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“I once knew a bum who spoke like a Shakespearean actor, a battered, middle-aged alcoholic with scabs on his face and rags for clothes, who slept on the street and begged money from me constantly. Yet he had once been the owner of an art gallery on Madison Avenue.

Think of what happens. Think of how lives burst apart. Goffe and Whalley, for example, two of the judges who condemned Charles I to death, came to Connecticut after the Restoration, and spent the rest of their lives in a cave. Or Mrs. Winchester, the widow of the rifle manufacturer, who feared that the ghosts of the people killed by her husband’s rifles were coming to take her soul – and therefore continually added rooms onto her house, creating a monstrous labyrinth of corridors and hideouts, so that she could sleep in a different room every night and thereby elude the ghosts, the irony being that during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 she was trapped in one of those rooms and nearly starved to death because she couldn’t be found by her servants. There is also M.M. Bakhtin, the Russian critic and literary philosopher. During the German invasion of Russia in World War II, he smoked the only copy of one of his manuscripts, a book-length study of German fiction that had taken him years to write. One by one, he took the pages of his manuscript and used the paper to roll his cigarettes, each day smoking a little more of the book until it was gone. These are true stories. They are also parables, perhaps, but they mean what they mean only because they are true.

In a book I once read by Peter Freuchen, the famous Arctic explorer describes being trapped by a blizzard in northern Greenland. Alone, his supplies dwindling, he decided to build an igloo and wait out the storm. Many days passed. Afraid, above all, that he would be attacked by wolves – for he heard them prowling hungrily on the roof of his igloo – he would periodically step outside and sing at the top of his lungs in order to frighten them away. But the wind was blowing fiercely, and no matter how hard he sang, the only thing he could hear was the wind. If this was a serious problem, however, the problem of the igloo itself was much greater. For Freuchen began to notice that the walls of his little shelter were gradually closing in on him. Because of the particular weather conditions outside, his breath was literally freezing to the walls, and with each breath the walls became that much thicker, the igloo became that much smaller, until eventually there was almost no room left for his body. It is surely a frightening thing, to imagine breathing yourself into a coffin of ice, and to my mind considerably more compelling than, say, The Pit and the Pendulum by Poe. For in this case it is the man himself who is the agent of his own destruction, and further, the instrument of that destruction is the very thing he needs to keep himself alive. For surely a man cannot live if he does not breathe. But at the same time, he will not live if he does breathe.”


Excerpted from “The Locked Room” by Paul Auster, which you’ll find in his New York Trilogy. You can also read it in his Collected Prose, a volume that offers most of his best work, including his endlessly thought-provoking series “True Stories”.

Incredibly, each of these anecdotes is true. Goffe and Whalley really did flee from Parliament, eventually settling in a cave in Connecticut (fittingly christened “Judges Cave”). Sarah Winchester, the widow of rifleman William, really did build a seven-story “Mystery House” in San Jose, California, fitted with trap doors, fake staircases, and mirrored interior windows. Bakhtin actually smoked one of his manuscripts after his publishing house was bombed in the German invasion of Russia (the remnants of that, an analysis of Goethe, are called “The Bildungsroman and Its Significance in the History of Realism”). And Freuchen, pictured above with his wife, really did nearly freeze himself into his own igloo while returning from an expedition to study the inuits.

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