From the Archives: First Person Singular
Henry Holt, 2012
Toward the close of his new memoir, Winter Journal, Paul Auster chronicles the inception of his first prose work, “White Spaces,” another winter journal dating from 1978. Written when he was 31 years old, “White Spaces” comprises eight or so alluring pages about the instability of identity, the beauty of movement, and the difficulty of speech. He’d been to see a dance recital in a high-school gym, and here (addressing himself in the second person, as he does throughout Winter Journal) he describes the state of his life at the time he wrote “the bridge to everything you have written in the years since then”:
Your first marriage had just cracked apart, you had an eighteen-month-old son and no regular job, no money to speak of, grinding out your meager, inadequate living as a freelance translator, author of three small books of poetry with at most one hundred readers in the world, padding your pittance of an income by writing critical pieces for Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, and other magazines, and apart from a pseudonymous detective novel you had written the previous summer in an effort to generate some cash (which still had no publisher), your work had staggered to a halt, you were stuck and confused, you had not written a poem in more than a year, and you were slowly coming to the realization that you would never be able to write again.
This passage is typical of the way Auster describes his early privation. He certainly did have some hard blows when he was young—a difficult divorce, brushes with hunger. And the loneliness and sense of failure that circled him then clearly lingered long enough to manifest itself in a number of the protagonists he subsequently created: the lonely and penniless Daniel Quinn from City of Glass, the lonely and penniless Marco Fogg from Moon Palace and, most memorably, the lonely and penniless Paul Auster from his previous memoir, Hand to Mouth. As a result of this early starving and scrambling, he seems never to have felt secure despite the success that followed—sixteen novels, some international bestsellers, all profitable, many of them optioned for Hollywood, and scores of awards (I’ll refer you to his bio note for what he or his publisher consider the most important ten).
Auster still attributes his change of fortune to chance: “You didn’t deserve it,” he reflects toward the end of Winter Journal, “but neither did you not deserve it. It just happened, and nothing can account for what happened to you except luck.” He does not write, anywhere, about the feelings or pressures of being a literary success, a story which began in the early 1980s with the publication of his first memoir The Invention of Solitude, and his first novel City of Glass, a preternatural detective pastiche. As there is very little about reading or writing in this latest book, Auster’s success just sort of happens through the middle—a section where he lists the addresses of each place he’s lived in his life—finding him in a multi-story brownstone in Park Slope, a short subway ride but a long trip through time from the garret rooms where he started writing, the attic apartments in Paris where he enjoyed the services of prostitutes, or the cabin in Vermont where his marriage to the writer Lydia Davis—never named in the book, or indeed in all of Auster’s oeuvre—broke up and disappeared. There are few proper names in the book and fewer recorded conversations. This, like Auster’s three other memoirs (he is in his sixties) is about the same things his novels are about, no more, no less.
Eerily, in the early “White Spaces,” his briefest and arguably his most perfect prose narrative, Auster describes a series of metaphysical journeys evocative of the huge white spaces of arctic expeditions:
A man writes letters from nowhere, from a white space that has opened up in his mind. The letters are never received. The letters are never sent. Another man sets out on a journey in search of the first man. This second man becomes more and more like the first man until he, too, is swallowed up by the whiteness.
And therein lies Paul Auster’s entire subsequent career as a novelist. Each of the lines above describes the plot of at least one of his books. And there are his themes: lostness, writing, writing for no one, and the disappearance of one life into another. Paul Auster has been accused of never having written a believable character, someone who might step from the pages into the world, what E. M. Forster would call a round person, but instead creating a series of shimmering cyphers, author-detectives or searcher-authors who step, one after the other, from the ruins of destroyed lives and into mysteries, mazes, chance confrontations, and emerge none the wiser. His books, too, blend into one another at a distance. The New York Trilogy, then, may be read as only the first three volumes of a polylogy comprising the twenty or so volumes since.
“The New York Trilogy was just terrific,” said my friend and fellow Open Letters editor Jeff, to whom I’d recommended the book, “and so I picked up The Music of Chance and started to read and I realized about twenty pages in, wait a minute, this is exactly the same book. Is he always like that? Does he only have the one idea?” Jeff has a good antenna, and while it isn’t strictly fair to say that of Paul Auster’s novels are wholly interchangeable (though James Wood made something close to that point in a notorious evisceration of Auster’s career several hundred issues of The New Yorker ago), Jeff was picking up on something that any number of Auster readers feel, the sense of having been there before, of watching a magician perform a number of different tricks, all of which end with a jack of diamonds in the viewer’s pocket. The set-up may change, but you know, after a while, that you will reach into your pocket and pull out the same card. Now do you want to see another trick? Though the plots are always full of turns and existential errands (a man finds work sorting all of America’s phone books in an underground bunker; two men are forced after losing a poker game into building a fence for a pair of eccentric millionaires) they are about as fun to read in summary as they are to read straight through. They must have pitched well.
This is not to say there wasn’t a time, as a young and selfish popinjay, when immersion in a Paul Auster novel didn’t give me pleasure, allowed me to feel as though I, like his characters, was a specially-fated and unknowable soul, and that I, like the author, might one day make money writing about strange and experimental things (and look good doing it). Friends and I would pass his books back and forth when we’d finished them, each time half-apologizing, “It may not seem as good as the last one, but I think he’s doing something really interesting here…” We’d smoke as we read the books, making jots in our notebooks about the need for new forms in fiction and the several strange-ish chance events that had taken place in our own short lives.
The first of these books I happened to read was The New York Trilogy. I remember cracking the cover half an hour before I had to leave for class and then being so ensorcelled by the story (or the dodges and evasions that passed for Auster’s postmodern take on detective fiction) that I walked clear across the city of Boston with the book open in front of my face (and settled into my classroom seat with the open book concealed—utter suavity—on top of my open coursebook)
How do these themes translate into the sort of plots I’ve described? On the first page of the first book of the New York Trilogy, City of Glass, Daniel Quinn is mistaken for another man, a private detective named Paul Auster. When he meets Paul Auster, he discovers that Auster’s son has his name, Daniel. The author and his character fall into conversation in Auster’s well-appointed apartment and the lost and penniless Quinn only excuses himself to go upon the arrival of Paul Auster’s wife (“She was a tall, thin blonde, radiantly beautiful, with an energy and happiness that seemed to make everything around her invisible”). Quinn’s mission: tracking a man named Stillman, himself an acolyte of the strange linguistic theories of a man named Henry Dark. Quinn ends his journey in a bare room, writing ceaselessly in a red notebook, until the day he disappears without a trace.
In the second novel of the trilogy, Ghosts, the characters, all private detectives, have no real names and are simply called by colors: Blue, Black, and White. Their identities do not seem to be fixed, but blend and merge with one another, as in a George Tooker painting. In the final volume, The Locked Room, a writer named Fanshawe vanishes and is pursued by an old childhood friend (a book reviewer) who, in the course of his search, visits all of the places Fanshawe has lived, marries Fanshawe’s wife, and is eventually accused—by the literary establishment—of having invented Fanshawe. Finally, having received a series of mysterious letters, our narrator tracks Fanshawe to a house at 9 Columbus Square in Boston. They speak through a locked door and it turns out that all the while our narrator was tracking the vanished Fanshawe, Fanshawe had been shadowing him. As the story ends, the narrator pulls each page from the notebook containing Fanshawe’s last work, and throws them into the tracks at South Station.
Even then, Auster’s narrative construction gave me pause. The story had fascinated me, with its twists and mirrors—it was fun like a tilt-a-whirl was fun, not particularly meaningful by itself, but exhilarating to ride—but I was troubled by the few details that didn’t fit: why end the book in Boston? Why 9 Columbus Square? Why South Station? Yes, of course, there were metaphorical reasons—Columbus had been a searcher, like so many of these characters, and had not found what he was looking for. But I was still unsatisfied—you can’t, seemingly for no reason, end a story made of shadows in a real place made of brick and iron. I later found out Auster had chosen the address because it belonged to his friend Bill Corbett. And so it was chance—and of course chance is a great theme of the book, and of his subsequent books. Still. There is something between metaphorical significance and pure chance and that enormous space is where most novels live: the world of fictional meaning. Nothing could be important to Auster’s characters-as-people because they weren’t people, they were utterly self-conscious fragments.To a self-centered adolescent, as I was, this was no great loss. I didn’t understand other people anyway, and as I was in the midst of forming my own identity (or having it formed for me), what seemed like a fun treatise on that subject suited me.
In Auster’s subsequent books, however, there were increasingly more of those 9 Columbus Squares and South Stations, because, a novelist now, no longer a poet or translator or critic, he had determined to push his talent into a naturalistic, mainstream mode. These books don’t take place in New York, or take place there only partially. They feature characters like the gambler and Boston fireman Jim Nashe, or the ex-academic and social revolutionary Benjamin Sachs, who are clearly intended to appeal to more than our intellect. Auster provides these people with spouses (though usually separated or dead) and friends (though often alienated) and childhoods (though “there’s not much to tell”). These books are conspicuously intended to induce a willing suspension of disbelief. We are to feel as though we’re reading real accounts, to allow ourselves to be swept into the action. And yet it never works. Except for brief moments and passages we are never convinced. We never feel as though we’re reading about anyone but an author performing authorship, a la Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, or Ben Marcus
One can easily imagine that Auster himself is untroubled by this. In The Locked Room, he writes:
We all want to be told stories, and we listen to them in the same way we did when we were young. We imagine the real story inside the words, and to do this we substitute ourselves for the person in the story, pretending that we can understand him because we understand ourselves. This is a deception. We exist for ourselves, perhaps, and at times we even have a glimmer of who we are, but in the end we can never be sure, and as our lives go on, we become more and more opaque to ourselves, more and more aware of our own incoherence. No one can cross the boundary into another—for the simple reason that no one can gain access to himself.
And yet: over the past thirty years, Paul Auster has continued to publish novels of striking similarity and structure (about one book a year) long after he had anything substantively new to say with them, and long after it became clear that the naturalist mode was not his strength. He became a professional novelist, praised, lauded, and most importantly bought. And this, not pure luck, is the reason for the success that still appears to astonish him. It may have been luck that sold his first books, he is not a natural novelist, as opposed to story-teller, but in playing what are essentially variations on the same card trick since then, Auster has refused to take serious chances with his formula. Success was so hard-won that, once he had the formula in his grasp, he never let it go. In this sense, he is a detective fiction writer after all.
This is not to say that it isn’t always an exciting experience to begin one of his books. I had missed his 2002 novel The Book of Illusions when it was published—I was growing cold on Auster then, though I did try several subsequent books. But in preparation for this article I sat down with the same novel so many of my old Auster friends had been anxious to tell me about when it appeared (“He’s back, man. This one’s his best!”) The story begins as usual—a man alone, hot on the tail of another man who has disappeared (this time a silent film actor), a strange woman with a gun appears on his doorstep on a dark and stormy night … and I was hooked. Auster’s cold, sometimes clichéd prose is readable in the extreme, and does produce suspense, and leaves no aftertaste. This easy manipulation of tropes is his nearest claim to being an artist.
But as I read on, I began to experience disappointment. All of the old tics were there: Auster’s refusal to draw his characters with anything but a few bold strokes (hence the extreme oddity of the not-infrequent references in his books to dining or excretion—cardboard cutouts do not eat and they most decidedly do not shit), his reliance on summary instead of drama, and his inability to pace a story: important events that have been built up for pages fizzle when they finally happen, there are conversations and interactions that seem to be present purely to eat up pages until the next twist of the ostensible story, and we begin to feel for the jack of diamonds in our pocket.
All of this is more reason to be made curious by the appearance of his latest memoir, Winter Journal. Advance word had it that this was a story of the body, Auster’s own aging body, and the difficulties and setbacks he had suffered in late-middle-age. Could an author with little interest in portraying real-seeming people make himself seem real? Could this fragmentary memoir—a surprisingly uncommercial move—turn out to be the Paul Auster book we’d been waiting for?
In The Book of Illusions, Auster writes:
My mind began to wander, and eventually I fell into one of those long, pointless meditations that only seem to occur when you’re driving alone in a car. In this case, if I remember correctly, it had to do with quantifying the ephemeral acts of daily life. How much time had I spent in the past forty years lacing up my shoes? How many doors had I opened and closed? How often had I sneezed? How many hours had I lost looking for objects I couldn’t find? How many times had I stubbed my toe or banged my head or blinked away something that had crept into my eye? I found it to be a rather pleasant exercise and I kept adding to the list …
Much of Winter Journal is exactly like this (we have lists of the sweets he liked as a child, lists of the places he has lived), but not all of it. It begins, in the second person, with a series of mundane moments. Reads one fragment: “Your bare feet on the cold floor as you climb out of bed and walk to the window. You are six years old. Outside, snow is falling, and the branches of the trees in the backyard are turning white.” Sixty years have passed and it is again snowing outside and the same man, in the aged body he has inherited from that boy, writes of the injuries he has physically sustained, the places he has lived, the recent death of his mother, and the wonderful good fortune of meeting and marrying his current wife (“Beautiful, yes, without question sublimely beautiful, a lean six-foot blonde with long, magnificent legs…”). This is a journal, and so we are not bound by a structure of any kind—these are passing thoughts, occurring to the writer as he writes them, as the snow falls outside his study window.
We begin with scars:
… the assorted lines etched into the skin of your face are letters from the secret alphabet that tells the story of who you are, for each scar is the trace of a healed wound, and each wound was caused by an unexpected collision with the world—that is to say, an accident, or something that need not have happened, since by definition an accident is something that need not happen. Contingent facts as opposed to necessary facts and the realization as you look into the mirror this morning that all life is contingent, except for the one necessary fact that sooner or later it will come to an end.
And so we hear, one by one, the stories of how he cut his face on a nail while running through a department store, or the baseball injury he sustained on the back of his head, or a car accident when he was driving. In each instance Auster sets the scene, acknowledging what happened, but then going to elaborate lengths to try to understand why it happened, what set of events conspired to make that contingent disaster an actuality.
In this he provides some insight into his fiction. Like the accidents themselves, Auster’s plots are often indelible. (From his best piece of fiction, Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story: A man attempts to return the wallet of a boy who tried to rob his store and is instead greeted by the boy’s old and blind grandmother. It’s Christmas day and she at first mistakes the man for her grandson, and so he pretends to be the boy, joining her for dinner and drinks. They have a wonderful time but, on the way out of the door, he steals one of a dozen boxed cameras from her house, probably stolen by her grandson. With this camera, he begins his life’s work. “She knew I wasn’t her grandson,” he explains later, “but it made her happy to pretend.” A perfect Christmas story.) But because Auster cannot create plausible characters to bring those plots alive (and may not want to) the spaces in between major incidents are nothing but dot-connecting, dry summations of conditions under which A might transform into B. If we’re reading for the plot, we keep reading. If not, we’ll put the book aside. The gimcrack causality alone wouldn’t hold us, save that it conducts our anticipation toward a catastrophic event.
There are few fellow writers or readers or friends in his memoir, though surely such people must have made up a great portion of his life. His children are also strangely absent (or not so strangely, given his son’s very public association with a notorious clubland murder). What’s left is his mother, and her death, and a loving portrait of his wife. And, of course, Auster himself is left, too. He is also a character here. But in presenting us with few scenes in which he interacts with anyone else (and virtually no direct dramatizations) Auster, for the most part, fails to seem real to us, lost in lists.
There are exceptions. His account of his own travail in the face of a recent bout of anxiety attacks is genuinely moving, and for that reason comes as a shock: “You lay on the floor and howled, howled at the top of your lungs, howled because death was inside you and you didn’t want to die.” Also arresting are his description of his mother’s vertigo attacks (“Only the void spinning around her head, the knot in her belly, the cold sweats, a pair of invisible hands tightening around her throat”). His account of being carried home drunk in Amsterdam after finishing his latest film evokes a similar sympathy, though he prefaces the episode with a series of excuses for his behavior. This is a book about accidents by a man who prides himself on being responsible. He describes how cold it was that night in Amsterdam, how he had forgotten his gloves, how hard he had been working. As in most of his descriptions of accidents, he proceeds with the care of a lawyer before a jury. We are not surprised to learn that he is a good driver (italics his). We are impressed to hear of how he financially supported his wife through her PhD and his mother through her declining years, and we share his sense of pride in those accomplishments.
But his prose is often at sub-zero, especially when describing (never dramatizing) the events of his day-to-day life. Take his description of the condo meetings he used to attend with his wife:
Six families were involved, four of them with small children, and with an architect, a contractor, and a lawyer among the members of the board, your neighbors were conscientious about maintaining the physical and financial health of the building. Your wife, who served as recording secretary for the five years you lived there, wrote up the minutes after each board meeting—entertaining, tongue-in-cheek reports that were warmly appreciated by everyone involved.
He then reprints two pages of those notes. They’re amusing—Siri Hustvedt is a good writer —but what are they doing here?
The image that resonates most with Auster’s own novels, is that of himself as a walker in the city (far from a derelict but far from a flâneur), a lonely, once-penniless soul, who cannot believe his good fortune and holds ever tighter onto it against his own tendency to be lost:
You are hopelessly lost, within minutes, and even indoors, whenever you find yourself in an unfamiliar building, you will walk down the wrong corridor or take the wrong elevator … you know nothing, you are forever lost in the moment, in the void of each successive moment that engulfs you, with no idea where true north is, since the four cardinal points do not exist for you …
Every now and then, while out on one of your walks through the city, you think you hear someone calling to you, think you hear the voice of your wife or daughter or son shouting your name from across the street, but when you turn around to look for them, it is always someone else saying Paul or Dad or Daddy.
In passages like this, it is effortless to identify with the author. He does know himself well enough, after all, to be able to communicate something of that self to his readers, securing exactly the emotional transaction the narrator of The Locked Room found impossible. The Auster of Winter Journal comes across as extremely confused by life (but no more than anyone else) and anxious to constantly check in with the few things he knows to be true (he is a writer, he loves his wife). And we do, in fact, manage to win—almost despite the Journal’s odd structure—a fair idea of the young man who wrote “White Spaces” thirty-four years ago, ending his story then the way he would years later. The last words of Winter Journal read “I have entered the winter of my life.” The last words of “White Spaces”:
A few scraps of paper. A last cigarette before turning in. The snow falling endlessly in the winter night. To remain in the realm of the naked eye, as happy as I am at this moment. And if this is too much to ask, then to be granted the memory of it, a way of returning to in in the darkness of the night that will surely engulf me again.
John Cotter is a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly. His criticism has appeared in The Quarterly Conversation, Brooklyn Rail, and Bookforum. His novel Under the Small Lights is available from Miami University Press and his short fiction will be featured in the next issues of New Genre and Puerto Del Sol.