[6 January 2014]
PopMatters Music Editor - Canada
New York author Paul Auster is on a bit of a memoir kick lately. In 2012, Auster put out Winter Journal, which was a look back on his life in consideration of the fact that he was now entering his mid-60s, making him a senior citizen. Winter Journal, for the most part, was an autobiography about the inflicted aches and pains that he had committed on himself during his life.
He has now followed up that book with another memoir, Report from the Interior, which is a sort of prequel to Winter Journal. Report from the Interior is arguably much more concerned with memory than its predecessor, and this one is about Auster’s childhood and life as a young man. It’s a much more focused book than Winter Journal, and is much more engaging as a straight biography, but both tomes do share indulgences and flaws.
Report from the Interior is broken up into four distinct parts. The first is a straight read of Auster’s life as a young boy growing up in New Jersey. The second is about two films – The Incredible Shrinking Man and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang – that were important in shaping the author’s sense of injustice in the world. The third is a selection of love letters written to Auster’s first wife, Lydia Davis, between the time the author was 19 to 22 years old (covering the period from 1966 to 1969). The fourth, and shortest, is a photo album of images that directly correspond to the first three sections, and which is a nice cap and reminder of what had come before.
The best part of the Report from the Interior is the first section, for it is here that Auster brings his young self to light, which is no easy task. I’m 38 years old, and I have trouble remembering what I did when I was five. So it’s surprising that Auster’s pen is so sharp and revealing, and that he is able to grapple with issues such as discovering the disappointing gap between fantasy and reality – he recalls in vivid detail learning that Felix the Cat was just an invented character and there wasn’t a cartoon otherworld where such a character could exist.
It turns out that Auster’s childhood was fairly ordinary, but that doesn’t make it any less engaging. We learn about the books the writer read and was enchanted by, the problems, such as a bedwetting issues, the author had, and brushes with fame from a young age. (Auster thinks that he met baseball star Whitey Ford as a youth, but to this day, isn’t entirely sure if the man he shook hands with was an impostor or not.) Overall, this section of Report from the Interior, which is written in the same second person voice as the bulk of Winter Journal, is unduly compulsively readable, and does a great deal to paint the author as a person who had an interesting and eventful upbringing even in its sense of ordinariness, and how this may have shaped his work as an adult.
The third section of the book, however, is the most enlightening as well as frustrating. In the series of love letters that Auster wrote, we come to realize that, as a young man, he was quite arrogant and foolhardy, which even the author himself admits: upon a section where Auster is living in Paris, had dropped out of school at Columbia University, and believed that he was on a quest to make films for a living, the author is incredulous in disbelief at how gullible he was. Talking to himself, Auster says, “What astounds you now is how deluded you were in thinking you could mount a (film) production, how ignorant you were about the ways of filmmaking, how ridiculously naïve and foolishly optimistic you were about the whole business. You knew nothing, absolutely nothing, and unless you had been endowed with a small private fortune to squander on the project, the chances of such a film being made by a 20-year-old boy were zero, absolutely zero.”
Some of the material published in this section, as well, is quite pretentious, and shows that Auster had a lot to learn about being a human being before he would become a writer of quality. Some of these letters are fragmentary, and some of them, in a rather precious way, are written in French, which just underscores how unlikable, aloof and pompous Auster was at this age. It’s a hard section to read, as a result, but it offers fascinating insights for Auster’s scholars and fans about the author receiving some very hard life lessons and growing up with the turmoil of the late ‘60s as a backdrop.
However, Report from the Interior is a failure with its second section about those two aforementioned films. Just as he did in Winter Journal, where Auster recounted the plot of noir film D.O.A., the author goes off on a long tangent about each movie, which is pretty much limited to encapsulating the plot points of both, without offering much commentary or insight into how each one actually shaped him as a man. Auster would have probably been much better served by including a DVD or Blu-ray of the films in question with the book.
Essentially, all that Auster does in the “Two Blows to the Head” section, which is roughly 70 pages long, is ruin the experience of seeing two classic films – he plays spoiler. Clearly, Auster loves to talk about the cinema, but an editor really needs to pull him aside and tell him that strictly spending dozens of pages writing about the plots of movies isn’t exactly a startling way to engage an audience. It’s boring. And it ruins the experience of seeing a particular film for the first time.
Finally, the fourth section is interesting because it solely contains pictures or illustrations and caption text, and recounts the events of the first three sections. Some of this material is fascinating in its own right – there are posters for election campaigns and those about avoiding polio, as well as photos from race riots and sit-ins (Auster was arrested in one of the latter) – and it’s easy to linger or dwell over much of it. The only quibble is that this section is much too short, probably owing to licensing issues, and it actually uses stills from the films that Auster talked about earlier, and some of those images could have been debatably pruned down to a much shorter length. Still, this section is a nice reminder of what became before, especially if you read this book over a long period and forget what has happened during the first sections of the memoir in your reading.
Overall, Report from the Interior is a little less self-important than Winter Journal, the latter of which contained a rather lengthy and preposterous section about all – and I mean all – of the household homes where Auster lived during the course of his life. While Report from the Interior does have its share of excesses, they seem lesser and perhaps weakened owing to the age that Auster is revealing about himself here.
Essentially, Report from the Interior works as a companion volume to Winter Journal, and both books make for probing reading back-to-back about Paul Auster’s life and insights. It could be argued that material could have been cut from both works, and this stuff might have worked better as a streamlined, in-chronological-order narrative that didn’t fold in and around itself as both books do, but Report from the Interior and Winter Journal are nearly essential works to have in Auster’s autobiographical oeuvre in spite of their flaws. While novices to his writing might gain something from these books, they are likely best enjoyed by those studying the author’s fictional work in detail.