Review: ‘Winter Journal’ by Paul Auster isn’t what it could be
Henry Holt: 230 pp., $26
The most evocative passage in Paul Auster’s “Winter Journal” comes early in the book. “Yes, you drink too much and you smoke too much, you have lost teeth without bothering to replace them, your diet does not conform to the precepts of contemporary nutritional wisdom,” Auster admits, referring to himself in the second person, as he does throughout this fragmentary memoir, “but if you shun most vegetables it is simply because you do not like them, and you find it difficult, if not impossible, to eat what you do not like.”
He knows it’s just good fortune that “until now, no X-ray has revealed any damage to your lungs, no blood test has revealed any devastation to your liver, and so you forge on with your vile habits, knowing full well that they will ultimately do you grave harm.”
For a reader of a certain age, perhaps a male reader of a certain age, there’s a sharp shudder of recognition at the admission of minor vices, of neglect and breakdown, of the slow ravages of the body over time. As someone who shares many of these predilections, I find myself rendered nearly breathless by Auster’s willingness to tell.
This quiet honesty, this offhand sense of revelation, has marked much of Auster’s recent writing, especially the novels “The Brooklyn Follies” or “Sunset Park.” It’s as if, as he’s gotten older, he’s moved away from the self-reflective narratives (“The New York Trilogy,” “The Music of Chance”) by which he earned his reputation — as a novelist, primarily; as if he has become less interested in structural invention than in our relationships with each other and with ourselves.
And yet, as “Winter Journal” progresses, that brief passage begins to look like a signpost on the road not taken, a marker of all that this memoir is not. Why? Because Auster cannot quite maintain his focus, falling instead into a pattern of meandering recollections about his life, from childhood until the present, that are by turns moving and self-indulgent but never coalesce behind a larger point of view.
His impulse here — to write, in quasi-journal form, the saga of his aging — is a good one, and he seeks to deepen it by weaving in the story of his mother, an unhappily married woman whose resilience (“the sumptuously decked out charmer,” he recalls her, “who dazzled the world in public”) devolves into a “metastatic flowering” of anxiety. (She died in 2002.)
This is not exactly untrammeled territory for Auster; 30 years ago, he began his career with “The Invention of Solitude,” a memoir inspired by the death of his father, a difficult, distant man whom, the author suggests, he never really knew.
“The Invention of Solitude” was a terrific debut: a relentless examination of not just a father-son relationship (or more to the point, nonrelationship) but also the nature of identity, family, heritage and memory. It moved outward, into a realm that borders on the mythic, as Auster used his father’s life as a fulcrum through which to move backward and forward in time.
“Winter Journal” has similar intentions: “Perhaps it is just as well,” Auster writes, “to put aside your stories for now and try to examine what it has felt like to live inside this body from the first day you can remember being alive until this one.”
The key phrase is “this body,” for Auster’s main purpose is to create "[a] catalogue of sensory data. What one might call a phenomenology of breathing” (p. 1) — in other words, an evocation of the self. In the face of that, his mother becomes almost an afterthought; it’s his own mortality that’s on his mind.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m sympathetic. None of us is getting any younger, after all. But for all that “Winter Journal” aspires to be an epistemology of the body, it too often falls into disconnected litanies: of childhood memories playing baseball, say, or all the places Auster has lived.
What he’s trying to do is to re-create identity, his identity, as an expression of the physical, to trace how he’s been shaped by the world. In “City of Glass” (the first book of the “New York Trilogy”), a detective follows as a subject literally writes himself onto the streets of Manhattan, his wanderings taking the shape of letters, like some sort of runic code. Yet with “Winter Journal,” Auster doesn’t reach that level of engagement or evoke in any real sense how these surfaces have influenced the way he thinks and feels.
Part of the trouble is the book’s alinear structure, which keeps us from grabbing onto any particular narrative thread. But even more problematic is the inherent distance of Auster’s writing — or rather, his interiority. Even when evoking his loved ones (his mother; his son and daughter; his wife, the writer Siri Hustvedt, portrayed here with the nuance-free gloss of a secular saint), he re-creates them as shadows, not quite real in some essential aspect.
Again, this comes back to the idea of “Winter Journal” as a catalog of sensations, radiating outward from the frail container of his body. Early in the book, he details the scars on his face as a way of exploring how he got them. Later, he recounts the panic he felt returning to the corner of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park where he scattered his mother’s ashes; “That was nearly nine years ago,” he explains, matter-of-factly. “You have not tried to go back to those woods since.”
More often, though, Auster’s writing is gauzy, sentimental even, as when he describes his mother hitting a home run in a backyard baseball game. “You can still see your mother running around the bases in her den mother’s uniform,” he writes, “and coming in to the plate with her home run — out of breath, smiling, soaking up the cheers from the boys. Of all the memories you have retained of her from your childhood, this is the one that comes back to you most often.”
What that image offers is another signal moment — not the big reveal Auster is after, but something more conventionally reassuring: memory as commonplace.
This is the challenge of memoir, to take experience and strip it of our expectations, so reader and writer can see anew. It’s what Auster did in “The Invention of Solitude,” pulling apart the family stories to get at the conflicts underneath. There, he treated memory as a challenge, a roadblock, a burden with which we have to reckon.
Auster gets there on occasion in “Winter Journal,” most notably in that riff on his (minor) vices, the compromises he has made with himself. I like that guy, I’m interested in that guy, and I wish that we’d seen more of him; there’d be a lot for us to talk about.
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