Friday, 30 October 2009

Walt and Sir Walter, Paul Auster and Paul Benjamin: absorbing an invisible brother

That’s how Paul Auster was taken by the study of the figure of Sir Walter Raleigh, the British poet and adventurer that had charmed Queen Elisabeth and introduced – as people say – tobacco in England. His aim was to embody all the properties of Sir Walter into his person and he did so, by encasing the narratives for Sir Walter into his stories.

“Sir Walter Raleigh was the most perfect man who ever lived ”

says Aesop, in Paul Auster’s novel “Vertigo”. Aesop, a little boy from Ethiopia, tells stories to Walter Rawley who is a nine year old boy, whose name is homophonic to that of the English noble man. In “Vertigo”, little Walt, taught by the mysterious teacher Master Yechudi, will practice the art of flying and will violate the laws of nature. This violation will be the result of a painful apprenticeship and a moulding of little Walt in Master Yechudi’s hands. This reshaping takes place from nothing, or in better words from the rough prima materia of his previous existence. This looks like the making of Pinocchio by the hands of Master Gepetto. The analogy of this book with the story of Pinocchio is stressed by Paul Auster himself in an interview for the Greek National Television (1). Little Walt corresponds to Pinochio, Master Yehuddi to Master Gepetto and Mrs Whitherspoon to the Blue Fairy.

While Master Yechudi was modeling his body, Aesop, the little Ethiopian boy, was moulding his character towards perfection.
According to Aesop, Sir Walter Raleigh had been

“The best poet of his day; he was a scholar, a scientist, and a free thinker; he
was the number one lover of women in all of England”
The above, are the qualities of the most perfect man, the model character.

Little Walter, listened to the sweet voice of Aesop, taking a rest from the strenuous exercises he was being submitted, to master the ability to fly. Aesop’s voice unfolded the hundreds of stories that the boy had in his mind. Thus, Walt learned about Sinbad the Sailor, Jack the Giant Killer, Wandering Ulysses, Billy the Kid, Paul Bunyan, Lancelot and King Arthur. Most of all, he was captivated by the figure of the 16th century hero that had the same name as himself. Aesop, to prove that he wasn’t making it up, had shown him his picture:
Showing the picture of Sir Walter to Walt triggers a strange process of character moulding. Ever since, little Walt begins absorbing the image of Sir Walter. By observing it, he starts embodying all its properties, as if carrying an invisible brother inside him.
In his own words:

“I remember how shocked I was when he told me I had a famous name, the name of a real-life adventurer and hero. To prove that he wasn’t making it up, Aesop went
to the bookshelf and pulled down a thick volume with Sir Walter’s picture in it.
I had never seen more elegant face, and I soon fell into the habit of studying
it for ten or fifteen minutes every day. I loved the pointy beard and razor
sharp eyes, the pearl earring fixed in his left lobe. It was the face of a
pirate, a genuine shashbuckling knight, and from that day forth, I carried Sir
Walter inside me as a second self, an invisible brother to stand with me through
thick and thin.”

The story of Sir Walter Raleigh is repeated in Paul Auster’s movie “Smoke”. In “Smoke”, Paul Benjamin - a writer - is a regular in Auggie Wren’s tobacco shop and both enjoy each other’s company.
Paul Benjamin’s name and surname come from Paul Auster’s name and middle name (Paul Benjamin Auster is the writer’s full name).
The story of Sir Walter Raleigh is recounted by Paul Benjamin: In this case, instead of Walt Rawley, it is Paul Benjamin - the writer’s alter ego – that feels the admitation towards Sir Walter Raleigh. Paul Benjamin says that Sir Walter has been the one who called Queen Elisabeth I “Bessie”. He would bet that the Queen had definitely smoked a couple of cigars with him in the royal court. A patron of the tobacco shop breaks in the conversation and mentions the incident with the cloak: It was Sir Walter’s cloak that he himself had laid on the ground, over a pothole full of mud, in a chivalrous gesture, to protect the Queen from soiling her dress.

The scene with the cloak and the puddle is shown in the movie “Elisabeth, the Golden Age” where we witness the strange attraction that Sir Walter (Clive Owen) exerted on the Queen, as well as his secret marriage with her Lady of Honour, who – incidentally - had the same name as the queen: Bessie. What a coincidence with the names this is! Or rather a merging of identities?

Walt – Walter
Paul Benjamin – Paul Benjamin Auster
Elisabeth – “Bessie”

Nevertheless, it is not only the chivalrous behaviour of Sir Walter Raleigh that touches Paul Benjamin (Auster). It is his scientific curiosity and his effort to weigh the smoke – “It is as if you want to weigh the human soul” – he and Augy Wren, the owner of the tobacco shop, remark.

With a metaphysical boldness, Sir Walter attempts to weigh a cigar before and after smoking it, so that by subtracting the weight of the ashes from the initial weight of the cigar, he might measure the weight of this delicate substance, responsible for the “sober” exhilaration, “the liberation from all thoughts” as Alvaro de Campos(*) recounts in the Tobacco Shop (La Tabaccaria).

The relation between Fernando Pessoa and Paul Auster will be the subject of another post. For the moment, our thoughts are solely with Sir Walter Raleigh, the adventurer, the explorer, the founder of the colony of Virginia, the favourite man of Queen Elisabeth, imprisoned for so many years in the Tower of London, the man who spoke so bravely to the executioner. (2)

They say that in one of his expeditions to the mythical city of Eldorado, he had gotten lost, or he had lost the map of the colony of Roanake. This loss cost him his freedom again. In fact, he had been released from the Tower of London in order to take part in this expedition. Captain John Smith from Willoughby had also been involved in that expedition. Captain John Smith was the one with whom Pocahontas, the daughter of the Algonquin chief, in the area that was to become the colony of Virginia.

“Aesop recounted the story of the cloak and the puddle, the search for Eldorado,
the lost colony at Roanoke, the thirteen years in the Tower of London, the brave
words he uttered at his beheading. He was the best poet of his day; He was a
scholar, a scientist, a free thinker, he was the number one lover od women in
all of England. “Think of you and me put together”, Aesop said, and you begin to
have an idea of who he was. A man with my brains and your guts, and tall
and handsome as well – that’s Sir Walter Raleigh, the most perfect man who ever

The workshop of encasing makes a synthesis of all narrations, takes a little bit of you, a little bit of me, and creates a unique perrsona: Paul Benjamin Auster, the tall and handsome adventurer, the writer.

(*) Alvaro de Campos is one of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms.


(2) He was decapitated despite having a high temperature. Since he was quivering from his fever they say that he told the executioner: “Let us start. I do not want people to believe that I am trembling from fear” He was allowed to see the cutting edge of the axe. He said: “This is indeed a strong medicine. It is sharp but efficient”

Κεραίες της εποχής μας - Paul Auster.

(2) He was decapitated despite having a high temperature. Since he was quivering from his fever they say that he told the executioner: “Let us start. I do not want people to believe that I am trembling from fear” He was allowed to see the cutting edge of the axe. He said: “This is indeed a strong medicine. It is sharp but efficient”

Sources :

Posted by Poly Hatjimanolaki, Athens, Greece


  1. what an amazing literature blog! i had fun reading this till the end even though it took me a while. but its a great way to pass your time on a sunday morning. lots of love

  2. Hmmm... Good literature piece to be read in free time when you have nothing to do only.At start it seems interesting but at few points it started to bore you. But never mind reading is my habit.