The ‘self-obsessed honesty’ of Paul Auster’s autobiography is arresting.
Somewhat embarrassedly, I must admit that I had not read Paul Auster, widely acknowledged as one of America’s leading novelists, till his Winter Journal recently came to hand. Perhaps the Journal is not the best book with which to start exploring a writer who is more often than not characterised as “inventive” and known for his ability to delve deep into the dilemmas of an isolated soul. Perhaps one should have started with a famous novel like The New York Trilogy or the highly acclaimed early memoir The Invention of Solitude, books which may better demonstrate Auster’s mastery of the patterns of the American urban landscape or his romance with the curious workings of coincidence and chance, those unexpected by-lanes that suddenly appear and change human lives forever. But then, as I said, it was Winter Journal that came to hand. It seemed a slim, easily readable first book and besides, its first paragraph was irresistible bait: “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.”
Thus, in second person narrative, begins this introspective meditation on ageing and the ravages of time on mind, body and soul as Auster marks his 64th birthday, “inching ever closer to senior citizenship, to the days of Medicare and Social Service benefits, to a time when more and more of your friends would have left you.” In other words, he is about to enter the winter of his life, the time when he is asking himself: “How many mornings are left?” When each of us approaches this inevitable season of our lives, we no doubt find our own devices to meet it, one hand outstretched. Auster’s reaction is to look back and remember and catalogue: “Speak now before it is too late, and then hope to go on speaking until there is nothing more to be said. Time is running out, after all. Perhaps it is just as well 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. A catalogue of sensory data. What one might call a phenomenology of breathing.”
With a self-obsessed honesty — which is perhaps the only way it can be done — Auster sets out recollections of pains and pleasures in a manner to which any thinking individual, given to looking within himself, can relate to. Memories of early childhood when one is so physically near the “little world of crawling ants and lost coins, of fallen twigs and dented bottle caps, of dandelions and clover...(and) armies of ants travelling in and out of their powdery hills.” Of scars acquired one by one; the stitches on the cheek, the cut on the chin, the split eyebrows. And these brought to mind my own, each with its painful story — the forehead split when the corner of a fireplace came in the way; the toe that was nearly torn off by barbed wire when I ran after a floating kite; the way the skinned knee went chalk-white before the blood began to seep into it after my bike skidded on a stony rough road. And the scars on the heart caused by “how many infatuations and crushes, how many ardours and pursuits, how many mad surges and desires.” Paul Estor admits to being a willing slave of Eros and talks freely of the women he has loved before his final — and obviously blissful — marriage to the writer Siri Hustvedt, “each one different from the others, some round and some lean, some short and some tall, some bookish and some athletic, some moody and some outgoing...” attracted all the time by “the inner light...the spark of singularity...the blaze of revealed selfhood.” In fact, the search for sexual pleasure and its memories fuels a significant part of the Journal, as the young Auster, living in a “torment of frustration and never-ending sexual arousal,” seeks to lose his virginity in relatively prudish America of the early 1960s, and finally does so unsatisfactorily in a brothel. More charming is his encounter with a Parisian prostitute who recites Baudelaire to him during a magical night.
Auster employs an interesting device to recall memories: the use of his 21 “permanent addresses,” the houses he stayed in until he moved to the Brooklyn brownstone where he has settled, determined to stay there “until you can no longer crawl up and down the stairs, until they carry you out and put you in your grave.” Each house brings back its time and age, its friends and visitors, its ghosts and hallucinations. As do the descriptions of incessant travel and the unreal existence between “the here of home and the there of somewhere else.” And so we are told of the agony and folly of his first marriage, the made-in-heaven second marriage, the car crash in which his carelessness nearly killed his family, the false heart attack that was a swollen oesophagus.
The most evocative parts of the book revolve around the deaths of his divorced parents. Numbed by the death of his mother, Auster holds on to his bottle of Oban whisky and finally dissolves on the floor in a crippling panic attack. He then recalls his mother’s life with affection and understanding, evocatively outlining the three persons that dwelt in her one body — the dazzling, charming diva; the responsible, solid, competent, generous businesswoman; and the helpless, anxious, debilitated, hypochondriac neurotic, afraid of elevators, airplanes, open spaces. The sudden death of his father years ago, on a snow-bound January night, left behind “a feeling of unfinished business, the hollow frustration of words not spoken, of opportunities missed forever.” That death coincided with the end of Auster’s first marriage as well as with “an epiphanic moment of clarity that pushed you through a crack in the universe and allowed you to start writing again.” This moment, the second beginning of Paul Auster as a writer, came as he watched a group of dancers on a New York stage, while his father was dying somewhere else — “the ghoulish trigonometry of fate.” Auster calls writing a lesser form of dance. “One foot forward, and then the other foot forward, the double drumbeat of your heart…Writing begins in the body, it is the music of the body, and even if the words have meaning, can sometimes have meaning, the music of the words is where the meanings begin. You sit at your desk in order to write down the words, but in your head you are still walking, always walking, and what you hear is the rhythm of your heart, the beating of your heart.”
Self-indulgent at times, narcissistic on occasion, the Winter Journal leaves itself open to criticism. But it has done the trick: I will end up reading more Paul Auster.