The Book of Illusions

By Hannah Patterson


Traumatised by the death of his wife and children, David Zimmer, a Vermont professor, spends solitary hours drunkenly contemplating suicide until, channel-hopping late one night, his grief is penetrated by a scene from a two-reel silent comedy. It makes him laugh. Out loud. With his interest in life – or, at least the representation of life – renewed, he vows to watch the entire oeuvre of the film’s director and star, Hector Mann.

While Mann himself mysteriously disappeared from Hollywood in 1929, in recent years his missing films have materialised in archives round the world, resulting in Zimmer’s book of analysis.

For the devotee of elegant, probing criticism that plunges the hidden depths of a film, it is Auster’s textual analysis of these – fabricated – silent movies that seduces the reader. His grasp of the minutiae of character detail and design, of the confluence of rhythm, narrative and plot, is masterful, and almost unbearable because we cannot view them. Yet, by the time the real mystery of Mann unfolds, the story itself becomes as engrossing, capturing the enigmatic quality of the director and of Zimmer’s family, illusory now, and physically lost to him forever, its dimension knowable only in his head.

The Book of Illusions is available from Faber and Faber priced £6.99

Hannah Patterson is a film-maker and works at Wallflower Press.