Review: Paul Auster, Winter Journal

13 December 2012, 1:22 pm

(Originally appeared in Afrikaans, in Rapport, 2 Dec. 2012 )

Paul Auster, Winter Journal, Faber and Faber, 2012, ISBN 978-0-571-28321-7

Just before he turned 64 (in 2011), Paul Auster started on Winter Journal, a sort of memoir. Feeling partly lucky that he has reached his 60s and that he is still healthy, but also feeling that he is now nevertheless reaching the winter of his life, the book is a collection of reminiscences about childhood, youth, and adulthood, as well as the most recent past.

Unlike his friend, JM Coetzee, who wrote his autobiographical Boyhood and Youth in third person, Auster writes his Winter Journal in the second person: “You are ten years old, and the midsummer air is warm, oppressively warm,…” The point Coetzee was making was clear: autobiography contains fictions and manufactured memories. The “I” doing the writing is not the same “I” being written about. By writing about himself as “he”, Coetzee thus emphasizes this distance and forces us to think about the line between the “truth” of autobiography and the inventions of fiction.

But why write autobiography in the second person?

One reason for avoiding the “I” could be to lessen the self-regard that a collection of first person pronouns may create: “I grew up in Paarl. At six, I was the 100m sprinter for Blouhuis. I won the medals for the 100m and 400m relay.” The second person “you”, when it stands in for “I”, creates distance between the writing “I” and the “I” being written about. But it also draws the reader into identifying more closely with the person being written about: “You grew up in Paarl. At six, you were the 100m sprinter for Blouhuis. You won the medals for the 100m and 400m relay.” The effect of such a switch in autobiography, I would suggest, is perhaps more narcissistic than use of the “I” would have been. Overall then, I feel that Auster’s use of the “you” is more gimmick than a thought-through literary device.

Winter Journal does not present the writer’s life in a chronology. It ranges back and forth in time, using, instead, thematic associations and disassociations as connecting points. It is as if one is either in Auster’s head as he ruminates on his own life or listening to him during an after dinner conversation. The writing, in other words, flows smoothly and the changes in topics also occur organically.

And so one learns that Auster was a boisterous boy, who liked the physicality of play, who liked to play baseball, who injured himself often, and who did not hesitate to defend himself but soon turned away from situations where he would need to defend himself with violence. One learns about his adolescence and his burgeoning sexuality, his largely unsatisfying experiences with prostitutes and a freer, more satisfying sexual life at university. One learns about his parents’ divorce. One learns about what he liked to eat as a growing boy. Via a descriptive list of 50 pages one learns about all the places – the apartments and houses – he has lived in, by himself, with lovers, and finally with his wife (unnamed, but who we know is novelist Sviri Hustvedt). We learn a lot more.

I am always interested in reading writers’ autobiographical writing. There is often much to learn; more important is the confirmation I find as a writer – assonance with another writer’s obsessions or habits of mind. And given the intelligent fictions that Auster is capable of, one also reads his autobiographical writing hoping to come across some inkling of the source – or the mind – that produces those fictions.

What one encounters in Winter Journal, I have to admit, is bereft of intelligence. In both style and content, the book strains to find the profound in the mundane and ends up being, rather, banal. The language is flat, and often extraneous: “you will go down the hall to the library and stretch out on the sofa, which is long enough to accommodate your full extended body”. There are many such redundant explanations and qualifications.

In one short passage, where Auster considers an anecdote involving James Joyce, the language suddenly comes alive. Someone wants to shake the hand that wrote Ulysses. Joyce offers his hand and says that the hand had also done many other things. Auster delights in how Joyce leaves all possibilities of the hand’s activities to the listener: “what a delicious piece of smut and innuendo, all the more effective because he left everything to the woman’s imagination.” Would it that Auster had left most of his personal life to the reader’s imagination.


Royaumont Hash-up

15 June 2012, 8:44 am

This essay was originally published in Home Away (Zebra Press, 2010), edited by Louis Greenberg. Sadly, the book is being remaindered, an all too common fate for books in South Africa. “Paris, a kiss” is a companion piece, covering the same period and event.

Royamont Hash-up

For two weeks during July 1994, I was one of six aspirant black South African writers on a fiction workshop with Denis Hirson, a South African writer by then established in Paris for more than twenty years. The other writers were Joan Baker, Sipho Mahlobo, Isaac Mogotsi, Roshila Nair and Mango Tshabango. Sponsored in its entirety (travel, accommodation, stipend) by the French Ministry of Culture, the workshop included five or so days in Paris – staying with Parisian families, doing readings at two bookshops. But the main part – the workshop proper – took place at Royaumont Abbey, close to a small village thirty-plus kilometres north of Paris.

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Peter Horn on Censorship, 1979

23 November 2011, 2:39 pm

Peter Horn, 1979, “The right of the people to censor the arts”,  In National Union of South African Students (Ed.), Dead in One’s Lifetime, Cape Town: NUSAS (1979) pp.92-105

The state which does not censor the arts, does not take the arts seriously. The state which does censor the arts, regards its citizens as minors, incapable of making rational choices. Any discussion of censorship and the relation of the state to the arts, which does not deal with both horns of this dilemma, will not come to grips with the complexity of the subject, and will end up with the irreconcilable dichotomy between the liberal stance of laissez faire and the authoritarian imposition of censorship.

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Peter Horn on Censorship, 1989

23 November 2011, 2:25 pm

Peter Horn, 1989, “Censorship: Creating pockets of ignorance”, in South, 22 June 1989, p.18

(South [Weekly] was an independent newspaper generally aligned with the UDF and ANC, edited by Moegsien Williams, 1988-1991.)

Any form of censorship assumes that there is one group – usually a minority – which is wiser, more intelligent, more moral than another, which protects another group which is prone to be seduced, led astray, outraged or insulted by some form of writing, painting, music or other form of self-expression. Any form of censorship therefore denies the full equality of all the members of a society. The censors depict themselves as adult and responsible, and insinuate patronisingly that the rest of humanity, the majority, is in a childlike state of irresponsibility.

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Edrees

1 June 2011, 4:03 pm


Our friendship must have started before we were teenagers because one of my earliest memories of Edrees is of him and my brother teaching me to ride Edrees’s bicycle, one of those intermediate ones – mid size, freewheel, back-pedal brakes – and from which Edrees had already removed the training wheels. They let go, I fell and was angry with them for a long time. But bicycles would remain central to our friendship.

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Dagga – Part Five

30 May 2011, 6:34 pm

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

The shame of being a man – is there any better reason to write?- Gilles Deleuze

The Greek roots of “nostalgia” are nostos (“return home”) and algos (“pain”); the word does not refer only to what we think of as a soft-focus recollection of times or things past. It refers to a particular ache, an ache to return, and to return to a certain place. By naturalising nostalgia – by treating or dismissing it as a wistful (wasteful?) act of recollection that we all eventually will indulge in – we deny that there is also, or was, a possibility of retaining the thing now lost. Is this the ache that the Greek algos refers to: the pain of acknowledging a loss for which yet there was a possibility of retaining? Not the packet of Simba chips that cost only 2 cents when I was a child, the loss of which I could not control, but something else? What, exactly, is the mathematics of this ache for home?

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Ramadan: not fasting but feasting

9 November 2010, 7:57 am

1.

When a northerly wind blows, and the roads are quiet and the atmospherics right, I can hear the athaan (call to prayer) from one of the mosques down the road in Salt River. And sometimes I can hear more than one. Out of sync with each other, two calls to prayer can produce either an eerie echo or, if the pitch of both are similar, a harmony. Having grown up Muslim, there is something about the drawn out Arabic phrases, something about its familiarity, that casts me, at once, into spells of nostalgia and melancholia. But hearing the call can also be estranging. In Paarl, where I grew up, the two mosques in use during most of my childhood and teenage years were the mosques of the old Muslim neighbourhood before the Group Areas Act. No Muslims lived in earshot of the mosques anymore, and I didn’t grow up hearing the call to prayer from my house. I heard it when I was at or inside the mosque.

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Biko, Biko

13 September 2010, 12:27 pm

1.

“You talk like a moslem, but you look like a kaffir,” I said to James. I was four or five years old. The man I was talking to, whom I only knew as ‘James’, responded with a laugh to my presumption: a child speaking to a man about something the child could not know about. He worked for my uncle, a backyard panel-beater and on whose property my family lived, in a converted garage which we called the servants’ quarters, as it would have been when the neighbourhood was a white area. I remember the scene vividly: it is a late Spring morning, tea break, and James is sitting on a small, upturned drum, eating a sandwich and drinking tea. It is a sunny day, but we are sitting in the shade of the carport. Behind him, under grapevine, stand vintage Fords that my uncle hopes to renovate, to one side a loquat tree, and washing lines hung every Monday by Dorothy, my aunt’s domestic worker. Forty years later, I can still recall his face: dark and beautiful, and a broad, warm smile.

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Waar die kranse antwoord gee

11 April 2010, 2:06 pm

Following is the English version of a column published in Rapport today, 11 April. This is a translation of the submitted original, thus prior to sub-editing. There are minor variations in expression and a few editorial additions (for the sake of nuance or precision) to the English translation.

Every now and then I fall down a rabbit hole on the internet. A few months ago, I wandered through a maze of broadly white right-wing South African blogs and forums. Some present a dry, professional political image with historical and constitutional analyses, seeking legal precedent and constitutional justification for a white Afrikaans volkstaat. Some factions seek an all-white volkstaat, other factions feel anyone who speaks Afrikaans as mother tongue might be welcome.

There are many factions amongst this broad movement of white dissatisfaction with the New South Africa. Some talk about armed resistance, while others caution against such ‘irresponsible’ talk. Some blogs focus on recording violent crime statistics, especially where crime victims are white. However, some blogs have now started to include all violent crime, irrespective of the victim’s race, so as to avoid accusations of racism.

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Sergey Gandlevsky – The Monument

21 August 2009, 9:56 am

UNCLE SERYOZHA has lost his marbles, and, very spryly for a man of his age, jumps onto the running board of the general conversation in order to dictate its itinerary:  the storied times when sour cream was so thick a spoon would stand upright in it, and he could have dinner for a ruble and still have enough for a Belomor smoke and beer, keg beer with some heated beer poured into the cold, and salted crackers shaped like rings . . . . Now it’s all over:  the hosts are embarrassed, the guests slink away.  Uncle Seryozha—that’s me.

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