The title, ‘Winter Journal’, for American novelist Paul Auster’s recent memoir made me think of ‘Winter Journey/Winterreise’, Franz Schubert’s great monodrama of mortal resignation. But as it turned out, Auster is a hale and hearty sixty-four and ‘Winter’, metaphoric or otherwise, seems very much in abeyance in this offbeat examination of his life to date. The book serves as a sort of long-awaited sequel to ‘The Invention of Solitude’, Auster’s fine and moving memoir of his father, which kick-started his writing career back in his thirties.
‘Winter Journal’ is dilatory and circuitous in form, and unusually, written entirely in the second person―Auster addresses himself throughout―which I expected to get on my nerves, but in fact lent the telling an unusual intimacy, as though one was listening to a rambling fireside chat. I think, also, it allows Auster a certain objectivity, enabling candor and honesty. One of the strengths of this Journal is its frankness, Auster reveals all, not that he has a great many sins to confess, just the standard ones, which prompted a reader like myself, male, a similar generation to Auster, to reflect on my own similar failings and misgivings, no doubt one of the aims of the book.
The larger aim, I believe, is an attempt to establish identity. Who am I? Am I anything more than a reactive bunch of electromagnetic waves? How can I find out? The same motive for Proust, who finding himself desperately at the prey of certain obsessions, clawed back his personal self by isolating significant experiences throughout his life that, grouped together, helped tell him who he was, by what they were. Auster adopts a similar approach but focuses on the physical rather than the spiritual. He seeks to know himself through how the world has impacted on his body, and how he has responded, trusting the outer will provide clues to the inner.
The sins might be standard, but Auster has led an interesting life. This has nothing to do with him being a famous writer―all that part of his life is hardly touched on―except that time and again he has gone out and chanced his arm, in pursuit of his art, in pursuit of love, leading to all kinds of vicissitudes. The book spends much time on his relationship with his mother, probably to balance out the earlier work on the father, and his personal sketch of her, plus the brilliant thumbnail portraits of other relatives and associates prove one of the highlights.
The book is also full of lists, sexual adventures, sporting adventures; most notably there is a long section describing in sequence all the residences Auster has lived in. These potentially dull devices, in Auster’s hands, are wonderfully entertaining and revealing. He has always been a great story teller.
There are some clichés, lapses, bald patches, indulgences, much of the writing seems overly sketchy, but then often the rawness becomes a strength. All up, I found ‘Winter Journal’ invigorating and inspirational. By book’s end Auster had, along with his essential humanity, managed to convey to me something of the unique individual that he is, and by extension that we all are, and I felt a little the richer for it. And grateful too.