The tendency to meditate on the past is not a habit Paul Auster has acquired in his older, riper years. He was taking internal audits and reflecting on what made him the writer he was from the start.
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A memoir, The Invention of Solitude, partly about the death of his father, was published before the fiction debut, The New York Trilogy, that found him fame. More blending of experience with literary inquiry followed: The Art of Hunger (on his writing processes) The Red Notebook (true stories gathered from his life) Hand to Mouth (on early writerly struggles) and then, last year, Winter's Journal, a reflection on the physical memories of childhood.
Now this, a psychological mapping of childhood and young adulthood, written using the second person viewpoint that he began with in Winter's Journal. He starts at around the same age that we encountered him in that previous book, aged six, with the cold indifference he feels emanating between his parents, the subtle but unshakeable feeling of alienation that his Jewishness carries in his New Jersey neighbourhood, to his wilderness years in Paris as an aspiring novelist, poet, translator and scriptwriter, so penurious at times that he went without eating, or – quite literally – singing for his supper, with begging bowl and hungry friends.
Some of this material appears recycled and recombined – particularly his story of financial hardship and creative struggle, which is not a problem in itself if new light is being shed. Therein lies the problem. Auster has excelled at taking small, ordinary incidents – a misunderstanding, a coincidence, a seemingly slight but enduring injury, and turning it in a quietly striking or uncanny moment.
Perhaps because this stylistic approach is, by now, such a well-rehearsed method, it ceases to be impactful. More needs to be done, more processed in the prose, if these 'ordinary' moments are to appear little more than descriptive. There is a flatness, even a syrupy banality, to the gentle anecdotes at the opening – that as a child he thought "human being" was pronounced as "human bean", that while reading at eight he would stumble over the word "fatigue", that among his favourite books as a boy was A J Cronin's The Citadel "which temporarily made you want to be a doctor, as well as Green Mansions, by W H Hudson, which teased your gonads with its exotic, jungle sensuality…"
Worse follows in passages that unravel into longueurs when he analyses films that affected his younger self. A blow by blow account is given of The Incredible Shrinking Man, and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, across two chapters that summarise plot and camera work. The fascination with describing the mechanics of film-making previously appeared in his novel, Sunset Park, in which a character studied films, and just as it did then, so here it reads like a student thesis.
The strengths of Auster's memories come in occasional sparks, particularly in his discussions of his Jewishness. His early quest to become a writer is also fascinating: the self-imposed isolation it brings, the wretched lows and the depression but also the inner satisfaction from his dogged and monkish dedication.
The latter part of the book revolves around letters written to Lydia Davis, the now-acclaimed writer who was then his girlfriend and would later become his first wife. Letter-writing, like memoir writing, comes with the danger of solipsism – a word Auster himself uses in one letter to Davis – and in this book, Auster does not manage to avoid its curse.
Unilluminating experience tries to appear special, rarefied, and too many anecdotes are anti-climactic. It is sad to see that the ordinary moments Auster chooses to describe are not made more remarkable in their telling any more. In fact, reading latter-day Auster can, to a former-day Auster fan, inspire comparison with that other beloved New Yorker, Woody Allen. This book is certainly no Match Point – God forfend – but it does not display the autumnal creative resurgence of Blue Jasmine either.