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.”