WINTER JOURNAL by Paul Auster
240 pp, $26.00
Henry Holt and Company
“Some memories are so strange to you, so unlikely, so outside the realm of the plausible, that you find it difficult to reconcile them with the fact that you are the person who experienced the event you are remembering.”
So: You are an accomplished novelist, poet, translator and essayist with a dedicated following. You have seen your own work translated into several languages and transferred onto film, sometimes with your own screenwriting. You hold a high place in the contemporary US literary pantheon, with the unusual distinction that your first published work of prose was in fact a memoir.
That said, you have returned to memoir for your latest work. You called it ‘Winter Journal’, and for some confounding reason, you chose to write the entire book in an affected second-person narrative voice, in both present and past tense.
Confounding because, while such a voice can be used to foster a certain intimacy with the reader, the opposite is often the case here. We should not expect Mr. Auster to climb atop a nearby barstool anytime soon to chew the fat, and if he did, there would follow a seeming endless bombardment of facts – hard and soft – via skillfully crafted vignettes of family, friends, lovers and buildings gone by, that often serve to illustrate many of the themes struck in past work. Threaded through it all is the truly wrenching story of his mother’s life and death. And yet, by his own admission, the author was caught short in his emotional response on the very occasion of her passing, a la Camus’ etranger, until the onset of a life-changing panic attack.
There are many tales retold in ‘Winter Journal’ – 64 years’ worth. And while some – like the author’s famous and harrowing account of a near-fatal car crash – are exquisitely layered with detail and emotion, others leave the reader asking for more. For instance, his tenure as a hand on an Esso oil tanker receives two mentions, one which ties into a recurring theme of Jewish heritage. But a single long paragraph on family origins and the depiction of a confrontation over an anti-Semitic remark on said tanker are delivered dispassionately. And a grim section about a trip to the former site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp is haunting – but from the sheer weight of history, not from any emotional resonance.
Another story – about a trip to a ‘brothel’ as a 15 year old virgin – has a hilarious matter-of-fact delivery, but where is the contemporary outrage or even irony over such a social contract? Also disturbing are 2 sentences on various elementary schoolmates’ handicaps, presented without context or compassion.
Lists abound, of past residences - 21 ‘permanent’ addresses in all (author’s quotes) - and their attendant plumbing dysfunctions; scars accumulated; 50’s comfort foods; childhood games and girlfriends’ names. If list making is an essentially male province, then Mr. Auster is indeed a man’s man in this realm. Some, like the nostalgic 50’s collections, will ring true with certain readers, leaving many to ponder the allure of Wheat Puffs and Johnny-on-the-Pony. Others – like the long list of home repairs for one apartment house– are downright mundane.
And for all that, Mr. Auster’s depictions of late 20th century New York, Paris and the French countryside are bittersweet valentines that belong in a stack of cards posted before him by Hemingway, Roth, Zola and the like. They are also pointillist snapshots of sweeping socio-economic change over the time span covered, taken with a novelist’s eye. One particular account of a conflict with a prototypically arch Paris neighbor closes a loop on the origins of both the author and his antagonist deftly and with some rare (if calculated) compassion:
“The conversation was going nowhere, neither one of you would budge, you were building a wall of permanent animosity between you, and when you imagined how bitter the future would be if you kept going at each other in this way, you decided to pull out your trump card, to turn the dispute around and steer it in an entirely different direction. How sad it is, you said, how terribly sad and pathetic that two Jews should be fighting like this…”
Ultimately, ‘Winter Journal’ is an extension of the themes that populate Mr. Auster’s overall body of work. His readers will recognize his interest in the nature of memory and the self-contradictions inherent to selectivity. Is there such a thing as coincidence with an unreliable witness, as we all are to some extent? When is an act random, or do we frame its reporting that way to satisfy some longing or curiosity? To that end, ‘Winter Journal’ is best when the author is recording the sensation of memory, more so than providing a supposedly accurate account, and exploring, in his own words, “that rift between world and word, the chasm that divides human life from our capacity to understand or express the truth of human life”.
Then again, how is it possible to accurately present the details of a near-death experience? If familiarity helps in this arena, Mr. Auster has a leg up on most of us. He shares several stories of his own brushes with death, plus those of a few acquaintances’, with a combination of sardonic wit and breathless wonder. There is the nail driven through the cheek, the fish bone lodged in the windpipe, the coffee table glass that (almost) crushed his temple after a fall, and, of course, the aforementioned car crash. There is even a meticulous retelling of the 50’s noir classic film ‘DOA’ as an object lesson on how to stare death in the face, tough-guy style (hint: not for faint-of-heart writers prone to panic attacks).
And being a winter’s journal, the bodies inevitably start to pile up. Fascination with death is not necessarily a morbid pursuit, and as said before, this is a clear-eyed assessment of the demise of even those closest to the author. Perhaps it is this accumulation that makes ‘Winter Journal’ both exhaustive and exhausting, and perhaps why Mr. Auster borrowed the words of French writer Joseph Joubert for summation: “The end of life is bitter. One must die loveable (if one can)”.
After reading this work, it is difficult to know if he is indeed chewing on that particular chestnut, or if it is just another bone in the throat for Paul Auster.