Books

Winter Journal: A Paul Austerpiece

Reading the work of Paul Auster is like reading a translation—you get the feeling that some harried American interlocutor is working hard behind the scenes to render the prose intelligible, while preserving something of its foreign flavor. That Auster is a native English speaker, born and raised in suburban New Jersey, the child of middle class Jewish parents, born at the crest of the baby boom, seems, at first, to figure little in the production of the man who writes about life in the United States as if from the memory of someone who’s been living on the moon. A devoted student of baseball, of burgers, of fries and of Cokes, of drive-in movies and necking in curvy, yacht-like cars, Auster nevertheless comes off like a modern day de Toqueville in his writing, which almost invariably takes the United States and especially New York City as its stage; he’s keenly intelligent, brilliantly droll, peerlessly insightful, yet his writing has a flat and chilly affect that seems somehow unmistakably foreign. His most recent effort, Winter Journal,carries on in this mode and the results are characteristically Austerian. What complicates matters for me is the fact that Winter Journal is a memoir.

A digression: as far as religion goes, I am a nothing, but I guess the thing I’m nearest to would be a secular Jew, same as Auster. Now, secular Judaism is a big tent, terraced by many tiers of secularity and Judaism in various strains and states of admix—some blended smoothly, some rough and frothy, and some highly reactive (to say nothing of the complications of geography and era)—but while Auster can claim Judaism as having been a more salient feature of his life than I can for mine, I can’t help feeling a certain kinship with him. It’s a queasy sort of kinship, the kind you know is false and that ultimately makes you feel a little ashamed for claiming it, a feeling Auster himself describes in Winter Journal, when in his twenties, he resolves a dispute with his Parisian neighbor, Miss Rubinstein, by appealing to the tribal heritage he rightly assumed they share. But all this is to suggest that, when I started reading Auster’s novels not too long ago, that subtle sense of alienation in the language itself—an affect that reads like translation—was something I sheepishly thought I could relate to. To me it seemed somehow indicative of Jewish experience, secular or not, in trying to assimilate to a country that remains skeptical in aggregate—a meta-narrative playing out beneath the more generic loner, misfit facades of all of Auster’s protagonists; one I was, perhaps, unconsciously eager to read for, myself a misfit, a bastard and more or less a Jew. 

Winter Journal is the story of a misfit much like those that star in Auster’s novels. Only this time, the misfit is Auster himself. Staged as a series of branching, interconnected anecdotes prompted by the casual stations of a day in the life of its now-aging author, (rising, bathing, reading, relaxing) the book floats on a familiarly ethereal plane—one clouded with such dense, opaque possibility that a sort of intoxicating delirium takes hold, and forgetting both where you’re going and where you’ve been, you wander alongside Auster. I like Auster as a writer and, fictive sense of kinship with him aside, I wanted to like this book. But I didn’t. Not as much as I would have liked to like it, anyway. It is a perfectly pleasant read, quick enough to finish in an afternoon and clearly the product of the same mind and mysterious voice that brought us The New York Trilogy. But somehow here that mind and voice don’t seem to be enough.

The problem with Winter Journal is not the writing. If there is one thing that Auster deserves more credit than anything for, it’s his prowess as a stylist. It takes incredible restraint and discipline and a poet’s sense of prosody to invest his signature minimalistic argot with the elegant intellectualism and spiritual sincerity he regularly attains without lapsing into the kind of showmanship that taints the prose of so many other great postmodern writers. Auster has run afoul of some critics for employing essentially the same style in most of his works, but I find this to be one of his best and most intriguing qualities, perhaps a function of the musicality that seems to inform his approach—variations for solo voice performed in the style of “Paul Auster” the writer by Paul Auster the man. The voice gives a sense of continuity to his works, and represents the cultivation of a particular form of consciousness—a uniquely Austerian instrument—whose development is forged and nuances demonstrated in a series of encounters with various players who may change the pitch and mode without altering the timbre. The strength of this individual voice is both the medium and the message of much of Auster’s fiction—which tends above all, to concern the perils and pleasures of sticking stubbornly to one’s guns, following hunches, impulses and intuition beyond the comforts of home, family and romance to the eternal, if lonely, returns of the self-realized man.

The number of your studio apartment pleased you for its symbolic aptness. 1-I, meaning the single self, the lone person sequestered in that bunker of a room for seven or eight hours a day, a silent man cut off from the rest of the world, day after day, sitting at his desk for no other purpose than to explore the interior of his own head.

Winter Journal feels like an Auster piece in that it shares the themes and preoccupations of his novels. What’s strange, though, is that Winter Journal also operates according to the same constraints. Chief among these is a certain lack of dynamism in his characters, which could be read as oddly deterministic—that personality is something fixed from birth, and that plot is a series of permutations that take place in the world around the fixed personality.

Things were the way they were, and you never stopped to question them.

So why am I disappointed in Winter Journal? Why does it bother me that Winter Journal is so similar to Auster’s novels, in terms of both style and concern? I think that Auster the memoirist should feel it incumbent upon himself to reveal something other than what Auster the novelist does, when he sets out to write a memoir, namely, something about Auster the man. Instead, we get more of Auster the writer, who oddly, in a book ostensibly all about him, seems as forged and impenetrable as the steely characters that inhabit his fiction, a feeling that isn’t helped by Auster’s choice to narrate in the second person, which lends the writing an almost accusatorial tone. I’m not looking for a celebrity tell-all, but to me a memoir means at least the motions of confession, and while Auster offers plenty of intimate details, his trademark voice, so beguiling in his fiction, here seems to blunt any attempt on Auster’s part at the kind of emotional candor demanded by the genre.

This isn’t to say that Winter Journal isn’t a lovely read. It is. The book seems to assemble itself like puffs from the cigars Auster says he can’t help but continue smoking; thought after thought curl out and around one another with a vague rhyme or reason that often only becomes apparent as the curls dissipate into the greater texture of our retrospection.

Physical pleasures and physical pains. Sexual pleasures first and foremost, but also the pleasures of food and drink, of lying naked in a hot bath, of scratching an itch, of sneezing and farting, of spending an extra hour in bed, of turning your face toward the sun on a mild afternoon in late spring or early summer and feeling the warmth settle upon your skin.

What these thoughts reveal, in their random, ephemeral specificity, are the contours of a clouded room—old man Auster’s den, the fogged space between his ears. At times, you can get a real buzz off these second-hand memories, as in the novella-length list Auster suddenly launches into about a quarter of the way through the book, detailing—in his languid, workmanlike way—every place he has ever lived.

406 Harding Drive; South Orange, New Jersey. A larger house than the previous one, built in the Tudor style, awkwardly perched on a hilly corner with the tiniest of backyards and gloomy interior. Age 13 to 17. The house in which you suffered through your adolescent torments, wrote your first poems and stories, and your parents’ marriage dissolved. Your father went on living there (alone) until the day he died.

There is something incredibly intoxicating about this approach. But this is an impulse that Auster has a history of indulging in his novels, and as propulsive and compelling a technique as it is there, here it feels stale and rote. The thing is, in reading his novels, I would have never identified Auster’s impulse to nest his real narrative in seemingly surprise digressions as such. Rather, I imagined his digressions to be instruments of style, finely crafted to induce that peculiar and playful coupling of American and French realisms that seems wholly Auster’s own, a creole that resulted in postmodern writing exquisite enough to rank it alongside Pynchon’s in The Crying of Lot 49. My disappointment with Winter Journal then,has a lot to do with expectations. Having come to view Auster as a great stylist and a sort of formal innovator, I picked up this memoir expecting the unexpected and was chagrined to find the same old tricks—tricks that began to feel more like ticks, less style than a stylistic rut. His approach to memoir may be novel in the context of the genre, but in the context of his own oeuvre it feels like treading water.

I can forgive Auster, who owes me nothing, the slight letdown of this very nice book. But I am left to wonder why he didn’t just write another novel. I come up with ways to justify the approach Auster has taken in Winter Journal—like maybe he wants to demonstrate how the self is formed in relation to narrative; how Paul Auster the man is inseparable from Paul Auster the mode, hence the “novel” approach to this memoir; and for periods of time I think there may actually be something to this. Then I snap out of it and realize how far out of my way I’m going to justify something that left me underwhelmed. As the Vaudevillians who used to entertain my distant ancestors likely as well as Auster’s were wont to say when performances lacked something in the passion department: “I could have used more schmaltz.” I could have used more schmaltz, Paul Auster. I already know you’re smart, Paul, and that you know how to spin a good yarn out of the shaggiest of shaggy dogs. What’s the story of a life look like if not the shape of a rhizome? But Paul, the thing is, I know you’re more than style—only I can’t feel it, reading your journal. You are too much a character in it—a type I recognize, transplanted from your novels—the eternal seeker, obdurately outward; a kind of naturalist of the narrative ecology—observing, recording, and writing down the report. It is a sophisticated kind of reportage, detective-like and cinematic—with you the detective-auteur, complicating the investigation by doubling it with narrative itself in search of itself. This is more than enough for a novel, more than most have offered, but at the risk of playing the essentialist, I think the memoir requires a third articulation: the author in search of itself. What bugs me about your memoir is that, like your characters, your insights seem circumstantial, always emanating from an interior Auster whose identity was pre-forged—whose conclusions, even when they are surprising, seem somehow foregone. I wanted a report on how that man was made, Paul Auster, to save me at least from my embarrassing assumptions about what informs your work. Instead I got the margin notes, delivered like a monologue.

Seth Blake is a writer from New Hampshire.