Winter Journal

  • Paul Auster
  • Henry Holt and Company
  • 240 pp.
  • September 10, 2012

In his third memoir, the author recollects his past while examining the approach of old age with a fiercely honest eye.

See below the review for a video of Paul Auster recording the audiobook for Winter Journal.

Reviewed by Anne C. Heller

The humane eye and elegant prose of the novelist Paul Auster are everywhere in evidence in this, his third memoir. He wrote Winter Journal during a few cold months in 2011 while contemplating the onset of what he calls “the winter of your life” at the age of 64. Auster begins with an inventory of the physical sensations of pleasure and pain experienced over a lifetime — “what it felt like to live inside this body from the first day you can remember being alive until this one.” His recollections of an essentially ordinary childhood, youth and middle age grow particular, rich and powerful with accumulating detail, emerging patterns and the author’s intimate search for meaning in events he holds in memory. He uses the second-person narrative voice throughout; instead of becoming cloying, as it easily can, the approach helps to create an undercurrent of universality that gains force as the book progresses.

The events of Winter Journal will be familiar to readers of Auster’s earlier memoirs, The Invention of Solitude (1982) and Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure (1997), his 16 novels and his collections of stories and essays. Here is the childhood relocation from a smaller to a larger house in working-class South Orange, N.J., his mother’s youthful gaiety, his older salesman father’s impenetrable silences, their divorce when he was 17, his lonely years in Paris, his own marriage to and divorce from the writer Lydia Davis, his happy second marriage to the writer Siri Hustvedt, his father’s death from a heart attack at Auster’s current age of 64, when the  younger man was 32 and at his lowest ebb as a writer, son and husband, his mother’s sudden death and the panic that ensued when he was 55, the birth and growth of his son and daughter.

There are lists: 20 residential addresses before he settled in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in 1992; games played; love affairs; sequences of sleep; narrow escapes from accidental death. There is a meditation on the things his hands have touched, summoned by a story someone told him about James Joyce: “Joyce in Paris in the 1920s, standing around a party eighty-five years ago when a woman walked up to him and asked if she could shake the hand that wrote Ulysses,” Auster writes. “Instead of offering her his right hand, Joyce lifted it in the air, studied it for a few minutes, and said, ‘Let me remind you, madam, that this hand has done many other things as well.’”

There are vibrant literary associations and one exceptionally moving description of a 1978 dance performance that “pushed you through a crack in the universe and allowed you to begin again” as a novelist, instead of as the poet he had planned to be. In what may be the only meretricious passage in the book, there is even a 10-page summary of an old film noir called “D.O.A.,” although Auster is more concerned with the movie’s metaphor of calamitous contingency as it instructs the memoirist than with the stiff plot or stagey villain.

What can be made of contingency by an alert psyche and strong affections is Auster’s theme — a great and touching one. Toward the conclusion of Winter Journal, following a sober account of his paternal grandmother’s demented old age, he writes: “Born in Minsk, 1895. Died in New York, 1968. The end of life is bitter (Joseph Joubert, 1814).” (Auster published a translation of Joubert’s notebooks in 1983.) He goes on to recount the merciful contingencies of his first encounter with, courtship of and 32-year relationship with his second wife, after which he circles back to reflect upon his own approaching winter. He writes,

“Joubert: The end of life is bitter. Less than a year after writing those words, at the age of 61, which must have seemed considerably older in 1815 than it does today, [Joubert] jotted down a different and far more challenging formulation about the end of life: One must die lovable (if one can). You are moved by this sentence, especially by the words in parentheses, which demonstrate a rare sensitivity of spirit, you feel, a hard-won understanding of how difficult it is to be loveable. ... You cannot predict what will happen when the day comes for you to crawl into bed for the last time, but if you are not taken suddenly, as both of your parents were, you want to be loveable. If you can.”

Winter Journal is courageous. Its author, a hero of young writers’ workshops, looks at approaching old age with realism and humility. It is a major accomplishment in a pungent minor key.

Anne C. Heller, a former fiction editor at Esquire and Redbook, is the author of Ayn Rand and the World She Made (Anchor Books, 2010) and a member of the board of directors of Biographers International Organization.

Paul Auster recording the audiobook for Winter Journal.

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