(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.
Hm. I have just read the letters between Coetzee and Auster (for some odd reason they’re out in Spanish, not yet in the original) and the impression of banality was the same. Coetzee is always more contained and tight (and chillingly cold sometimes, as we know him). Auster, despite the banality, appears much more generous.