“You would like to know who you are,” novelist Paul Auster remarks about mid-way through his latest memoir, Winter Journal, which might seem like a quaint thing to say when you’re nearly 65 years old. But Auster is here to tell us exactly what he has been through and Winter Journal feels like a private rumination of the nature of one’s self – even feeling diary-like, perhaps, in the process – than anything resembling a full-on authoritative memoir meant for public consumption.
First, it is chronologically all over the map: probably due to the fact that tracts of Auster’s life have already been recounted in other non-fiction works that I recall reading (The Red Notebook, Hand to Mouth, The Invention of Solitude) but strangely, and possibly through no fault of the author, have a hard time remembering. (I read a lot, so I suppose there are certain narratives that will invariably just fall through the cracks of memory.) Second, the entire book is written in the second person singular, which is a bit of a dicey move. Writing to “you” instead of about “I” has, on the surface, the paradoxical tendency to push away the reader and distance oneself from the relation of the author, making the text seem esoteric and impenetrable. However, Auster does the move some justice in his more than capable hands, making the “you” seem more universal and a shared experience. In fact, you barely notice the decision to write as though he is talking to “you” after awhile at all.
Which brings us to the third point that makes this a different autobiographical narrative: Auster is here to remind us that he is now 65 years old, a senior citizen, in 2012. (Though it should be said that Winter Journal was written in the winter of 2011, when he was only on the cusp of turning that milestone year.) It’s a hard thing to reconcile, Auster as an aging or old man. He came to success in writing pretty much when he was on middle-age’s doorstep, and the image of the youthful but sage cigar-toting and hard drinking author is the mental image that formulates in one’s mind of Auster. Acknowledging that the author’s days may be numbered, gradually, is a hard concept to really accept: that there will be a finite-ness to Auster’s writing, that one day one of America’s finest stylists will no longer be here. The day we lose Auster may just be a day that the Western world loses a part of itself.
However, Winter Journal isn’t a funeral dirge on the fact that death is looming larger and larger for Auster – though death, particularly the deah of Auster’s mother in 2002, does play a large part in the narrative construction. This is more of a catalogue of the body’s failings, at least in the first part of the book, marking the passage of time, something that someone approaching even middle-age can certainly appreciate. But it’s also a book about the pleasures of the body – the sexual encounters Auster has had with girlfriends and with his wives, though this is handled pretty tastefully and largely leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination, save for those passages where he recounts some very heavy public petting and kissing on planes with young women he met as a youth while travelling.
It’s also a book that plays fast and loose with the nature of time: telling us what happened perhaps a few years ago, and then zipping backwards to his days as a young child. If there’s any major takeaway from Winter Journal, it’s that Auster has probably already died about eight times – he perilously came close to severely injuring, and quite possibly killing, himself while roughhousing in a department store as a young lad, and, as a 14-year-old, stood beside a peer outdoors during a storm who was summarily electrocuted by a jagged lightning bolt. The book also details the 2002 automobile accident that nearly claimed his life and those of his immediate family. If you didn’t think that Auster was already as cool as a cat, you’ll certainly think after reading this that he has the luck of one.
In all, though, Winter Journal is a hard book to write about – not because it’s impenetrable, but because it’s so striking human and honest that you just want to force the physical product into someone’s hands to read and experience the exquisite and almost poetic way that Auster conveys the seemingly mundane and everyday into something extraordinary for themselves. (“The inventory of your scars,” Auster writes early on, “[y]ou seldom think about them, but whenever you do, you understand that they are marks of life, that the assorted jagged lines etched into the skin of your face are letters from the secret alphabet that tells the story of who you are … .” And then he proceeds to trace each and every tear and scrape, and how their backstories shaped the author into who he is, showing an impressive command of memory in the process.)
Auster has a way of jumping all over the place and making seemingly random events appear interconnected somehow, and can go from talking about every single thing that he has done to injure himself to a catalogue of all 20 or so houses in which the author has lived during the course of his life without skipping a beat. Auster also thrillingly uses incidents, such as the 2002 car accident, as connective tissue to be returned to frequently throughout the course of the narrative, as though some things are memories – pleasant or otherwise – in need of either savouring or reflecting on over and over again.
If there is a flaw with Winter Journal, it’s in that it is almost too much like, well, a journal – there are certain events brought up here that will probably only be of major import or concern to the author himself, and laborious to other people. Have you ever sat through a multiple hours-long presentation of some other couple’s wedding photos or video taken throughout the course of the entire day and the full ceremony? If so, prepare yourself for a rather lengthy mid-section of the book where Auster similarly goes into excruciating personal and ceremonial detail into all of the apartments and houses he has lived in throughout the course of his then 64 years. (Again, there are more than 20.) While he does it with such detail and care – remembering characteristics of each and every abode he has passed through with such clarity you have to wonder if he was taking notes for this very autobiography from a very young age – this is the sort of thing that only governments looking to hire people would be interested in, in vetting the address histories of would-be employees to see if the candidate is appropriate for work at a certain secret clearance level.
Elsewhere in this book, Auster also notes all of his favourite childhood candies (he had quite the sweet tooth) and every childhood dinner that he enjoyed in order of preference. There’s also about a ten-page plot summary of the 1950 film noir D.O.A. in the middle of all this, too, that seems rather pointless, or makes a rather underwhelming point about what a person might really do if they knew they were about to die. It’s enough to make you wonder is Auster would be boring in person, because he spends good chunks of Winter Journal wading through stuff that not very many people will care about, other than himself.
That might make Winter Journal sound like a rather selfish book, and that assessment wouldn’t be exactly incorrect. It’s a book meant to exorcise personal demons – almost apologizing for scrapes or fights that he has nearly gotten into, for instance – relentlessly detailing a phone call from a family member that annoyed him greatly following his mother’s death. It’s hard to say if anyone who is a subject of Auster’s fixations will read the book and feel any sort of emotion the author is hoping to trigger. Assuming, of course, that the subject is still alive.
Basically, Winter Journal is a very hard book to peg in Auster’s catalogue. It neatly fills in some of the gaps of his other autobiographical works but, to tie in everything together, you get the sense that Auster might need an authorized biographer to do just that. Winter Journal is a meandering, plotless memoir about the ordinariness of life. Nevertheless, it’s a commanding read, even if there are some rather pretentious moves and in-roads taken. To put another way, you – there’s the second person singular again – might find yourself immersed in this book while reading, but once you put it away, might find yourself, as you might have with other Auster autobiographies, struggling to recall any bits or parts of it that really stuck with you and will carry forward as you travel towards your winter years yourself. That might not really be a flaw of the author. Maybe he just has a life that is as ordinary as anybody else’s to draw upon as grist, and his own story isn’t quite as powerful as some of the novels that he has written – making most of those memories fall through the cracks of your own.