Many memoirs by young writers about their even younger selves have been best sellers in recent years, including Alexandra Fuller’s “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight” and Dave Eggers’s “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.”
No less satisfying, though, have been autobiographical works by much older writers. Roger Angell, sportswriter and former fiction editor for The New Yorker, published “Let Me Finish,” a collection of essays about his early life, when he was 86. At 91, Diana Athill wrote “Somewhere Towards the End,” an account of the regrets, reconsiderations, and limitations that accrue to the elderly. At 73, Philip Roth produced “Everyman,” a novel in which a narrator, closely resembling Roth, tells the story of his life largely through his illnesses and injuries.
Now Paul Auster whose long career has included memoirs of young adulthood (“Hand to Mouth”) and early middle age (“The Invention of Solitude”) as well as several highly regarded works of fiction such as “The New York Trilogy,” “Timbuktu,” and “The Brooklyn Follies,” has written a new memoir, “Winter Journal,” from the perspective of older age.
Though Angell, Athill, and Roth lament the loss of youth’s sharp memory, sexual vigor, and good health — only Auster anchors his book entirely in the physical. “Winter Journal,” which Auster presents as a diary addressed to himself on the eve of his 64th birthday, is in effect, an autobiography of his body.
Auster leaves no aspect of the life of his body unexplored: he describes in detail all 22 homes in which he’s been sheltered; the women with whom he’s slept; the names of the various candy bars he ate as a child; his hangovers, panic attacks, erections, and snores. Most affectingly, Auster writes of the bodies of those he’s loved, touched, and been touched by: his wife (the writer Siri Hustvedt), his children, his mother.
But “Winter Journal” is no mere catalog of sensation. Auster presents all of this physical data as a means of revealing the truths of his life.
Auster is a great storyteller. “Winter Journal” has moving and funny anecdotes. But he never strays far from the body, whose counsel he finds most reliable. After his mother dies, Auster struggles to understand how he feels about this monumental event. After two days of ruminating, he falls to the floor, muscles rigid, howling. He concludes, “You couldn’t grieve . . . so your body broke down and did the grieving for you.”
Auster refers to himself throughout “Winter Journal” as “you.” (“you drink too much and smoke too much”; “you nearly choked to death on a fish bone in 1971” ; “you want to be lovable. If you can.”)
In lesser hands, this device could become tedious. But Auster’s are not lesser hands. “Winter Journal” is a mesmerizing meditation. In Auster’s incessant drumbeat of “yous” it becomes impossible not to recognize ourselves. By the very end of the book, when Auster announces “You have entered the winter of your life,” the distinction between writer and reader has evaporated.
Fans of Auster’s earlier novels and memoirs will be pleased to find in “Winter Journal” the unique mix of eerie distance and warm, even creepy intimacy so characteristic of his narrators. For readers unfamiliar with Auster, “Winter Journal” is a fine introduction. At 65 he writes with the same edge and energy as he did 30 years ago.
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