My first thoughts on reading Paul Auster’s Winter Journal is that I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a memoir quite like it before. Memoir isn’t something I pick up a great deal of, but I do read memoirs from time to time. One thing I’m fairly certain of that none of the memoirs I’ve ever read were written in second person.
The description on the back of the book states that thirty years after the publication of The Invention of Solitude Auster has given us a second unconventional memoir. I can’t really speak to that, as I haven’t yet read The Invention of Solitude. I don’t know for sure that the form of this book that strikes me as so different wasn’t already utilized in The Invention of Solitude, though what I’ve read about The Invention of Solitude doesn’t suggest that it was. Regardless, Winter Journal is unlike most memoirs that I’ve run across.
Mind you, I didn’t expect normalcy from Paul Auster. I’m not sure what I expected, my Auster experience being pretty much limited to The New York Trilogy, though I admit I was waiting to hear about some summer where he was paid by some anonymous figure to keep himself under surveillance. What I certainly wasn’t prepared for was to read about Auster’s life as if I was remembering it myself:
You are five years old, crouched over an anthill in the backyard, attentively studying the comings and goings of your tiny six-legged friends. Unseen and unheard, your three-year-old neighbor creeps up behind you and strikes you on the head with a toy rake. The prongs pierce your scalp, blood flows into your hair and down the back of your neck, and you run screaming into the house, where your grandmother tends to your wounds.
As I read, I wondered what function this unusual choice of voice served. One possibility I considered was that it gave Auster some personal distance when writing about extremely personal things. These fragmented moments, presented in series though jumping back and forth in time, sometimes linked chronologically and sometimes by train of thought, cover some very private territory. Childhood injuries, feelings toward family members, past and present lovers (singular in the case of current), visits to whores, personal failures, and such. There seems to be little that Auster shies away from:
At noon, you are standing in front of the bathroom mirror with shaving cream on your face, about to pick up the razor and begin the job of making yourself presentable for the interview, but before you can attack a single whisker, the telephone rings. You go into the bedroom to answer it, awkwardly positioning the receiver in your hand so as not to cover it with shaving cream, and the voice on the other end is sobbing, the person who has called you is in a state of extreme distress, and little by little you understand that it is Debbie, the young woman who cleans your mother’s apartment once a week and occasionally drives her on errands, and what Debbie is telling you now is that she just let herself into the apartment and found your mother on the bed, your’ mother’s body on the bed, your dead mother’s body on the bed. Your insides seem to empty out as you take in the news. You feel dazed and hollow, unable to think, and even if this is the last thing you were expecting to happen now (She hasn’t sounded this happy in years), you are not surprised by what Debbie is telling you, not stunned, not shocked, not even upset. What is wrong with you? you ask yourself. Your mother has just died, and you’ve turned into a block of wood. You tell Debbie to wait where she is . . . and an hour and a half later you are in your mother’s apartment, looking at her corpse on the bed.
Perhaps one function of this unconventional memoir voice might have been to allow Auster to discuss topics that he might have had a harder time prefacing with the word ‘I.’
However, I’m not sure that this is the real reason for the second person, or at least not the major reason. Given the way he lays himself bare, even in the second person, Auster just doesn’t seem to need to shield himself very much. For me, this voice seems to function more in making the book more intimate, even more intimate than memoir usually is. I’m not just reading Auster’s reflections on his sixty-four years of life, I’m imagining myself living that reflective state on a life I never had.
Frankly, I’m most surprised that Auster can pull off second person for a whole book. This voice isn’t a form most readers are used to seeing all that often and it can sometimes be jarring and choppy. However, Auster did pull it off for me. Perhaps it is the fragmented yet linked flow of the text, but it works no matter how Auster managed it. It works and it makes for an interesting memoir.
Honestly, as I read I really felt like a sixty-four year old man facing the ‘winter’ period of his life and taking stock of what went before. The related occurrences, sensations, and emotions are Auster’s, but the presentation allowed me to cross the boundary between observing and experiencing more than normal. Mind you, I don’t personally know how a sixty-four year old man should feel at that moment in his life, but it felt ‘true’ to me.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going out front and yell at those damned kids to get the hell off my lawn.