I once tried reading a Paul Auster novel. Which one seems unimportant now, although I think it was “The Book of Illusions.”
I had heard so much about Auster, heard him praised as an American Beckett; as an expert on French Surrealist poetry; as a new-wave cinematographer; as an incisive, existentialist essayist; as a charming children’s writer; as an accomplished artiste at large.
But the novel’s prose proved eminently forgettable: flat, mannered and self-indulgent. Something was definitely wrong. Maybe I wasn’t ready for Auster. Maybe I languished in some private, parallel universe out of sync with contemporary trends in serious literature.
Then I ran across James Wood’s brilliant 2009 essay in the New Yorker magazine in which he parodied a typical Auster novel, then listed the writer’s tired motifs: B-movie atmosphere, doppelgangers (often named Paul Auster), language that stiffens into boilerplate, doubts about the veracity of the plot, never meeting a cliche he didn’t like, and so on.
Wood sounded sufficiently outraged and authoritative to assuage my self-doubts.
Still, I felt I was missing something. Auster continued to churn out novels almost every other year; he continued to be nominated for big literary prizes, though never winning one; and he continued to build a following of readers who revered him as a postmodernist master.
Then “Winter Journal” appeared, a memoir of Auster’s turning 64 ( cue chorus of the Beatles song), and the trauma of his mother’s death a few years earlier. No need for novelistic crutches in a retelling of one’s life, I thought.
Clearly, I didn’t know Auster.
Though filled at times with tour-de-force, Proustian prose –– memory sculpting the past into a compelling objet d’art –– Auster’s journal is largely a depressing disappointment: disjointed, arbitrary, unfocused, immensely pleased with itself. Like his novels, it teems with tiresome scripted parts, which I will list, for the reader’s edification (and amusement), in an alphabetical, but otherwise impulsive miscellany. (The questions come at no additional cost.)