s remaining life – a period of 60 years – into some kind of an appendix.

Yet all this doesn’t keep this exuberant novel from scoring on multiple planes; good storytelling coexists with insight and lots of color. What makes this story of an American life worthwhile for the largest number of readers is that Auster has completed a creative exercise that hews as closely in spirit as recent fiction can to the truly picaresque. Or, to quote the Boston Globe: "Auster in Mr. Vertigo achieves a kind of sublime craziness which is both entertaining and arresting. Nobody – nobody – has produced a better parable about the condition of the national consciousness at the century’s end."

                                                               Jason Aycock (adapted by W.E.P.)



{I. VOCABULARY (A): What’s the English? [This section has got NOTHING to do with the text above!] 20 x ½ = 10p

1) Glanzzeit, Blütezeit, Höhepunkt; 2) düster, dunkel, ernst; 3) Ärger, Groll; 4) Nachschlag (beim Essen); 5) Ausdauer, Beharrlichkeit, Durchhaltevermögen; 6) verraten; 7) Großhandel; 8) verwüsten, verheeren (NOT "to destroy"); 9) geloben; 10) zur Strecke bringen; 11) übersät mit; 12) Nutzlast; 13) (politische) Säuberung; 14) Heuchelei; 15) ablegen, abwerfen, ausrangieren; 16) Schwerkraft; 17) die Hinterbliebenen; 18) heiser; 19) unauslöschlich; 20) Auswirkung(en), Nachspiel, Erschütterung;

BONUS a) schmollen, eingeschnappt sein; b) schwanken, taumeln, torkeln;}

{I. VOCABULARY (B): What’s the English? [This section has got NOTHING to do with the text above!]20 x ½ = 10p

1) Türriegel; 2) Börse (Wallstreet, shares etc.); 3) innewohnend; 4) sich blähen; 5) Einzelhandel; 6) Teilnahmeschein (z.B. an einem Wettbewerb); 7) Widrigkeit; 8) Gelöbnis; 9) genau, pingelig; 10) sparsam; 11) Aufständischer, Rebell (NOT "rebel"); 12) Heuchler; 13) gerissen, raffiniert; 14) widersprüchlich; 15) Gedränge, Andrang, Gewühl (NOT "crowd"); 16) Faden; 17) wanken, schwanken, (auch) stolpern; 18) übersät mit; 19) verräterisch, (auch) heimtückisch; 20) Notlüge;

BONUS a) Schraubstock; b) verwirrt, bestürzt, außer sich;}

II. QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT: Use your own words as far as is appropriate. All quotations must bemarked as such.

1) In Jason Aycock’s review of Mr. Vertigo Paul Auster’s novel receives high praise, but it (= the novel) ((or he = Auster)) also comes in for some criticism. Summarize those points Jayson Aycock finds fault with.     →20p

2) What is it that makes Mr. Vertigo - according to Jason Aycock – such an American book? Please, keep exclusively to the information you can glean (= get/obtain) from Jason Aycock‘s review. (Any information beyond this text will not count.) →20p

3) Do you think that the synopsis Jason Aycock gives of the plot of Mr. Vertigo does justice to Paul Auster’s novel? In other words, do you think Jason Aycock’s summary of the book is a fair representation of what actually happens in the novel? Are there any incidents and/or persons that are given too much prominence or that are altogether missing? Write about 4 – 5 sentences. .   → 10p

4) Pick TWO different stylistic devices that the text contains (from the subheading "PLENTY OF …" to the end of the text). Give their correct technical terms, show how they work and what effect is created by them.    →10p

III. ESSAY/COMMENT: Write about 150 – 200 words on ONE of the following topics. Please, count you words at the end. 220 words are the absolute maximum! Anyone writing more than 220 words this time will have points deducted. This time I mean it!     40p

1) Comment on one of the following excerpts taken from various American reviews of Mr. Vertigo:

a) "Mr. Vertigo" is a thrilling flight of fancy that never abandons the world. A magical pertinent book, it gives us a bird’s-eye

view of the strange, violent, paradoxical century behind us." (Los Angeles Times)

b) "A rollicking tale of greed and redemption ... Auster has created a character who will remain aloft in readers’ memories."(People)

c) "An exuberant novel of ideas .... strange and masterful ..... Walt Rawley may well be Auster’s finest creation …. his is a shrewd,

larger-than-life American voice in the tradition of Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield." (Harper’s Bazaar)

d) "The language crackles, the plot jumps, and the characters astonish in this tale of magic and loss, loneliness and exaltation." (Entertainment Weekly)

e) "Auster soars on the wings of a metaphor with a tale that’s light and engaging – as well as fraught with meaning."(Boston Phoenix)

f) "Beautiful writing does soar, and at his best, Auster makes it look easy." (Chicago Tribune)

2a) Bearing in mind the definition of "picaresque" that we dealt with in class and the definition of this literary term that you find in ALD/DCE plus the definition given by the Random House Dictionary [see below], would you call Mr. Vertigo a picaresque novel?

or: b) Comment on any other picaresque novel written in English, with particular reference to that novel’s picaresque quality.

3) Comment on Paul Auster’s short story Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story.

4) What role do chance and coincidence play in our lives, if any?

5) Reading, a source of pleasure to some, of boredom to others. What role, if any, does reading play in your life? Please, be honest!

6) "Books are for intellectuals – films are for the rest of us." Discuss [LK Abitur 1997]

7) The concept of the American Dream has often been dealt with in literature. Choose one work by an English-speaking author and show how this topic is treated. [IMPORTANT: You cannot take Mr. Vertigo as an example of the American dream!] [LK Abitur 1999]

IV. BONUS: Explain the pun in line 30. This is a bit tricky, so don’t waste any time on it!


___________________________________THE BOTTOM LINE ____________________________________

                                                                       compiled by W.E.P. Test Services