At one point in Winter Journal, Paul Auster addresses himself: “You have no use for the good old days.” He means that while he’s aware of “the evils and stupidities of contemporary American life,” which he helpfully lists for the benefit of readers who aren’t aware (“the ascendency of the right, the injustices of the economy, the neglect of the environment, the collapsing infrastructure, the senseless wars…”), he is clear-eyed enough to know that his boyhood was cursed with “Jim Crow laws in full-force throughout the South, anti-Semitic quota restrictions, back alley abortions,” etc.
The book consists of autobiographical vignettes and observations that Auster began recording the month before he turned 64. The idea is seemingly to examine and report on the process of passing from middle age into what Auster, in the last sentence, calls “the winter of your life.” He addresses it as though he’s a close witness to a natural catastrophe. It isn’t a job for the weak at heart, and it turns out that Auster, like many closet sentimentalists, thinks of growing old not in terms of how his body is changing, or what it means to have less time for the things he still wants to do. Instead, he looks back on all the things he once did, and how misty-eyed he gets from remembering he did them.
But most of what he remembers doesn’t seem particularly different from memories readers will easily be able to access first-hand. And Auster doesn’t make them any more fascinating with his familiar mandarin-of-Brooklyn prose style. His way of recalling what it felt like to be a horny teenager is to write about how “the day came when you went hurtling across the threshold that separates boyhood from adolescence, and now that you had felt the feeling, now that you had discovered that your old friend the fireman was in fact an agent of divine bliss, the world you lived in became a different world, for the ecstasy of that feeling had given a new purpose to your life, a new reason for being alive.” Auster may feel he’s opening his heart to his readers with this stuff, but it isn’t a great sign when the most eye-catching element of a writer’s recollection of his sexual awakening is that he uses the same euphemism for his penis that Eric Cartman uses on South Park.
As a novelist, Auster is a master of his own genre of abstract, accessible literary-puzzle fiction. He weaves together random incidents, symbolic-sounding names, and ruminations on coincidence, fate, inevitability, and the improbability of what he’s describing; in the process, he hooks readers into searching for cosmic significance behind every tree. But his own modest boasts to the contrary, he isn’t really a storyteller—he’s more of an elegant tease. So he doesn’t have the tools to bring his own memories to life in words. And he’s been doing what he does best for so long that he doesn’t seem to know how to stop.
The liveliest parts of Winter Journal are when Auster lapses into self-parody and unconsciously turns himself into a Paul Auster character—as when, during a public reading engagement in France, he meets Jean-Louis Trintignant, and spends the next seven years wrestling over the true meaning of some idle small talk Trintignant made about the aging process. Somehow, Auster convinced himself that the actor had decided to impart a great piece of gnomic wisdom. At another point, Auster spends 10 pages describing the plot of the classic noir D.O.A. because he thought, “You have been that man,” while watching Edmond O’Brien running amok through the streets of San Francisco after being told he’s dying. But he really just seems to be proving he can turn a sweaty little B-movie into a Paul Auster story. Which, by God, he can. He just isn’t the man to make the argument that his own enviable life is worth reading about.