Friday, November 9, 2012

Weathering Storms: Paul Auster's "Winter Journal"

I admire more than a few authors who are equally talented in fiction and nonfiction writings, but generally, I tend to favor their fictional sides--as much as I promote and love the essay (and the essay collection), I'd be more apt to pick a novel as a favorite work, rather than a collection of critical pieces. However, this belief gets turned around when it comes to Paul Auster. I've long considered him one of my favorites, but upon reflection, it's shocking to realize how little of his fiction I've actually read (one novel, a handful of shorter works and samples). His memoir, craft explorations, and poetry move me a lot more, and The Invention of Solitude, his 1982 explorations of family, masculinity and writing is one of the very few books that changed me and how I view my own approach to creativity. It was recommended to me while I was dealing with long bouts of financial strain, isolation, and attempts to figure out my priorities while living outside Seattle, Washington. It wasn't a romantic time, and who I am today is directly related to who I was back then (that was around the time I started putting my shaky writing into this blog format). Recently, Auster published Winter Journal, and remembering how much his previous work affected me, I was eager to read this one. It's vastly different in its approach and content, but I still found myself touched and moved in unexpected ways.

It isn't an autobiography or a memoir in the traditional sense. Instead, Auster explores various moments in his life, from physical descriptions to analyses of random happenings to descriptions of the dozens of homes and areas where he's lived, but without any cliched nostalgia. There are fond memories, painful, brutally honest critiques of himself, and reflections on his body. At first, it appears to be chronological, but quickly, Auster begins to alternate time frames. Early memories of two childhood accidents are quickly followed with adult observations. Auster writes in the second person point of view, addressing himself as "you," which allows for two sides of the narrative--in addition to sharing aspects of his life as a sort of letter to his self in various ages, it allows the reader to inhabit Auster's world, especially when (and this happens quite often, at least for me) he gets into universal experiences.

"Yes, you drink too much and smoke too much, you have lost teeth without bothering to replace them, your diet does not conform to the precepts of contemporary nutritional wisdom, 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. You know that your wife worries about you, especially about your smoking and drinking, but mercifully, 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, but the older you become the less likely it seems that you will ever have the will or the courage to abandon your beloved little cigars and the frequent glasses of wine, which have given you so much pleasure over the years, and you sometimes think that if you were to cut these things out of your life at this late date, your body would simply fall apart, your system would cease to function (Auster 14-15)."

This is a universal picture, but at times, he even goes even further. If some of the passages strike readers as self-serving, even when mixed with ruminations on his shortcomings, he sits back and offers the occasional philosophical sentiment that might not be original, still gives the reader cause for thought, even if these thoughts have been experienced by everyone at some point in their lives. And while the thoughts aren't "original," the writing certainly is--note the descriptions and careful word choices in this passage:

"You would like to know who you are. With little or nothing to guide you, you take it for granted that you are the product of vast, prehistoric migrations, of conquests, rapes, and abductions, that the long and circuitous intersections of your ancestral horde have extended over many territories and kingdoms, for you are not the only person who has traveled, after all, tribes of human beings have been moving around the earth for tens of thousands of years, and who knows who begat whom begat whom begat whom begat whom begat whom to end up with your two parents begetting you in 1947 (Auster 115)?"

And while this isn't strictly autobiography, there are enough details to gain a better idea of Auster's life. I know very little about his life, save for the murder of his grandfather by his grandmother (mentioned here and further documented in The Invention Of Solitude). He's been married twice, once to the writer Lydia Davis, who is mentioned not by name, but by the occasional sketch and rumination about living with another writer (as my friend Jeremy once said, "to be a fly on the wall for that relationship"). There are sad, touching remembrances included in his meticulous documentation of the places he's called home.

"Age 32. Before landing there in early 1979, a whirlwind of shocks, sudden changes, and inner upheavals that turned you around and set your life on a different course. With nowhere to go and no money to finance a move even if you had known where to go, you stayed on in the Dutchess County after the breakup of your marriage, sleeping on the sofa bed in the corner of your downstairs study, which you now realize (thirty-two years later) had been your bed as a child. A couple of weeks later, on a trip down to New York, you experienced the revelation, the scalding, epiphanic moment of clarity that pushed you through a crack in the universe and allowed you to start writing again. Three weeks after that, immersed in the prose text you had begun immediately after your resuscitation, your liberation, your new beginning, the unexpected hammer blow of your father's death. To your first wife's infinite credit, she stuck with you through the dismal days and weeks that followed, the ordeal of funeral arrangements and estate matters, disposing of your father's neckties, suits, and furniture, taking care of the sale of his house (which had already been in the works), standing by you through all the wrenching, practical business that follows death, and because you were no longer married, or married in name only, the pressures of marriage had been lifted, and once again you were friends, much as you had been in your early days together (Auster 91-92)."

The passages are combinations of smaller vignettes and much longer passages, some of which, while very well written, didn't hold much interest for me. Even with strong prose, I found myself glossing over some of Auster's sexual details. To his credit, while tinted with a hint of longing, he doesn't veer into embarrassing reminiscences of lost prowess or such. His sex life is merely a part of his life as whole, with the passages given equal time as the rest of his memories. Some of the happenings weigh on his mind more than others--two separate sections are devoted to details of a nasty car accident that nearly killed him and his family. The painful realization of mortality is a given, which makes the surrounding sketches that much more poignant.

"The day after the car crash in 2002, you went to the junkyard where the car had been towed to retrieve your daughter's belongings. It was a Sunday morning in August, warm as always, with a misty blur of rain dappling the streets as one of your friends drove you out to some godforsaken neighborhood in Brooklyn, a no-man's-land of crumbling warehouses, vacant lots, and boarded-up wooden buildings. The junkyard was run by a black man in his mid-sixties, a smallish fellow with long dreadlocks and clear, steady eyes, a gentle Rasta man who watched over his domain of wrecked automobiles like a shepherd tending a flock of dozing sheep. You told him why you were there, and when he led you over to the shiny new Toyota you had been driving the day before, you were stunned by how thoroughly destroyed it was, could not fathom how you and your family had managed to survive such a catastrophe. Immediately after the crash, you had noticed how badly damaged the car was, but you had been rattled by the collision, were not fully able to absorb what had happened to you, but now, a day later, you could see that the metal body of the car was so smashed in, it looked like a piece of crumbled paper. 'Look at that,' you said to the Rasta man. 'We should all be dead now.' He studied the car for a few seconds, looked you in the eye, and then turned his head upward as the fine rain fell onto his face and abundant hair. 'An angel was watching over you,' he said in a quiet voice. 'You were supposed to die yesterday, but then an angel stretched out his hand and pulled you back into the world.' He delivered those words with such serenity and conviction, you almost believed him (Auster 167-168)."

There's no doubt that some of these descriptions might be slightly embellished, and if this is the case, it's not done to stretch the truth in a misleading way. I believe this because even the most "novel-like" passages are no different than the smaller, mundane aspects of Auster's life experiences. That's what made Winter Journal so satisfying to me. His prose never gives the reader the feeling that he's at the true end of his life, looking back wistfully, even though the book might seem that way at first glance. These are moments of his life, big and small, presented as they are. It makes the "Journal" part of the title very accurate. Yes, this is a published work, but part of me, even if this is slightly naive, can see the book being an unpublished project for Auster's own reflections.

Because the mentions of his previous works are either scarce or brought up in passing, I'd be hard pressed to imagine someone unfamiliar with Auster picking this book up, but I could see myself enjoying it on its own. In due time, I'm sure there will be an independent biography of Auster published, one that will expand on his travels, marriages, and writings. However, Winter Journal is beautiful and provides new information and highlights I had been unfamiliar with before. Outside of general curiosity, he's a writer who interests me more with his words than his exploits, and these pages put more emphasis on the former. I found this difficult to review and cite, since quite a few of the passages are long and so intricate that providing a sample would be pointless out of context. His style is unique, and while nothing in it affected me like The Invention Of Solitude, I had the rare experience of being moved emotionally as well as being moved by his craft. I've long had my own issues with the memoir genre as a whole, but Auster's formatting and attention to detail made this reading experience so much more than an inventory of what he's done and experienced.

Work Cited:
Auster, Paul. Winter Journal. Copyright 2012 by Paul Auster.

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