Book review: Winter Journal by Paul Auster

Paul Auster seems to lack interest in the lives of others. Picture: Reuters
Paul Auster seems to lack interest in the lives of others. Picture: Reuters
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THIS is a curious and unsatisfying volume, with the occasional flash of genius momentarily sparkling over a mire of solipsism. Auster’s career has been a peculiar one.

Winter Journal by Paul Auster

Faber & Faber, 230pp, £17.99

Personally, I find the New York Trilogy (City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room) both readable and cerebral, and The Music of Chance seems to deploy his fascinations with identity, contingency and memory to the best effect. Later works have veered between the profoundly self-indulgent (such as Travels in the Scriptorium, which features a host of characters from previous Auster novels: not in itself an innovation since John Barth did the same with rather more panache in LETTERS) to the slight; there are endless permutations of the same themes in Man In The Dark and Invisible.

There is more than a hint that the later novels add up to little more than the realisation Edward Hirsch has at the end of his poem “At the Grave of Wallace Stevens”: “One pictures him strolling under the umbrella / Pines and buttonwoods on the way to work, / Imagination’s largest thinker conjuring up / Songs of human radiance twanging in the mist. / One thinks of him by the lake in a hard rain: / Mirrors on mirrors mirroring the emptiness.”

Winter Journal begins promisingly, as Auster, addressing himself in the second person, catalogues the scars on his body; a meditative preamble on the sense of encroaching mortality: “you think it will never happen to you, that it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the world to whom none of these things will ever happen, and then, one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else.” This is recapitulated at the book’s close, with Auster asking, “How many mornings are left?” and asserting that “You have entered the winter of your life”. There is also a riveting and heartfelt account of an car accident Auster was involved in, which replays both the quantum instability seen often in his novels (if only, what if, perhaps and maybe) with the hard facticity of the actual. It is a compelling essay in its own right.

But as for the rest of the book, it seems a very peculiar mishmash of notes towards possible writing: in fact, in some places, it seems like the scales and arpeggios a pianist might run off as practice before embarking on a more serious piece. It is Auster simply keeping his hand in at the old turning life into words business.

Some parts are so banal as to be almost unreadable: who really cares for four pages of writing such as this? “Potatoes were a constant (primarily baked or mashed), they never failed to offer profound satisfaction. Corn on the cob surpassed all other vegetables, but that delight was confined to the last months of summer, and therefore you happily wolfed down the peas or peas and carrots or green beans or beets you found on your plate. Popcorn, pistachio nuts, peanuts, marshmallows, piles of saltines smeared with grape jelly, and the frozen foods that began appearing late in your childhood, in particular chicken pot pie and Sara Lee’s pound cake.”

It seems that by the end of that quotation Auster can’t even be bothered to turn the list into a sentence. Among other such lists we have an account of every house Auster has lived in as a permanent address – a conceit similar to Georges Perec’s “Every bed I have slept in” but neither as ambitious nor as open to the frailties and foibles of memory. It may be of immense importance for a future biographer, but for a present day reader it is lacklustre.

Auster indulges in some intermittent and unconvincing breast-beating: we have comments on the abortion he paid for a girlfriend recovering from a suicide attempt, and some cringe-inducing reveries about his times spent with prostitutes (one of whom, incidentally, quotes Baudelaire: no doubt there are Parisian prostitutes that quote Baudelaire but the whole scene seems straight from central casting).

Auster can’t quite help himself from preening. As he says, “No bad experiences, then, no encounter that filled you with remorse, and when you look back on it now, you suppose you were well-treated because you were not an aging man with a protruding belly or a foul-smelling labourer with dirt under his fingernails but an unaggressive, not unpresentable young man”.

He swiftly changes tack to claim that “it would be wrong to classify any of these experiences as memorable”, noting that sex with prostitutes tended to be “businesslike in execution”. Or perhaps even businesslike in fact.

The lack of interest in the lives of others is a curious blind spot for a novelist to have. Nor in his catalogue of failings and regrets does Auster mention his son’s involvement in Daniel Alig’s murder of Andre Melendez (a harrowing tale which is one of the influences on Auster’s wife, Siri Hustvedt’s novel What I Loved). Auster is indubitably entitled to his privacy on such matters. However, an author positioning himself half-in and half-out of the confessional is in a precarious place.

There is another section, on his reaction to the death of his mother, which is both well-written and emotionally engaging, even if notes of self-pity and self-justification creep in. Likewise, an account of realising that he was standing on the mass grave of 50,000 Russian soldiers is handled deftly. But to reach these nuggets one has to wade through pointless descriptions of the plot of the 1950 film D.O.A., or lists of girls he made out with when in high school, or his nostalgia for the days when you could have a cigarette almost anyplace. It will at least be interesting to see, in the future, if some of these observations can be worked into a fully-realised novel. Overall, there is a lingering feeling of bad faith about this endeavour. At times it reads as if Auster himself were not truly committed to the project, and, like some of the later novels, it ends up as yet more whistling in the dark.

That persistent use of the second-person in fact reflects the problem at the heart of this book: the implied reader is the implied writer.