Reading Winter Journal feels like stepping into someone else’s dream. Which is problematic, because other people’s dreams are never all that interesting. I talk about dreams in discussing an autobiography, for Auster treats his memories as such. As he puts it: “Some memories are so strange to you, so unlikely, so outside the realm of the plausible, that you find it difficult to reconcile them with the fact that you are the person who experienced the events you are remembering.” The problem is that Auster is so fascinated with his own memories that he doesn’t filter. Like an excited child describing a vivid dream, Auster excessively details what is to him a fantastic world. But his narrative lacks coherence, and we’re left with an extensive catalogue of Auster’s residences, ailments, scars and favorite foods that do little more than evoke his personal nostalgia. But it’s difficult to complain when this is precisely what the book is meant to be: “a catalogue of sensory data. What one might call a phenomenology of breathing.”
Winter Journal was inspired by the death of Auster’s mother, and it is on this subject that his memories shine with the greatest clarity. In a manner that is both frank and dispassionate, Auster brings to life his mother who, like all mothers, was a beautiful set of paradoxes. She wasn’t physically beautiful, but she made heads turn with her radiant confidence. She had the courage to crack jokes to her children despite her husband’s looming death; yet she had such an intense fear of loneliness that the television never went off. She supported her children, only to find herself being supported by them. With her death Auster is left to deal with two of life’s most pressing inevitabilities: the death of a loved one, and death itself. He writes, “You wonder how many mornings are left.” Perhaps it is out of this dull wonder that in the winter of his mother’s death, he decided to “speak now before it is too late.” Other themes weave in and out through the book — love, lust, loneliness, guilt — some are dealt with as lists, others as observations, few as memories uncanny in their keen insight. Particularly poignant is the memory of a recent car crash, in which a combination of driver’s pride, impulse, and a full urinary bladder nearly led to the demise of his entire family. The writing is sparse and frank as it observes the pointlessly avoidable causes of life’s accidents that force us to bear guilt for the rest of our lives.
Auster’s journal is written entirely in second person, which is not only an interesting choice for an autobiography, but also a bad one. I say this with the greatest respect for Auster, whose writings I deeply admire. Why he chose to deviate from the personal “I” is actually answered to an extent in the book jacket: “[the] writing in the second person, as if addressing himself as a stranger ... establishes an uncanny intimacy with the reader.” Only the first part of this statement is true. Few have established uncanny intimacies with others by talking to themselves, and Auster is not on that list. His incessant reference to himself in second person is wearisome, cloying, and on occasion feels uncomfortably narcissistic. I suppose personal tolerance of the “first” person you will vary, but few will make it to page 230 without fleeting stabs of longing for the traditional first- person narrative.
Some may also long for chronology, which is also a missing element. Fragments of the author’s past consistently leap back and forward in time, but the unorthodox organization is more understandable here. After all, who remembers the past in its entirety and chronology? Certain fragments from long ago cling closer than others; others inexplicably defy time and shine in perpetual clarity. At times the lack of chronology feels a bit jarring, but it is beautiful in its faithfulness to the nature of memory.
In the end, Winter Journal is a true journal, and whatever problems it may have largely arise from its being faithful to its category. And like all journals, it will hold the most meaning for the author.