We already know Paul Auster won’t read this critique of his book or any others.
“You no longer read reviews about yourself, no longer reviews about your books, but this was then,” Auster read from Winter Journal, his newest memoir, at the sold-out Brattle Street Theatre Monday.
Auster continues to address himself in the second person throughout the book, as if a part of him were detachable and able to be viewed from afar. Simply put, the book is a series of stories about himself that he’s now retelling to himself as he’s on the cusp of turning 64—life’s winter.
Auster’s earlier works include a memoir about his father’s sudden death (The Invention of Solitude) and one of young adulthood (Hand to Mouth). Given that he already has a series of memoirs, I wasn’t sure what to expect picking up Winter Journal or entering the Brattle to see him.
“You” must appear hundreds of times throughout the anecdotal meditation, but instead of becoming monotonous, Auster brilliantly uses it to blur lines between himself and the reader. The essays, detailing his struggles, lovers and aging, are to be enjoyed as “a catalog of sensory data,” he said.
He read from the section of his book where he and his girlfriend were caretakers in the south of France from 1973 to 1974, where the air is muscular and languorous. The country is rough and dry. Thyme and lavender fill the air, and soon it was easy to remove myself from the Brattle and feel what he felt at the age of 26 in France.
The mastery of shared experience helps to make Auster’s newest work far from egotistical, which it would have been had it not been written so elegantly. Instead, the anecdotes are both moving and funny, and the 64-year-old is passing judgement and sharing memories, not reveling and bragging, about his earlier years.
“You drink too much and smoke too much,” he writes. “You nearly choked to death on a fish bone in 1971.”
Later on, Auster tells the story of a car crash with his wife and daughter in 2002 after he made a bad turn. Given his intensity and vivid details, the crash could have happened to the reader just yesterday.
“The impact is thunderous, convulsive, cataclysmic—an explosion loud enough to end the world,” he writes. “You feel as if Zeus has hurled a lightning bolt and you and your family.”
Auster read passages from his time staying at a bourgeois house, his life in Paris where he spent writing in a small room that “sometimes drove you out to look for prostitutes.” He finished up his passage readings with a story about getting into a fight over a taxi cab, which he said he doesn’t know why he put in there because it was so minor in his life.
Shortly after he said, “I guess I’ll stop there,” just as it felt he was getting to the better material.
A later “Winter Journal” passage eerily includes reference to a Joseph Joubert adage that looks forward to Auster’s death.
“If you are not taken suddenly, as both your parents were, you want to be lovable,” Auster writes so honestly you can’t help but love him.