A number of words come to mind when one considers Paul Auster’s new memoir, Winter Journal – unconventional, personal (almost by definition, I suppose), rambling, confusing, boring, frustrating, rewarding, revealing, gratifying, moving. Consequently, although many readers are certain to appreciate the book, I suspect that an equal number will end up considering it a waste of precious reading time. Auster, in his sixty-third year when writing Winter Journal, has produced what his publisher calls an “unconventional memoir,” a “history of his body and its sensations.”
And a memoir that includes a list and description of every scar on the author’s body - and how he earned those scars – along with a description of all twenty-one addresses where his body has ever resided (a descriptive list that burns 53 pages of the 230-page ARC edition of the memoir) is exactly that. The publisher, of course, uses the word “unconventional” as a selling point, but I am not certain that readers will necessarily agree that this much unconventionality is a good thing. The section on a lifetime of living space will, in fact, likely be the tipping point for those readers who might already be starting to question the Winter Journal reading experience. They will either make it through these 53 pages, and the rest of the book, or they will give up somewhere in the middle of the list.
Surprisingly for such a short book, Auster also devotes almost ten full pages to recounting the plot of the noirish 1950 movie D.O.A. Again, unconventionally, the author devotes as much time to the details of the film as to the reason he references it in the first place – Auster’s experience with panic attacks. Admittedly, the main character of D.O.A. suffers a classic panic attack of his own, but reading ten pages of movie recap grows rather tedious.
The book may be uneven, but moving moments are sprinkled throughout. Auster’s memories of his visits to Minnesota and the pages he devotes to personal relationships (particularly to his relationship with his second wife), for instance, work beautifully. There is a horrifying memory of an encounter he had with a Parisian piano-tuner while living in France with a girlfriend. There is the moment during which the author reflects on Joubert’s thoughts on growing old: “One must die loveable (if one can).” Auster explains his understanding of the Joubert quote this way:
“You are moved by this sentence, especially by the words in parentheses, which demonstrate a rare sensitivity of spirit, you feel, a hard-won understanding of how difficult it is to be loveable, especially for someone who is old, who is sinking into decrepitude and must be cared for by others. If one can.”
Consider, too, Auster’s recollection of an observation generously offered him by an aging French actor:
“Paul, there’s just one thing I want to tell you. At fifty-seven (Auster’s age at the time of the conversation), I felt old. Now, at seventy-four, I feel much younger than I did then.”
Confused for a long while by this observation, it is only several years later that Auster comes to believe the actor may have been telling him that “a man fears death more at fifty-seven than he does at seventy-four.”
So there are wonderful moments in Winter Journal, and there are whole sections that left me wishing the author would simply get on with it. Unconventional, it certainly is.
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)