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Winter Journal Hardcover – August 21, 2012
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, August 2012: At nearly 64, one of our greatest modern writers is feeling his age. In his quietly transfixing new memoir, Winter Journal, Paul Auster meditates on what it means for his mind, body, and creativity to experience the unforgiving passage of time. This should be--and is--an intensely personal chronicle, but Auster makes the journey equally ours by inviting us into its unfolding. "No doubt you are a flawed and wounded person," he cautions, and suddenly you are. You are the player in this story: running away from your pregnant mother in a department store; learning to wrangle your adolescent hormones; taking an "inventory of your scars, in particular the ones on your face"; marveling at the beauty of your wife as she sleeps; moving in and out of 21 homes, recalling their addresses and aesthetics in astonishing detail. "Writing begins in the body, it is the music of the body," Auster notes. With Winter Journal, he reminds us that it is also the joyful, then melancholy, then reluctantly accepting soundtrack of our full and finite lives. --Mia Lipman
“Celebrated author Auster (Sunset Park) observes his own life in this engaging memoir… Auster presents a fascinating take on the memoir. Students and fans will appreciate his original examination of his interior self.” ―Library Journal (Starred)
“An incandescent memoir. . . . Contemplative, pugnacious and achingly tender. . . . A profoundly beautiful book. . .” ―Washington Post
“This august author's meandering meditation on time, aging, and the eventual death of his mother beguiled many readers with its mix of pungent poetics and humble reminiscence.” ―Elle Magazine, Readers' Prize Winner
“His concerns will be familiar to many readers, but because he is Paul Auster, he is uniquely able to reflect on them for the rest of us…. Riveting… Writing in the second-person, almost as if talking about someone else or as if speaking with a stranger, Auster, oddly enough, establishes a powerful intimacy with the reader.” ―Haaretz
“[A] graceful, moving new memoir... a kaleidoscopic reflection from one of our most important writers as he enters life's winter.... Auster's brilliance is in how he makes his deep love for his subjects palpable.... With Winter Journal, Auster has given us a remarkable mosaic of his mother and his second wife, the most vital women in his life, while, at the same time, allowing readers to catch glimpses of themselves in the expansive life that's woven together in this stirring memoir.” ―Alex Lemon, Dallas Morning News
“Each year, when the inevitable hand-wringing begins over the American drought in winning the Nobel Prize for literature, I'm always surprised that more critics don't push Paul Auster.... The recent knock against American literature is that it's ‘insular' and ‘isolated,' at least according to one grumpy Nobel Prize judge. As an antidote to those gripes, I'd like to press a few of Mr. Auster's books into more Swedish hands…. Mr. Auster's prose is sharp and the plots are coiled. And best of all, his stories are addictively entertaining…. Mr. Auster has written a spare meditation that's thoroughly entertaining. In short, Winter Journal might contemplate the past, but it reinforces Paul Auster's status as a writer at the peak of his talents.” ―Cody Corliss, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Fascinating… Strikingly bold and original... Think of it as a literary cousin of Federico Fellini's semi-autobiographical film, ‘Amarcord' (‘I remember') -- only this time, we watch the protagonist grow up and become pensively aware of his mortality.” ―Doug Childers, Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Paul Auster's novels are mesmerizing reverie, often chilly to the touch yet exploding with exponential warmth on deeper consideration. The same can be said for Winter Journal, a new memoir that comes three decades after his first, The Invention of Solitude. Here, Auster surveys the physical, emotional and spiritual landscapes of his life, then deconstructs these touchstones one unreliable memory at a time. Deeply musical, often darkly funny ruminations on baseball, becoming a middle-aged orphan after his mother's passing, the enduring power of love, and an intimate history of his own body's pains and pleasures weave together to confirm that while no one gets out of this world alive, each moment can be transcendent.” ―J. Rentilly, American Way
“[A] powerful new memoir…. Periodically, Auster writes these long sentences, gently pulling them like threads from the fabric of his imagination. Perhaps you learned them as run-ons, but Auster's are wonders of clarity and cumulative clout. As Auster escorts you through his life, you realize Winter Journal works like your own mind. It tells stories; it remembers, moves on, revisits; it sorts and classifies; it judges. Feels.” ―Daniel Dyer, The Plain Dealer
“Readers of [Paul Auster's] string of beguiling novels, which include The New York Trilogy, The Brooklyn Follies and Sunset Park, will enjoy picking out the autobiographical roots of some of his fiction…. Thoughtful ruminations on the nexus between the mundane and the meaningful, the physical and the emotional.” ―Heller McAlpin, NPR.Org
“Unusual, affecting…. To experience Auster's fixation on the body-- and his way of staging that fixation as something you're complicit in--is to realize that most memoirs don't work this way. Not even the ones that focus on illness and death. Memoirs tend to be psychological studies of how one person's mind worked through something. Winter Journal instead foregrounds the physical; on the first page Auster states his intention to catalog ‘what it has felt like to live inside this body from the first day you can remember being alive until this one.' With psychological interpretations stripped off, what's left is a more visceral accounting…. What becomes clearer, and in its closing pages more potent, is the way this physical self-scrutiny amplifies his emotional responses.” ―Mark Athitakis, Barnes & Noble Review
“[A] remarkable meditation on 'what it has felt like to live inside this body from the first day you can remember being alive until this one.' Notice his use of the second person? One of the first pleasures of Winter Journal is its feeling of immediacy, as if we are inside Auster's head staring with him into memory's mirror, listening to him talk to himself.... Auster catalogs his memories with all the entertaining artistry of the best medieval poets.” ―Alden Mudge, Bookpage (Top Nonfiction Pick for September)
“[In Winter Journal] one of the nation's most revered fiction writers looks back at his life -- and contemplates age and mortality -- in a gripping memoir that hopscotches across the decades.” ―Chris Waddington, New Orleans Times-Picayune
“Winter Journal takes up the conceit of a detachable self and develops it... An engaging book.” ―James Campbell, The Wall Street Journal
“For a reader of a certain age, perhaps a male reader of a certain age, there's a sharp shudder of recognition at the admission of minor vices, of neglect and breakdown, of the slow ravages of the body over time. As someone who shares many of these predilections, I find myself rendered nearly breathless by Auster's willingness to tell.” ―David Ulin, Los Angeles Times
“Winter Journal is far more elegiac than angry, more wistful than soaked in regret.... When you read Auster's final page, you will feel you have been in the company of a man whose life has had more ups than downs, more times to celebrate than memories to drown. Added pleasure will come from the clear, inventive prose that has marked Auster's equally inventive novels through the years, from his New York trilogy to more recent books like Invisible and Sunset Park.... When you reach the end of the book, you will have appreciated the journey as much as he clearly has.” ―Dale Singer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“An idiosyncratic memoir that is at times cerebral, at times bawdy, and in every sense consistently rewarding... Whether you experience what Auster calls the ‘journey through winter' literally or figuratively, this book will serve as a worthy companion when you embark on it.” ―Harvey Freedenberg, Bookreporter.com
“A highly personal memoir and extended essay, shaped oddly and intimately by an all-embracing second-person voice.” ―Steve Paul, Kansas City Star
“Auster's memoir recalls his free-spirited mother and the history of his own body. We experience Auster's appetite for food and drink and literature but foremost for sex, as well as the crippling panic attacks that plagued him after his mother's death, the epiphany he experienced watching a dance performance that cured his writer's block, and the intense shame of nearly killing his family in a car accident. Over time, as Auster's body alternately ages and is revitalized, the composition of these elements creates an intimate symphony of selves, a song of the body for all seasons.” ―Vanity Fair
“The acclaimed novelist, now 65, writes affectingly about his body, family, lovers, travels and residences as he enters what he calls the winter of his life…. Auster's memoir courses gracefully over ground that is frequently rough, jarring and painful… A consummate professional explores the attic of his life, converting rumination to art.” ―Kirkus, Starred Review
“[A] quietly moving meditation on death and life… This is the exquisitely wrought catalogue of a man's history through his body.” ―Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
“An intensely sensuous account of strange and dramatic events punctuated by jazzy lists of everything from the places he's called home to his favorite foods. Auster's most piercing recollections are anchored to injury and illness, close calls and bad habits, age and ‘the ghoulish trigonometry of fate.'… Auster is startlingly forthright, mischievously funny, and unfailingly enrapturing as he transforms intimate memories into a zestful inquiry into the mind-body connection and the haphazard forging of a self.” ―Donna Seaman, Booklist, Starred Review
“This book is called a memoir, but as might be expected of the brilliantly offbeat award-winning author of The New York Trilogy, it's not a standard retelling of life events. Instead, as he approaches his mid-Sixties, Auster considers bodily pain and pleasure, the passage of time, and the weight of memory, stirring in reflections on his mother's life and death. High-minded readers will anticipate.” ―Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
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The author elects to write his memoir in the second person--and to great effect. Whereas the introspective, egocentric first person focuses the reader's attention on the narrator, Auster's more familiar "you" invites his audience to reflect on their own experiences, whether they are similar to the author's or not. And in this way the memoirist opens his life to you.
Auster moves next from the flashbacks of youth to lodging, the many places he resided during his restless years (New Jersey, Carmen Hall, Columbia U., Manhattan, Paris...) and uses their addresses as points of reference to chronicle the events and experiences that occur during his stay at each.
Because we are biological creatures, coming of age and sex are significant milestones in our lives. Auster shares his experiences and intimate relationships in this rite of passage openly, yet tactfully. The death of a parent is a biological passage, too, and it is here the thread of mortality enters the memoir. The author's account of the sudden, untimely death of his mother from a heart attack (Auster had had a phone conversation with her just three days prior) is tender, touching,--and horrifying. Auster receives a phone call from his mother's cleaning woman who had let herself into the apartment and discovered his mother dead. An hour and half later Auster is at her bedside. As he looks upon his mother in death, Auster shares this heartrending observation: "You have seen several corpses in the past and you are familiar with the inertness of the dead, the inhuman stillness that envelops the bodies of the no longer living, but none of these corpses belonged to your mother, no other dead body was the body in which your life began...."
Auster grieves her death by trying to reconstruct the person he believed his mother to be and realizes, as most of us will, that though our parents are pivotal in our lives, perhaps we don't know them as well as we think. Some parts of their lives, their thoughts, remain mysteries; they withhold certain secrets and these they take to their graves.
The author concludes his memoir with allusions to the Twin Towers and the death camp Bergen-Belsen, both of which remind us of the capriciousness of life, its randomness, its fragility--its finality. Auster poses the personal but universal question more commonly pondered by those of us of his generation: "How many mornings do I have left?" Winter Journal is a wonderfully written memoir, honest in its telling, thought-provoking in its content.
If there is a theme in this book, it is the way we experience the world through our bodies, though ironically through bodies that we can never fully see in the way that other people can. We feel like an integrated physical being, but we can only ever look at bits of ourselves, even in the mirror or a photograph. Three dimensional holograms will be extraordinary for more than just the technology.
Auster recalls the physicality of childhood, the hugs and body contact, the bumps and bruises, scars whose causes are both vividly remembered and long forgotten. There are the teenage years of raging hormones and sexual discovery, and early manhood where trying to make sense of relationships often ends in failure and the occasional unwanted infection. There is a confident middle age, but now he feels he is getting old and his body is no longer capable of doing everything it once could, and it is showing signs of wear and tear. He has acquired habits that are not good for his health but he is now too old to change his ways - the vice is just too nice.
Food is one of the corporal pleasures and he remembers childhood meals and treats, listing all his favourite things, many now abandoned unless tempted in the boredom of an airport lounge. If you want to know why Americans are the unhealthiest people in the rich world, there are plenty of clues here. In contrast, Christmas dinners with his wife's family are a simple affair and the menu has never varied over the years. The meals tie the family closer even as the years change the characters and separate them geographically.
He is a lover, not a fighter. He has been fascinated by girls from boyhood and is lonely and adrift without women in his life. Sleeping alone he feels bereft and one of the great pleasures of his life, both emotional and physical, has been the constant companionship of his current wife, to whom he has been married for over thirty years. It was love at first meeting and they share much in common. He muses that she is a better version of himself. Throughout his life it has never been the physical attraction of women that arouses him, though he says his wife is beautiful (always wise to insure yourself in print). Rather, it is the `inner spark' of a woman that beguiles him, something about her character and intellect, the very thing that he sensed when he and his future wife met after a literary seminar, or that surprised him when Sandra, a Parisian prostitute, recited long passages of Baudelaire.
One of his favourite ways to engage his body with the world is walking. He walks regularly in his native New York and in cities around the world as he travels. He is out in all sorts of weather, his body exposed to extremes of temperature, to the wind and sun, icy air and brewing storms. He says that walking is integral to his ability to write, an observation that many writers have made, but in the end he has very little to say about this linkage.
At a few points in the book he pauses to tell us that he is writing, as winter howls or closes in silently outside. Going over the events of his life he is always scribbling in the background, increasingly making it a daily routine, and after marriage it is in parallel to his wife's literary work. But how do the often mundane events of his life lead to this feverish obsession with getting words down on paper? There is no clue whatsoever. We get the dull and diurnal, but no idea how they transubstantiate into the occasionally sublime.
At one period in his life he is feeling very low and his ability to write seems to have deserted him. He goes to watch a rehearsal by a group of eight dancers. They rehearse without music and each of their pieces is interspersed with the choreographer explaining what she is trying to do. The explanations confuse and bore him, but each time the dancers move he is spellbound. There is something about their movements that inspires him, gives him a sense of freedom and possibility. It is a turning point in his life, after which he is able to return to productive writing. But what was it about those dancers and their movements that lit the spark? As happens too often in this memoir, words fail him. He describes the incident in a matter-of-fact way, says it changed his life, then slips into the next memory. The reader is left bewildered in the wings.
There are deaths, of family and friends, increasing in number as he gets older. He confesses that he cries more often at films and novels than he does at the deaths of other people. Age makes him more conscious of his own mortality, but he senses that it also makes him more accepting. For many years he suffered panic attacks, fearsome and terrifying, so unlike the calm he sees in those sliding into death. Perhaps death is most feared when we realise that we have not really lived.
Paul Auster writes well, but for me too much of this latest memoir reads like short entries in a diary, dot points for some future exposition. His life is often dreary - that is true for all of us - but he very rarely explores why some memories remain important to him. It's an odd shortcoming in a writer. When he attempts an explanation, his interpretive skills are insufficient and we can only wonder what he was trying to convey. His account of why he gave up driving is the only point in the book where I felt he was revealing a truth about his character, but otherwise self-reflection is in short supply. Perhaps a future biographer will turn this material into something far more telling.
Then comes the weird choice of “you” instead of “I” or “me”. This is an autobiography in the second person singular ! I gave up after a few pages, then tried to download something else on my Kindle, but there was no network, or satellite communication, or whatever they use at Amazon to refill a Kindle. So, I was stuck, and went back to reading “Winter Journal”. I must admit : you get used to it. There I go, using “you” : must be catching.
The life of a writer is not significantly different from that of millions of people who have car accidents, meet a wonderful woman, cope with the death of those they love, and mourn the fact that they are getting old. The difference is in the writing, the expressing of emotions and the poetic atmosphere of the surroundings. It all boils down to the worn-out admission that the subject matter does not matter : only the way it’s dealt with, and when it’s done with talent, it (whatever IT is) becomes not just interesting, but deeply moving and pleasurable.