Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Paul Auster, _Winter Journal_

I'M OBVIOUSLY IN summer catching-up mode. Deep catching-up mode, in fact, since this appeared in 2012; in fact, its sequel has already been out for a while.  If you want up-to-date lit talk, you'll just have to go to Bookslut or something.

First question: what do we have here? Despite the title, it does not seem like a journal, exactly, since journals ordinarily range widely and randomly over their topics, and this text seems to stay on the topic of things that happen to bodies, Auster's in particular.  At the same time, it's much looser than a memoir.  Among Auster's other texts, it most reminds me of "The Book of Memory," the second part of The Invention of Solitude: a sort of free essayistic movement around a well-defined constellation of concerns.

Composed, we learn, around the tine of Auster's 64th birthday, the book seems prompted by Auster's own aging; as one eventually has to acknowledge that one is no longer young, so one has eventually to acknowledge that one is no longer middle-aged, either, and that death will be along presently. This is not a new thing for Auster, I would say--The Book of Illusions, Man in the Dark, The Brooklyn Follies, and Travels in the Scriptorium all had something valedictory about them; somehow, Auster has always been about departures, especially the more abrupt and inexplicable ones. But he does introduce some new notes.

For instance, part of the book is about mishaps Auster's body has experienced, auto accidents, near misses, that sort of thing, and one anxiety attack. The anxiety attack occurred in particular circumstances (a phone call from a deeply annoying relative) at the time of Auster's mother's death--and this incident opens up the topic of Auster's mother, a mostly unexplored realm for him. Fathers are a recurring topic in Auster; mothers, not so much, so this is a new note for him, and very much the best thing in the book, I'd say. Quite a few pages on his second marriage, too, which as nearly as I can tell has left little impress on his fiction, perhaps because it has been such a happy one.

Another highlight, for me, was the annotated catalog of places he has lived--a simple list that uncorks long trains of association. An arresting entry:

5. 25 Van Velsor Place; Newark, New Jersey. A two-bedroom apartment not far from Weequahic High School and the hospital where you [Auster refers to himself in the second person throughout] were born, rented by your mother after she and your father separated and then divorced.

Weequahic! It intrigues me that Auster and Roth have roots in the same locale, born fourteen years apart...both Jewish (Auster has more to say about this in Winter Journal than he has before), both deeply influenced by continental writers...presumably they have met, or at least read each other. I found myself asking if Auster's mentioning Weequahic by name (Auster didn't himself go there, sticking with his high school in the suburbs) was a flag waved at the Roth readers out there. Probably not--but for me, it's as if he mentioned Clongowes, which is a real school with a real history, but for me screams Joyce! Weequahic screams Roth! What does Auster think of Roth, Roth of Auster? For some reason, I find myself caring.

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