Winter Journal by Paul Auster
New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2012 ISBN 9780805095531
Paul Auster and I have a difficult "relationship". I read his novel Leviathan when it came out and thought at the time it was one of the best books I'd ever read. Since then, whenever I've seen one of his books on sale or second-hand, I've picked it up, but never managed to get to the end of any of them.
Why? I've found his writing somewhat opaque, insular in some respects (New York Trilogy), and to my mind verging on pretension. Of course, given the accolades that Auster has garnered over the years, it is probably more a reflection on my shallowness rather than Auster that I think that way.
Anyway, I was in a situation where I needed something to read that I could pick up and put down, my copy of Winter Journal was near at hand, and given the hot weather here in Summer I thought it might help cool me down.
So what do we have here - writing as therapy? writing as contract fulfilment? Possibly both those things, but also a reflection on ageing, on love, on place. And excellent writing.
The title suggested to me that this work would document a Winter, but, while written during that season, the final line of the work explains all - "You have entered the winter of your life"
Auster's entries in his journal cover many aspects of that life, backward-looking for the most part, focussing on his youth, parents, residences and loves. Some of the entries are written with a tone of mild surprise at what the younger Auster did - he's not above writing about his lesser moments (threatening a taxi driver in Paris, procuring an abortion for an early girlfriend) - and some are written with a sense of thankfulness at where he has ended up.
In some ways the book is a reflection on what stays with you, in your memory, and what goes. The little things about a particular apartment or house, a moment with your daughter, a good talk with your mother during a hard time.
What came through for me was a feeling of rootlessness in Auster's life, which explains a lot of his fiction - and explains why I've struggled with it all these years. Reading Winter Journal I can't help feeling on occasions that Auster is writing to try and make sense of his life in some way, but without a solid base of family or faith, that can be hard: as a writer I think he's searching for a narrative for his life, that is not there. His enjoyment of the unchanging rituals of his wife's family Christmas, and his surprise that his neices, nephews and daughter want nothing to change, indicate that he perhaps is still to understand the importance of family rituals in helping us feel placed in the World.
However, I wonder if that rootlessness is a requirement for a good writer - great literature is a search for human truth, and perhaps a lack of stability in youth creates a drive to find that truth. You get a sense of that in this book, and the writing is certianly in the highest class: I actually found it very hard to put this book down.
Auster turned 64 during the timespan covered by this journal, and he is beginning to realise that his remaining time is limited - the time he's spent travelling haunts him as time lost, and that's not all he's lost over the years. Thankfully, he has gained much as well.
As a writer Auster has tilled the soil of his life for a long time now, and this book continues that process. Worth reading.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell