The winter of our discontent

Paul Auster’s ‘Winter Journal’ is a cold endurance test for the reader.

08/19/2012 5:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:11 AM

“Winter Journal” by Paul Auster (Henry Holt and Co., 240 pages, $26)

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.)

•  Accidents: Auster has lived through some of the most bizarre, unbelievable, freakish, disturbing events a human being can survive. At 3 years old, he ripped his cheek open by sliding into a construction zone of a department store; at 12, a fellow baseball player crashed into him, open-mouthed, goring Auster’s forehead with his front teeth; at 14, his walking companion was struck and killed by lightning, and Auster sat beside the body in disbelief; as an adult in France, he nearly choked to death on a 3-inch fishbone; later, in Brooklyn, he caused a horrific car accident that could have killed his wife, his daughter and his dog; and, the piece de resistance, he suffered a shattering panic attack in the wake of his mother’s unexpected death: “You are made of stone now, and as you lie there on the dining room floor, rigid, your mouth open, unable to move or think, you howl in terror as you wait for your body to drown in the deep black waters of death.” Question No. 1: Has Auster read Freud, say, on the accident-prone personality?
•  The body: “That is where the story begins, in your body, and everything will end, in the body as well.” Here, Auster introduces an intriguing theme, especially of how writing starts and stops in the body. But the insight dangles on a philosophical ledge, quickly forgotten, and replaced by a litany of Auster’s bodily pains, his continued abuses (heavy smoking, heavy drinking, poor diet), and his sexual pleasures, from adolescence to adulthood. Question No. 2: Can you say, “too much information”?
•  Mother: The book’s publisher would have us believe that “Winter Journal” is primarily about the death of Auster’s mother the way that his first memoir, “The Invention of Solitude,” was about the death of his father. But it takes Auster more than 100 pages to get to a sustained reflection on his mother. And she turns out be to a particularly unsympathetic character, a three-time loser in marriage, unhinged by phobias, lacking the consolation of inner pursuits. Still, she doted on little Paul, trying to coax from him the love she could never feel from her husbands. Question No. 3: Oedipus, anyone?
•  Notebooks: A bona fide Francophile, Auster could have turned his journal into an American equivalent of the carnets of Andre Gide or Albert Camus: replete with revelations of how writing, art and life intersect. Instead, we find a long list of the 21 permanent addresses he has lived in thus far. Question No. 4: Is anybody home?
•  Prose: Auster has said that as a young novelist he admired James Joyce. Although Joyce ended up blind in one eye, Auster’s writing in “Winter Journal” would leave the Irishman permanently cross-eyed. Consider: a 10-page paragraph on the car crash that ended Auster’s driving career; then, a two-page sentence on the wonders of Provence. Later, in another five-page paragraph, he notes that “words were utterly useless, inadequate to the task of describing the wordless . . . . ” Question No. 5: Then why use so many of them?
•  Psychology: “You would like to know who you are.” This is Auster’s motive for writing his memoir, and a sterling example of the doppelganger effect. Casting his past self as “you,” as another Paul Auster to be observed and evaluated, creates a false air of objectivity about his life; we encounter a persona created to fill an aesthetic void, a device to conquer the contingent facts of life, infusing them with the necessity of story. Question No. 6: Where is the “I” in “you”?
•  Sentiment: Auster is not a happy man; shame overwhelms him; he can no longer think of himself as heroic: “No doubt you are a flawed and wounded person, a man who has carried a wound in him from the very beginning (why else would you have spent the whole of your adult life bleeding words onto a page?), and the benefits you derive from alcohol and tobacco serve as crutches to keep your crippled self upright and moving through the world.” This means that Auster possesses no irony or wit, key ingredients to self-knowledge. It also means that he can’t recognize cliches. In Paris, he meets a prostitute with a heart of gold; years later, he places his wife on a pedestal –– an Olympian goddess who graces him with her intelligence and love. Then, this penultimate pearl of wisdom: “A door has closed. Another door has opened.” Question No. 7: Wouldn’t this be a better ending?

A door has closed. And there are no other doors. So you frantically try to open the door that exists. It won’t budge. You strain and strain at opening the door until the doorknob comes off in your hand, and you fall flat on your back. The doorknob sails skyward, reaches its peak, then swiftly descends, landing squarely on the scar left on your forehead by the open-mouthed 12-year-old baseball player. And then you hear it: a faint medley of Beatles tunes, “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “Help!” and “I’m a Loser.”

The door stays closed.

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