Book Review: Winter Journal

By David Hill

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Winter Journal by Paul Auster
Faber & Faber $36.99

Book cover of Winter Journal. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of Winter Journal. Photo / Supplied

Thirty years ago, Paul Auster wrote a memoir of his father, who died, shockingly and ludicrously, while making love to his girlfriend. Now comes the book that circles around his mother's death.

It's a book of shards, a meditation on old experiences newly comprehended. It's much concerned with his own ageing; he wants to "speak now before it is too late".

So we see Auster at 5 years old, crouched over an ant-hill in the backyard, about to be mugged by his younger neighbour.

We see him at 64 years old, "thinking about all the others who never managed to get as far as you have".

He takes us through college years in Manhattan, as America split in half over Vietnam and youth culture. He learns French ways (casual anti-Semitism and noisy plumbing) in Paris; enters his first marriage, "an act of delusional folly"; endures a house full of loathsome far-right books.

Then comes his second marriage, to a tall, lean blond author whom he rapturously calls "the One ... the grand love". And nearly always, there's his own writing, poetry then prose, with the endless walking that helps the words come.

It all happens in short, vivid episodes, crammed with sensory detail. Memories blaze on the page. Childhood baseball; the scents of thyme and lavender in Provence and roasted coffee in Brooklyn; the Minnesota winters that stun your face muscles as soon as you step outside; a moment at Bergen-Belsen when the bones of the dead howl.

He's fascinated by almost everyone, mean and malevolent or good and gracious.

The book is an album of neighbours, friends, in-laws, lovers. Especially lovers: Auster calls himself "a willing slave to Eros".

Wince not; his evocations of love and lust are tender, exuberant and funny. There's Sandra, who recited Baudelaire in bed. There are the girls allowed into college rooms only if the door remained ajar by the width of a book.

Winter Journal circles two emotional poles. At one extreme are the terror attacks following his mother's death, moments that hurled him to the ground, crying with fear. At the other is the epiphany and liberation of a moment when he suddenly knew he could write and live again.

The Auster of this book is blissfully uxorious, unrepentantly nicotine-addicted, relentlessly observant, spatially dyslexic. He's a writer who defies gravity and - occasionally - grammar.

He leaves you with the satisfying feeling that not only his life, but all lives are rich in subjects and symbols.

David Hill is a Taranaki writer.

- NZ Herald

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