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Book Review: Winter Journal by Paul Auster

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In Winter Journal, novelist Paul Auster, at age 65, turns to the memoir to chronicle what he calls his “phenomenology of breathing.” He takes the reader on a trip through a maze of scattered moments of his life, the people, places and events that played some part in turning him into the man he has become now that he has reached the winter of his content. They are not ordered chronologically; indeed their arrangement may well seem at times haphazard. Some are treated at length, some merely mentioned, but taken together they create a complex mosaic of a complex man.

In a sense, the book is Auster’s attempt to come to terms with the body/spirit dichotomy that haunts so much of literature and becomes even more evident as one ages and physical decay inevitably sets in. Over and over again he focuses on the fragility of the body and its demeaning functions from childhood to old age almost as if to prove to himself that old or young mankind is universally subject to betrayal by the body.

He is not all that much different in his 60s from when he was five and couldn’t keep control of his bladder. So we get stories of how his cheek was torn apart while horsing around in a mall, and how he nearly gets his whole family killed in a car accident. We hear about how he gets crabs from an old girlfriend, and how a swallowed fish bone lands him in a French hospital. Death is just around the corner for all human animals; in that sense age is irrelevant.

In essence a man needs to be reminded that he is little more than a link ahead on that great chain of being. He tells a story about a woman introduced to James Joyce who asks to shake the hand that wrote Ulysses. Joyce extends his hand and says the hand has done many other things. Auster then goes on to list some of the myriad things the hand may well have done, everything from masturbating to wiping one’s backside and visiting all sorts of bodily orifices, one’s own as well as those of others. What better anecdote to illustrate the duality at the heart of the human condition: the hand that writes sublime literature is the hand that picks the nose? Winter Journal is Auster’s attempt to come to terms with that duality.

Although there are a lot of short journal entries describing specific moments, there are some more extended entries. Perhaps the most intense is his description of his mother’s death and its aftermath. In some sense its emotional impact and its effect on him explains his need to deal with aging and imminent death. There is also a lengthy section describing the plot of the movie D. O. A., a film about what is essentially a walking dead man, which may well serve as a metaphor for the human condition. The longest section is what amounts to annotated list of all the permanent homes — apartments and houses — that he has lived in over the years (20 by his count). It is only one of a number of lists that appear sporadically through the book: the places he has visited, the foods he ate as a child.

The journal form gives the appearance of something merely thrown together, but I suspect this is far from the truth. This “phenomenology of breathing” is also “a catalogue of sensory data.” Its connections are sensual rather than logical. “Writing,” he says near the very end of the book, “begins in the body, it is the music of the body.” It is interesting that the one aspect of his life least often talked about in the book is his writing.

Driving snow and biting wind are as important in their own way as his novels and poetry. The maid’s room without a bathroom in Paris overlooking the Louvre is as formative, if not more so, as the year in graduate school at Columbia. If a man is the sum of his experience, all that experience is significant.

There have been times when I have complained about the vanity of authors of all stripes with the temerity to think that their navel gazing is worth a reader’s precious time. It is one thing for a biographer to decide that a subject’s life is worthy of public attention; it is quite another for the subject himself to make that decision.

On the other hand, there is certainly something to be said for a book that tries to make an honest assessment of one’s own life, “to examine what it has felt like to live inside” your body. This is especially true if the life we are talking about is the life of a sensitive, articulate human being who recognizes not only his own unique individuality, but the fact that his experience is the experience of us all.

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About Jack Goodstein