Book review / Season's greetings: Paul Auster's 'Winter Journal'
A (the?) great American novelist's second memoir is appropriately unconventional
August 26, 2012 4:00 AM
By Cody Corliss
Each year, when the inevitable hand-wringing begins over the American drought in winning the Nobel Prize for literature, I'm always surprised that more critics don't push Paul Auster. In Britain, where they seem to bet on everything (even literary prizes), Mr. Auster is a long shot, well behind such American luminaries as Joyce Carol Oates or Philip Roth.
The recent knock against American literature is that it's "insular" and "isolated," at least according to one grumpy Nobel Prize judge. As an antidote to those gripes, I'd like to press a few of Mr. Auster's books into more Swedish hands. For a start, Mr. Auster's prose is sharp and the plots are coiled. And best of all, his stories are addictively entertaining.
By Paul Auster Henry Holt & Co ($26).
Paul Auster, 65, is acclaimed for his fiction, and particularly his "New York Trilogy." With "Winter Journal," he serves up a second memoir to complement his 1982 "The Invention of Solitude."
As memoirs go, "Winter Journal" is unconventional, jumping forward and back through time. Written in the second person, it conjures visions of Jay McInerney. Still, the premise is straightforward: Mr. Auster faces his 63rd winter, and the occasion prompts ruminations on life, memory and an aging body.
"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." That's a downer of an opening, but thankfully, Mr. Auster's reflections expands to the highs and lows of human emotion.
Mr. Auster recalls his life and the shifting stages that most experience -- carefree student, struggling young adult, contented middle age -- by recounting the details of 21 different places he has called home. The experiences in each abode run the gamut from a contented youth experience in New Jersey to a New York home where the previous owner ominously left a dead crow and pro-Nazi tracts.
The high point is Mr. Auster's post-college years in France. He chronicles a dual French disposition, reminiscing "in the three and a half years you lived among them, you met some of the coldest, meanest characters on the face of the earth, but also some of the warmest, most generous men and women you have ever known."
Safe to say, "Winter Journal" recounts Mr. Auster's hilarious and occasionally stupefying encounters with these dichotomous Gauls, from a kind, rural dentist to the memorable Madam Rubenstein, a neighbor who delighted in mailing vicious letters.
Paul Auster is a bit of a celebrity writer, gracing best-seller lists, directing films, and traveling the world. But, judging from this memoir, he rarely rubs shoulders with influential people.
While there's something refreshing about a memoir that doesn't engage in widespread name-dropping, those omissions give a sense that Mr. Auster is holding back. For example, when he's in France, Mr. Auster notes the presence of a girlfriend and eventual wife without delving into married life, or even giving her name. She is the acclaimed short story writer Lydia Davis, a fact that merited inclusion. They divorced and Mr. Auster went on to marry the writer Siri Hustvedt, also an unnamed presence here.
Still, that's a minor quibble in a book where I can find few. I remain partial to his fiction, but Mr. Auster has written a spare meditation that's thoroughly entertaining. In short, "Winter Journal" might contemplate the past, but it reinforces Paul Auster's status as a writer at the peak of his talents.