Looking into memory's mirror
BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, September 2012
In January 2011, a month before he turned 64, Paul Auster began working on Winter Journal, his remarkable meditation on “what it has felt like to live inside this body from the first day you can remember being alive until this one.” Notice his use of the second person? One of the first pleasures of Winter Journal is its feeling of immediacy, as if we are inside Auster’s head staring with him into memory’s mirror, listening to him talk to himself.
Another great pleasure of the book is the modulated bravado with which he deploys and enlivens age-old literary techniques. In this unconventional memoir, for example, Auster catalogs his memories with all the entertaining artistry of the best medieval poets. He takes an inventory of all the scars on his face and their origins (many having to do with an all-American boyhood on the baseball field). Looking at his right hand and thinking of Keats, he lists all the activities of that hand, from zipping up his pants to wheeling suitcases through airports. He catalogues his travels in the world—and, later, in New York City. He remembers and describes the events and feelings he experienced in the 21 permanent addresses where he has lived from birth to the present.
In less able hands, this could feel like gimmickry. But Auster, author of highly regarded novels such as Sunset Park and The Brooklyn Follies, somehow uses this literary prestidigitation to take a reader very deep into the heart of the matter. He writes movingly about his emotionally complicated mother. His love for his second wife and the central importance of their 30-year marriage glows on almost every page. He uses a brilliant exposition of the 1950 movie D.O.A. to explain how he physically experiences his panic attacks. And near the end of Winter Journal, he describes “the scalding, epiphanic moment of clarity that pushed you through the crack in the universe that allowed you to begin again.”
In the end, Auster says to himself: “You have entered the winter of your life.” But this is less elegiac than it sounds. Auster, like all of us, has been scarred by life. But growing old also means that he has accumulated experiences and memories. And memory, experience and love trump scars, pain and disappointment in Winter Journal.