Paul Auster (2012) Winter Journal Henry Holt & Co., New York; 240 pp.; ISBN 978-0-8050-9553-1
This is a memoir presented in the way we often remember things – fragments out of sequence, some specific and very detailed events that we regard as significant, lists of things, memories of people and ghosts of others. He is writing in a cold harsh winter in New York, and as he says at 64, in the winter of his life. The recollections are written in the second person, an unusual style in literature, but I’m surprised that more memoirs are not written this way, for in the storytelling in our heads we often talk to ourselves that way: ‘now where on earth did you put that?’; ‘you should go over and say hello’; or my regular, ‘you idiot’.
If there is a theme in this book, it is the way we experience the world through our bodies, though ironically through bodies that we can never fully see in the way that other people can. We feel like an integrated physical being, but we can only ever look at bits of ourselves, even in the mirror or a photograph. Three dimensional holograms will be extraordinary for more than just the technology.
Auster recalls the physicality of childhood, the hugs and body contact, the bumps and bruises, scars whose causes are both vividly remembered and long forgotten. There are the teenage years of raging hormones and sexual discovery, and early manhood where trying to make sense of relationships often ends in failure and the occasional unwanted infection. There is a confident middle age, but now he feels he is getting old and his body is no longer capable of doing everything it once could, and it is showing signs of wear and tear. He has acquired habits that are not good for his health but he is now too old to change his ways – the vice is just too nice.
Food is one of the corporal pleasures and he remembers childhood meals and treats, listing all his favourite things, many now abandoned unless tempted in the boredom of an airport lounge. If you want to know why Americans are the unhealthiest people in the rich world, there are plenty of clues here. In contrast, Christmas dinners with his wife’s family are a simple affair and the menu has never varied over the years. The meals tie the family closer even as the years change the characters and separate them geographically.
He is a lover, not a fighter. He has been fascinated by girls from boyhood and is lonely and adrift without women in his life. Sleeping alone he feels bereft and one of the great pleasures of his life, both emotional and physical, has been the constant companionship of his current wife, to whom he has been married for over thirty years. It was love at first meeting and they share much in common. He muses that she is a better version of himself. Throughout his life it has never been the physical attraction of women that arouses him, though he says his wife is beautiful (always wise to insure yourself in print). Rather, it is the ‘inner spark’ of a woman that beguiles him, something about her character and intellect, the very thing that he sensed when he and his future wife met after a literary seminar, or that surprised him when Sandra, a Parisian prostitute, recited long passages of Baudelaire.
One of his favourite ways to engage his body with the world is walking. He walks regularly in his native New York and in cities around the world as he travels. He is out in all sorts of weather, his body exposed to extremes of temperature, to the wind and sun, icy air and brewing storms. He says that walking is integral to his ability to write, an observation that many writers have made, but in the end he has very little to say about this linkage.
At a few points in the book he pauses to tell us that he is writing, as winter howls or closes in silently outside. Going over the events of his life he is always scribbling in the background, increasingly making it a daily routine, and after marriage it is in parallel to his wife’s literary work. But how do the often mundane events of his life lead to this feverish obsession with getting words down on paper? There is no clue whatsoever. We get the dull and diurnal, but no idea how they transubstantiate into the occasionally sublime.
At one period in his life he is feeling very low and his ability to write seems to have deserted him. He goes to watch a rehearsal by a group of eight dancers. They rehearse without music and each of their pieces is interspersed with the choreographer explaining what she is trying to do. The explanations confuse and bore him, but each time the dancers move he is spellbound. There is something about their movements that inspires him, gives him a sense of freedom and possibility. It is a turning point in his life, after which he is able to return to productive writing. But what was it about those dancers and their movements that lit the spark? As happens too often in this memoir, words fail him. He describes the incident in a matter-of-fact way, says it changed his life, then slips into the next memory. The reader is left bewildered in the wings.
There are deaths, of family and friends, increasing in number as he gets older. He confesses that he cries more often at films and novels than he does at the deaths of other people. Age makes him more conscious of his own mortality, but he senses that it also makes him more accepting. For many years he suffered panic attacks, fearsome and terrifying, so unlike the calm he sees in those sliding into death. Perhaps death is most feared when we realise that we have not really lived.
Paul Auster writes well, but for me too much of this latest memoir reads like short entries in a diary, dot points for some future exposition. His life is often dreary – that is true for all of us – but he very rarely explores why some memories remain important to him. It's an odd shortcoming in a writer. When he attempts an explanation, his interpretive skills are insufficient and we can only wonder what he was trying to convey. His account of why he gave up driving is the only point in the book where I felt he was revealing a truth about his character, but otherwise self-reflection is in short supply. Perhaps a future biographer will turn this material into something far more telling.