Paul Auster is best known and often praised for his postmodernist novels and short stories, including “The New York Trilogy” and “Sunset Park,” but his lifetime of literary achievement actually began with a 1982 memoir, “The Invention of Solitude,” his first published work under his own name. Now, 30 years later, he has returned to autobiography with “Winter Journal” (Henry Holt, $26), a haunting and even afflicting valedictory that also sings out in celebration of life.
Auster is now 65, an age when thoughts commonly turn to the longevity of Medicare, IRAs, and life itself. Composed as a series of diary entries, a fugue of seemingly random but carefully chosen moments of reflection, and written as if he were addressing himself, “Winter Journal” announces from the first page that its is concerned, quite literally, with matters of life and death.
“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 these things will ever happen,” he muses, “and then, one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else.”
It’s a shattering thought for all of us, of course, but especially for someone who has aspired to — and achieved — literary genius. After all, we like to think of our favorite writers as literally deathless, and so do they; one persistent motif in the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer is the appearance of someone who, against all logic and experience, is still alive and well. For Auster, however, the word “deadline” suddenly takes on a new and dire meaning. “Speak now before it is too late, and then hope to go on speaking until there is nothing more to be said,” he writes. “Time is running out, after all.”
“Winter Journal,” then, is not a cheerful book. “[A]t one time or another nearly every part of your body has been subjected to assault,” he observes. “Eyes and ears, head and neck, shoulders and back, arms and legs, throat and stomach, ankles and feet, not to mention the enormous boil that once sprouted on the left cheek of your ass, referred to by the doctor as a wen, which to your ears sounded like some medieval affliction and prevented you from sitting in chairs for weeks.”
Auster casts his memory back and forth across the years —the tender years of early childhood when all of life lay in the future, the explorations and discoveries of adolescence, “breaking the North American masturbation record every month throughout the years 1961 and 1962,” and the years of vigorous adulthood when he was capable of believing that he was the master of his fate. He catalogues the cars he has owned (and crashed), the places where he lived, the moments of triumph and celebration, both at childhood sports and more adult endeavors, including the prostitute in Paris who recited Baudelaire in bed, and the other carnal pleasures he has experienced: “Sexual pleasures first and foremost, but also the pleasures of food and drink, of lying naked in a hot bath, of scratching an itch, of sneezing and farting, of spending an extra hour in bed…”
Death begets the fear of death in Auster as when he recalls “the first full-blown panic attack of your life, which occurred just two days after your mother’s death, followed by several others in the days immediately after that, and for some time now you have felt that you are disintegrating, that you, who were once nature’s strongman, able to resist all assaults from within and without, impervious to the somatic and psychological travails that dog the rest of humanity, are not the least bit strong anymore and are turning into a debilitated wreck.” Yet he refuses to confront the inevitable: “No, you do not want to die, and even as you approach the age of your father when his life came to an end, you have not called any cemetery to arrange for your burial plot, have not given away any of his books you are certain you will never read again, and have not begun to clear your throat to say your good-byes.”
By now, Auster finds himself compelled to make a concession to his own mortality. “Outside, the air is gray, almost white, with no sun visible,” he muses. “You ask yourself: How many mornings are left?” And yet “Winter Journal” is actually an act of defiance. Auster is raging on against the dying of the light, and the sheer strength of his prose is the best evidence that he is still capable of feats of strength as a stylist and a storyteller.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His next book, “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan,” will be published by the Horace Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary year of Kristallnacht. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.