This review was originally published in Readings Monthly.
In a piece for The Paris Review, the interviewer comments that in Paul Auster’s novel Leviathan, the lead character Peter Aaron not only bears Auster’s initials, but is also married to a woman whose name is that of Auster’s wife’s spelt backwards. Additionally, his memoirs The Invention of Solitude and Hand to Mouth detail his life as a struggling writer.
Through poetry, plays, screenplays, criticism and translation, Auster has examined the notion of self and identity again and again. It is in his latest memoir, Winter Journal, however, where Auster is allowed to excavate what he does best.
The memoir is written directly to ‘you’, that pesky second person point of view that often comes across as confronting or, at the very least, irritating. But by its very nature, Auster’s ‘you’ is gripping – talking purely, often times authoritatively (and no less romantically), to the many versions of his younger self. Much of the early book is dedicated to the women he’s loved – including second wife and novelist Siri Hustvedt – but Auster is also lucid about his experiences, turning a careful eye over his actions. Nowhere else has an autobiographer been so critical – and in doing so, Auster’s words implicate the reader in a powerful and compelling way.
Each paragraph is a discrete episode – in the same interview with The Paris Review, Auster talks about how the paragraph is his ‘natural unit of composition … at least for me’ – and in this memoir it is clearly his strongest suit. Events do not necessarily lead to one another; instead, they traipse along in a non-linear fashion, stopping off to paint a scene and then just as nonchalantly moving on again, as if the events were unfolding in real life itself.
The result is both delightful and jolting. In one section of the book Auster moves swiftly from the thoughts of a five-year-old admiring his body in the bath to a 55-year-old in the car accident that nearly cost not only his own life, but also those of his wife and daughter. Later, a single paragraph will describe both the absurdity and the horror of his father’s death. It is a rare writer who can move from curiosity to pathos in a few mere lines; Auster, when at speed, gallops through them all.
Towards the end of the book, Auster describes an epiphanic moment when watching a group of dancers in rehearsal leaping and twisting through the air. This event, he states, eventually leads him to write his first prose poem, ‘White Spaces’, after a long period of insecurity and self-doubt. It is also the moment when on the opposite side of the city, unbeknownst to him, his father is dying. One could infer from such an event that Auster’s life is filled with unfortunate coincidences – the sudden death of his 14-year-old friend in a field, struck by lightning, being another – but it is only in his hands that such events are turned into wondrous things, filled with deep sorrow, but also hope.