Winter Journal, by Paul Auster
Reasons to be content. One. Two. Three
Paul Auster sets out his stall at the start of Winter Journal. Writing in the second person, he outlines his plan "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."
If only he'd stuck to the brief. Things start well enough, with snapshots of Auster's early life – as a pre-schooler crouching over an anthill; a collision with a carpenter's bench that resulted in stitches to his face; as an adolescent with the raging horn – interspersed with more serious mid-life episodes. Here he is at 50 having an oesophageal spasm and, later, experiencing a panic attack after the death of his father, the latter prompting him to howl in terror at what he assumed was impending death.
We have been here before with regard to Auster's father. The author studied their relationship in his first memoir, The Invention of Solitude, while exploring his own interior life, marooned in his room with a typewriter, stepping out only to walk and sleep. Where, in that first memoir, Auster was distraught, trying to channel his grief and prove his worth as a writer, in Winter Journal he writes from a more contented place – and a more complacent one.
Amid the narrative fragments, there are evocative moments of reflection, on the indignities of youth and encroaching old age, each expressed with elegance and honesty. Auster chastises himself for past follies and offers up fresh wisdom, though one of the more memorable pearls comes via a childhood friend's dying father to his son: "Never pass up an opportunity to piss." Later, Auster discusses his mother and the "three separate women" within her: the glamour-puss, the responsible parent, and the neurotic. Even with the details of her failings, it's a beautiful elegy.
But as Winter Journal progresses, Auster loses focus, swapping his examination of the body for meditations on the saintliness of his second wife, the writer Siri Hustvedt, or compiling lists – so many lists – of journeys taken, girls lusted after, foods consumed. Two pages are devoted to things he does with his hands. An inventory of the homes in which he has lived is more successful, as we learn of the events in his life that led him to them. Less so, the baffling and interminable recounting of the plot of an obscure 1950s film, to no discernible end.
The main trouble here is the absence of a narrative thread; the prevailing sense of a book assembled from scrawled titbits, fleeting thoughts and haphazard ramblings. You could argue that this is a journal (the clue's in the title!) and thus that randomness is part of the package. But, as anyone who has read Auster's early novels will know, he doesn't usually do random. For him, isolated events are weighted with meaning, signposts to something bigger. Sadly, in Winter Journal he seems to have missed the signs altogether.
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