Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
Paul Auster is one of the most well-known and respected names in literary fiction. In reading his memoir Winter Journal you will know why. Sure, he’s the author of a dozen best sellers, most recently Sunset Park but also The New York Trilogy, The Book of Illusions, and The Brooklyn Follies, among many others, and though the implicit Borgesian influence sometimes results in work weakened by intellectual games, Winter Journal is the most honest and precious of Auster’s writings. The memoir is never overly sentimental, but certainly nostalgic, emotional without being indulgent, and overall, moving, supremely moving. It is, to borrow one of the author’s own lines, an “insight into the metaphysics of pain and adversity.”
Auster begins with his face, describing the events from which he received all his scars. He details a horrifying car accident, explaining why he hasn’t driven in ten years. There are, as expected in such all encompassing memoirs, the first sexual experiences, first with New Jersey good girls, and then prostitutes of New York and Paris. There’s a fifty page section describing each of the twenty one places where Auster has lived, from New Jersey to upper Manhattan to Paris to Upstate New York to California and to Brooklyn, where the author has called home since 1980. He describes the Olympia typewriter he’s written on since 1974, believing it will continue to function long after he’s dead, and the experience that allowed him to break through the worst case of writer’s block of his life and embark on his “second incarnation of a writer.”
Unlike some other memoirs of successful authors, these sections are not casual listings of events or places, and Auster does not name-drop. Rather, each scene is fully fleshed-out, as is the lead-up to those scenes, and with the use of the second person throughout the book, you feel as if you are reading scenes from your own life.
Auster has been female-obsessed since kindergarten, and is generous with his descriptions of love, and the girls who he’s used “as fictive embodiments of your own desires, ignoring their problems and personal histories, failing to grasp who they were outside of our own imagination, and yet the more they eluded you, the more passionately you longed for them.” When discussing his lodgings while in graduate school, and then Paris, and a haunted house in Duchess County, he repeatedly refers to “your girlfriend” and then “your first wife,” who just happened to be Lydia Davis. They translated French poetry and had a son together. After the dissolution of the marriage, which sent Auster into one of the most confused and blocked periods of his life, the “not so young Jew from New York ” eventually met a tall, slender, sharp minded Minnesotan eight years his junior, fell in love with her, and has been married to her for thirty years and counting. “Your wife” happens to be Siri Hustvedt, author of ten books and too many essays to count.
“You would like to know who you are,” Auster writes.
With little or nothing to guide you, you take it for granted that you are the product of vast, prehistoric migrations, of conquests, rapes, and abductions, that the long and circuitous intersections of your ancestral horde have extended over many territories and kingdoms, for you are not the only person who has traveled, after all, tribes of human beings have been moving around the earth for tens of thousands of years, and who knows who begat whom begat whom begat whom begat whom begat whom to end up with your two parents begetting you in 1947?
Such a long quote is included to show the sharp wisdom with which Auster writes, and to answer the question of why writing exists at all: to know who we are.
Another long quote needs to be included here, but for a different reason. This one is to show something rarely found these days: an example of perfect writing:
Eleven years later, the death of your mother’s mother was a different story. You were grown then, the bolt of lightning that had killed your friend when you were fourteen had taught you that the world was capricious and unstable, that the future can be stolen from us at any moment, and that the sky is full of lightning bolts that can crash down and kill the young as well as the old, and always, always, the lightning strikes when we are least expecting it.
There is hardly a better example of smooth, economical, poignant prose to be found today, and certainly not one that so directly cuts to the heart of the precariousness of life.
Auster is now sixty-five and self-admittedly entered the winter of his life. But readers are blessed, for Auster’s talent and skill with words has clearly continued to grow toward perfection, and baring a freak-yet-all-too-common life-ending accident described a dozen times throughout the book, readers should be happy to have Auster among us and that he is still producing such fine literary work. If you’ve always wanted to get into Auster, but don’t know where to start, Winter Journal is the one to read. If you’re an already an Auster fan, reading Winter Journal will be a profound and intimately moving experience.
Winter Journal is also available as an audiobook from Macmillan Audio. Click here to hear Paul Auster reading from Winter Journal.
Henry Holt, August 2012