Memories are not linear; they have a chronology all their own. In Winter Journal, Paul Auster looks back at his life, meandering back and forth in time. He is the 63-year-old man climbing out of bed to look at the snow turning the trees white, the boy, all of 3 and a half years old, going wild in the endless space of a department store and splitting his cheek on a nail on the leg of a carpenter’s bench, and a 12-year-old focused on his game of baseball. Each incident is captured with the clarity of film and a clear memory of what it felt to be that person at that time.
This is a journey through Auster’s life: the places he lived, the women he loved, and the scars he picked up along the way. He writes about the body, the way it grows, develops and starts to wear out. He writes entirely in second person, which can be hard to get right, but it works here.
Marriages in his family seem to be rocky, except for his own. His parents’ marriage was doomed to failure: “an impetuous marriage between two incompatible souls that ran out of steam before the honeymoon was over”. Like that of his grandparents: “Your father would be such a wonderful man—if only he were different”, says his grandmother to her daughter. His father’s parents weren’t much happier: his grandmother shot her husband in their kitchen. Auster’s mother was a free spirit who went her own way, although she was a good mother to him: “you were the beneficiary of her unhappiness, and you were well loved”.
There is a lot about this book I liked: the writing and the stories he tells. However, I found parts of it a little self-indulgent: we don’t really need the details of all the places he’s lived in. It’s a device he uses to trace the path of his life but it could have been shortened considerably without losing anything. And do we really need almost the entire plot of DOA, the 1949 film by Rudolph Maté? If there was a reason for its inclusion, then I completely missed it.
But Auster at his best is a pleasure to read. Here is a vivid description of him as a 6-year-old, stepping on a nest of wasps: “seconds later you were engulfed by those stinging creatures, who were attacking your face and arms, and even as you tried to swat them away, others had crawled inside your clothes and were stabbing you in your legs and chest and back. Horrific pain. You went running out of the bushes into the grass in the backyard, no doubt screaming your head off, and there was your mother, who took one glance at you and immediately began stripping off your clothes, and when there was no longer a stitch on you, she swooped up your naked body in her arms…carried you upstairs, turned on the water, and put you in a cold, cold bath.”
You can feel the relief of the “cold, cold bath” at the end of that paragraph. It is writing like this that makes this book worth reading.