Paul Auster, a man who has carried a wound
In his third memoir, Auster contemplates the fear and anxiety that possessed him as he approached his 64th birthday. His concerns will be familiar to many readers, but because he is Paul Auster, he is uniquely able to reflect on them for the rest of us.
by Paul Auster. Henry Holt and Company, 230 pages, $26
Death, sudden and untimely, is never far from Auster’s consciousness. And no wonder. His 14-year-old friend and classmate was killed by a lightning bolt; before Paul was born his grandfather was shot and killed by his grandmother; his mother and father suffered sudden heart attacks and died instantly about five years apart during Paul’s adulthood. Dying, of course, is inevitable; but its quality of surprise and instantaneousness pushes Auster into an obsession with mortality and contingency. His writing is nearly always filled with fear of death and failure and with the importance of the unpredictable, even the improbable. But the accidents and coincidences in his fiction are not contrivances; they are a recognition that flukes, however small, can determine the shape and direction of one’s life − or death.
Writing in the second-person, almost as if talking about someone else or as if speaking with a stranger, Auster, oddly enough, establishes a powerful intimacy with the reader: “You think ... that you are the only person in the world to whom none of these things will ever happen, and then ... they all begin.” The details of Auster’s life are inevitably different, and probably more dramatic, than those of most of his readers. But the human emotions and intellectual reactions to changing relationships, aging and loss expressed in “Winter Journal” and his earlier memoirs, “The Invention of Solitude” and “The Art of Hunger,” are universal enough to provide a mirror for readers.
I, for example, share with Auster so many uncannily similar values and orientations, likes and dislikes, personal problems, worries, failures and successes, physical accidents and tragedies, that after reading “Winter Journal,” I wanted to write a memoir too. But it didn’t take me long to realize what ought to have been obvious to this inveterate Auster reader: Not only is Paul Auster immensely more capable of writing in this genre, he is also an admittedly more “flawed and wounded person, a man who has carried a wound in him from the very beginning.” Why else, he asks, “would you have spent the whole of your adult life bleeding words onto a page?” The human condition guarantees that all who inhabit the earth will inherit or construct inner demons, but only a talented few can reflect and illuminate these for the rest of us.
Auster, dare I say it, seeks moral and psychological truths, even when he feels like nothing but a “lone person” sequestered in a room for seven hours a day, “sitting at his desk for no other purpose than to explore the interior of his own head.” “The Invention of Solitude,” for example, is a personal meditation that exposes Auster’s memories and emotions after the death of his father Sam − a cold and undemonstrative man who carried numerous wounds of his own. Of the many, we need cite only one: Although not directly witnessed by Sam, his mother killed his father in their own kitchen when Sam was only 8.
In “Winter Journal,” Auster deals less with his distant, virtually absent father, and more with his own role as a father, one who must contemplate separation from his son as his first marriage disintegrates. He also focuses more on his mother, Queenie, whose marriage to Sam was hasty, ill-conceived and painfully unsuccessful. Paul knows that he was “deeply loved” by his mother, but also that there were “too many gaps” in their relationship, too many silences and evasions. Still, he has some wonderful memories of her. Grandest was Queenie’s decision, as den mother of Paul’s Cub Scout troop, to play baseball with the boys when there were too few of them for two teams. Paul didn’t expect much when she picked up a bat, but in the second inning she walloped an “in-the-park” home run. Paul was flabbergasted, but also full of pride as his teammates whooped it up.
Sea of black
Childhood for Paul, however, contained few of these “small islands of positive recollection in a ... sea of black. And when Queenie went off to work, she didn’t quite disappear, but was simply “less present, far less present.” And even when present, she wore so many “masks” that Paul was unable to tell who she was on any given day − the diva, the charmer who dazzled the world in public; the solid, responsible, competent and compassionate intelligent being; or the debilitated neurotic rendered helpless against “blistering assaults of anxiety” and paranoia. She seemed “perfect” to Paul when he was young. But as he grew up, his awareness of his mother’s psychological vulnerabilities magnified his own anxieties.
Though in his fiction, Auster is not a mirror image of his main characters, several are named Paul, and many of his depictions of mood and state of mind are self-referential. In his best novels, including “The New York Trilogy” (1987), “The Music of Chance” (1990), “Leviathan” (1992) and “Oracle Night” (2003), protagonists are wounded men, often writers falling apart, and like Auster, confused, even immobilized, by the strong feeling that something is missing.
Echoes of Kafka and Beckett resonate in Auster’s stories, which often resemble dreams, with all their absurdities, inconsistencies and paradoxes. Fear of failure also abides, leading to lives reduced to the bare minimum, as Auster’s was when he was in his early 30s. The same dark dynamic of decline is true for the main characters in his novels “Moon Palace” (1989) and “The Book of Illusions” (2002).
Still, no matter how confounded by questions of identity and by empty spaces, many of Auster’s fictive men have to accept “reality,” and like him, tolerate the presence of ambiguity in themselves and within a familiar yet apparently ludicrous, even pointless world. Auster’s creative work staggered to a halt in the ’70s, and he was reduced to a meager living as a translator of French poetry. But while by chance watching a dance rehearsal, Auster, as he wrote in “Winter Journal,” experienced a “scalding, epiphanic moment of clarity that pushed [him] through a crack in the universe and allowed him to begin [writing] again.” The choreography was muscular, unpredictable, and both spontaneous and disciplined. Bodies in space, leaping and twisting through the air, dazzled Auster. Yet, when between pieces the choreographer offered explanation, “She failed to capture a hundredth part of the beauty [he] had just witnessed.”
Movement, then, not words, liberated Auster. Ironic, no? Well, not really. Writing, Auster says, “begins in the body, is the music of the body,” and can even be seen as a lesser form of dance. In any case, once back to writing, nothing could stop him, not even 17 rejections of “City of Glass.” Despite this failure and a deeply felt sense of inadequacy, Auster. as he tell us in this new memoir, had to write, he explains, or he would have had “no purpose in life.”
Product of vast migrations
At this point, one might wonder why Paul Auster’s name is absent from most lists of Jewish American writers, even though he is in fact Jewish. Well, his parents weren’t immigrants, he wasn’t raised in New York, and there is no evidence of a Jewish education or bar mitzvah. All four of his grandparents were Eastern European Jews, but Auster explicitly rejects the essentialism of identity politics, taking it for granted that he is “the product of vast prehistoric migrations, of conquests, rapes and abductions” that render “who begat whom” unknowable and irrelevant. Nor are most of his fictional characters obviously Jewish.
There are, however, episodes in “Winter Journal” that suggest Auster’s Jewish sensibility. In France, in the mid-’70s, for example, his blind (in more ways than one) piano tuner says that he, too, used to live in the 15th arrondissement. During the war, he tells Paul, it was easy to find apartments because although many “Israelites” had inhabited the neighborhood, “they went away.” Auster, at first stunned by the euphemism “they went away,” asks, where to? Grinning apologetically, the tuner answers, “I have no idea ... but most of them didn’t come back.” Later, in Germany, Auster, after resisting the part of him that was “reluctant to go,” visits the site of Bergen-Belsen. There is nothing more than a museum left, but Auster hears “the bones of the dead howl in anguish.” In a roaring, “ear-splitting torment,” he says, “The earth was screaming.”
In 1982 Auster married the American novelist and essayist Siri Hustvedt, whose non-Jewish Norwegian parents were welcoming to Paul. Years later, when Paul and Siri’s daughter, Sophie, was 15, she was asked how she identifies herself. Wittily and without hesitation, Auster recounts, she answered, “Jew-wegian.” If Auster, a universalist left-wing liberal in his politics, worried about the future of America’s soul, were asked the same question, he’d say, he tells us, that he was “a man who walks, a man who has spent his life walking through the streets of cities.” Urban, a wanderer, a worrier, a progressive seeking a better America: a combination that constitutes many a Jewish identity.
Finally 64, Auster thinks, “a door has closed. Another ... has opened. .... You have entered the winter of your life.” But given what he has told us here about himself and his extended family, spring will come again; and although there may be another panic attack or two like the one he suffered when his mother died suddenly in 2002, and pains even more persistent and intractable, there will be moments, too, “of genuine physical pleasure.” And as even Auster concedes, the winter that he is entering may sometimes be chilling, but it is unlikely to be one comprised solely of discontent.
Gerald Sorin, a professor of American and Jewish studies at the State University of New York, New Paltz, is author of “Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent” and a biography of Howard Fast, to be published later this year.