By Paul Auster
Auster’s second memoir begins with one of the most beautifully penned sentences in recent memory: “You think it will never happen to you, that it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the world to whom none of these things will ever happen, and then, one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else.” Such a sentence is Auster at his finest, one of many high achievements of this lauded man of letters, whose language allows him access to a land of pathos and universality to which so many memoirists are denied.
Meant as a bookend to his 1982 debut The Invention of Solitude, a terrific book about fatherhood, Winter Journal is a meditation on aging and death that uses Auster’s mother’s death as its ostensible focal point. Sadly, despite the beautiful promises Auster makes at the beginning of the book, Winter Journal is neither an elegy for his mother nor, as he proudly asserts on the first page, “a catalogue of sensory data… a phenomenology of aging.”
Instead of successfully cataloging the experience of the human body aging (as, say, David Shields does in The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead), Auster’s prose actually enacts aging—the troubled, disorienting kind. Free of narrative and chronological constraints, the book rambles through time and space with seemingly no rhyme or reason, lapsing into sentimental reverie (baseball is a favorite subject) just as often as it attempts profundity. The persistent use of second person feels like a bombardment, not unlike the experience of a child being forced to listen to a crotchety grandfather. “Pay attention to this,” the grandfather insists, but because the child is not shown any real connection between his own life and the old man’s, he finds no reason to.
Perhaps Auster set the bar too high for himself. To set out to write a book about living and dying in a human body is like someone setting out to write a book about time: it’s just too big (except for Proust). When Auster took on the mythic father-son dynamic in The Invention of Solitude, he held a trump card—the murder of his father’s father by his grandmother—that provided narrative propulsion and kept the writing from becoming too abstract. The Auster of yore—of The New York Trilogy and The Music of Chance—might have been able to pull off a book like this. But this is a frailer Auster, more timid, weighted down by his fame.
“No doubt you are a flawed and wounded person,” he writes to the reader, “a man who has carried a wound in him from the very beginning (why else would you have spent the whole of your life bleeding words onto a page?).” If Auster could have remained in this moment, actually opened this wound, an interesting memoir might have poured forth. But just as soon as he enters this moment he jets off again, this time to the discovery of the male organ in a bathtub in 1952. What a pity. It’s the same pity one might reserve, ironically, for a fading baseball star, one who passed his peak a long time ago but who will not or cannot stop swinging.