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Book review: ‘Winter Journal,’ a memoir by Paul Auster

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“You think it will never happen to you,” Paul Auster writes at the very start of this incandescent memoir. “That it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the world to whom none of these things will ever happen, and then, one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else.”

In turns contemplative, pugnacious and achingly tender, Auster, who may be one of the most imaginative writers living and working in America today, gives us a blow-by-blow account of his collision with life — a chronicle of scars, fears, deaths and afflictions that have hounded him to his promontory of 64 years. That he manages to plumb memory all the way to universal bedrock is a credit to his artistry. By the end of this hallucinatory journey, he is likely to have told something of your story as well.

For almost a quarter-century now, Auster has been one of American letters’ fierce originals. Not for him the tale with a beginning, middle and end. He has been upending literary convention since he rocketed to fame with “The New York Trilogy,” a cluster of interlocked detective stories that has more in common with Jorge Luis Borges’s puzzle-work than with the capers of Hammett or Chandler. It’s almost as if another culture, another brain, inhabited this storyteller’s head, and indeed it has: For the first dozen or so years of his career — from the late 1960s to the early ’80s — Auster lived largely in France and dedicated himself to translating the works of French masters, from Sartre to Mallarme. Little wonder that a defiantly Gallic streak, both playful and deeply philosophical, runs through Auster’s novels, from “Moon Palace” to “Timbuktu” to “Travels in the Scriptorium.” Little wonder, too, that the French tradition of the “recit” — the deceptively simple reminiscence that mounts with tension and ambiguity as it goes — informs all his memoirs, among them“The Invention of Solitude,” “Hand to Mouth” and his new, raw “Winter Journal.”

The book is, as any story of aging must be, a highly physical record: “That is where the story begins,” he tells us, “in your body, and everything will end in the body as well.” We move from early childhood calamities — the floor nail that ripped his cheek, the baseball that cracked his head, the roughhousing, broken bones, stinging hornets — into the deeper scars of loss. It’s hardly a tidy progression. As he swings back and forth, chaotically at first, from youthful playground mishaps to the humiliations of aging to the revelation that his father had died in bed, making love to a mistress, we feel buffeted, disoriented, at bay.

It is a strange beginning, made stranger by Auster’s point of view. I mean it when I say he tells something of your story, for Auster lays out his life in the second person, which means he is “you” and the account is all too bizarrely “yours.” So that by Page 14 you are reading this: “Yes, you drink too much and smoke too much, you have lost teeth without bothering to replace them, your diet does not conform to the precepts of contemporary nutritional wisdom.”

It is a stagey, flamboyant start, told from a perspective that is rare and famously difficult in literature. Of course, we saw “you” in Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!” and in Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City,” but these were stories of the imagination, not records of fact and life. Second-person memoirs are rarer still, but all the same there is Oriana Fallaci’s “A Man,” for instance. But her “you” is a true you — another person, talked to, addressed. Auster’s “you” is far trickier: He is, for all intents and purposes, talking to himself.

A reader can’t help but wrestle with that “you” as artifice. But something happens as the story progresses. The stiff, numbered litany of 21 street addresses — from Newark to Paris to Brooklyn — that Auster has known over the course of a restless past comes to life by the time we reach Page 68, he reaches age 24 and we find him living in the 15th arrondissement. By then, we have been through a battery of slings and arrows, and we’ve gotten to know the body in question: the bumps, bruises, panting adolescent romances, first sex and near-miss road accidents, as well as the panic attacks that flood all circuits whenever death and the end of things loom near.

The panic is all too vivid — gastric, vascular, mental, spiritual — and it descends on him without warning: with the news of his father’s death, for instance, or the sight of his mother reduced to a drooling cadaver; with the imminent collapse of a love affair or the dread prospect of visiting a loved one’s grave. “This has been the story of your life. Whenever you come to a fork in the road, your body breaks down, for your body has always known what your mind doesn’t know . . . has always borne the brunt of your fears and inner battles.”

In its close scrutiny of all things physical, Auster’s book becomes, too, a chronicle of sex. At first, the sex is anonymous and furtive: There are quick, obstructed encounters with co-eds. There is the Paris prostitute who lounges abed and recites Baudelaire. In time, there are glimmers of something more: “The girls you loved . . . some bookish and some athletic, some moody and some outgoing, some white and some black and some Asian, nothing on the surface ever mattered to you, it was all about the inner light you would detect in her, the spark of singularity, the blaze of revealed selfhood. . . . You were a fool for love then, just as you are a fool for love now.”

But the feeling is all too elusive, and one by one, conquests fade into indifference. An unnamed marriage founders. The heart withers. And then, emerging from the ash, is “the One . . . the grand love that ambushed you when you were least expecting it.”

The One, who also goes unnamed, is Auster’s wife of 30 years, Siri Hustvedt, an accomplished American poet and novelist whose abiding love for literature and sturdy grit become the rock on which his strength depends. Although Hustvedt comes off here as less gifted than she truly is — a sophomoric prose poem and a series of silly condominium memos will have to stand for her prodigious talents — the love that deepens between them is a foil for a lifetime of loss.

This is, by story’s end, a profoundly beautiful book. We quickly forget the rigid, unfeeling chaos of its beginning, the memoirist’s awkward exhortations to “you.” With the demise of Auster’s mother, the artifice falls away like an old husk. Hurtling through the last half of “Winter Journal,” we are riveted by the author’s unstinting passion, his consummate humanity, his joy in words, his clinging to life, his ability to recognize grace in the unexpected: Suddenly, a vital lesson springs from an old black-and-white movie, a glance at his hand becomes a heartbreaking meditation on mortality, a mute dance breaks the writer’s frozen sea within.

Sometimes we are “afraid to die,” Auster finally tells us. “Which in the end is probably no different from saying: afraid to live.”

Marie Arana is a former editor in chief of Book World. She is the author of the memoir “American Chica.”

WINTER JOURNAL By Paul Auster Henry Holt. 230 pp. $26

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