Winter Journal, by Paul Auster, Faber, RRP£17.99/Henry Holt, RRP$26, 240 pages
A 64-year-old man sits in a room ruminating and writing down stories from his life. Gradually we discover that he is a writer who calls himself Auster, and that his mother has recently died. But, if this is autobiographical, why is it in the second person? Is the writer simply detaching himself from his subject? Or does he deem his experiences so everyman that they apply to all readers, as if each of us had at one time lived on West 107th Street, in an oddly-shaped apartment with a sit-down kitchen? Is Auster the subject of his own life or is the real subject the unseen observer, the “you” who gives meaning to this described existence?
Only those who come new to Paul Auster will be surprised by the tricksy style of Winter Journal. This, after all, is an author who once devoted a novel to the abandoned characters from his previous novels, who likes to toy with the reader and wears heavily his literary erudition. Auster’s work meditates on the meaning of existence (do you exist if no one knows you are there?); on lives pared down to the bare essentials for survival. While he can be frustrating – his stories often end without resolution – he is also the most lucid of writers and the reader is carried easily along on spare, elegant prose, caring deeply about the central characters while knowing that things are unlikely to end well for them, if they end at all.
In Winter Journal, Auster treats himself as one of his own characters – a man struggling for order and meaning while knowing none exists. Though chronological, the book is also fragmentary, so the only driving narrative is the arc of his own life. Yet Auster seems determined not to tell this in a way that pulls the reader onward. He is born and grows up; he gets into fights, gets interested in girls, visits prostitutes, gets the clap (though not from them), moves to France, marries, has a son, divorces and marries again.
All this is rendered impressionistically and there is no weighting of subjects, meaning that seminal moments can be skated over while insignificant details are discussed at length. The time, as a teenager at summer camp, when a boy standing next to him was struck by lightning and killed is clearly a crucial moment for Auster, one that powers his belief in the fragility and flukiness of life; yet he gives more attention to reproducing his wife’s minutes of a residents’ association meeting. This is a clever technique but makes for a frustrating read.
Winter Journal is, in some ways, a companion piece to Auster’s first book, The Invention of Solitude (1982), written after the death of his father. But that memoir - of a man attempting to unpick the life of a father he did not really know, and then of the same man when he himself becomes a parent – had a sense of focus that is lacking here. Only towards the second half of the book, when Auster dwells at length on his reaction to the death of his mother, does Winter Journal move into deeper waters. Auster experiences crushing panic attacks that he does not understand; while driving with his family he crashes the car and is lucky to survive. Although these episodes offer shocking and tangible mile-posts on what he paints as his path to decrepitude, what Auster is essentially chronicling is the grinding shift of gears, from confidence to fear; youth to old age; life to death.
As an examination of the emotions of a man growing old this book has much to recommend it, and Auster is unsparingly honest about himself. But even the passage in which he navigates the depths of his love for his wife somehow conspires to be joyless, leading to an almost Paul Bowles-ish inquiry: how many more times will I hold this woman? His children, while certainly not missing, have a remarkably low profile given that this is a man reviewing his life.
There is little in this book that Austerphiles have not seen before but what is lacking is the playfulness, the charm and optimism that made his other fragmentary works such a pleasure to read. This is one story whose ending we know and, while we can admire the honesty of a man weighed down in winter, the effect is akin to being caught by a once engaging but now failing acquaintance at a party. You can listen with sympathy but deep down you are itching to excuse yourself.
Robert Shrimsley is editor of FT.com and an FT columnist