Paul Auster reflects on the winter of his life

"Winter Journal" (Henry Holt and Co.), by Paul Auster

Thirty years ago, a struggling poet and translator of French poetry published a memoir of his father that marked him as a writer worth watching. "The Invention of Solitude" ended a bleak few years in Paul Auster's life when his first marriage had disintegrated, he was suffering from writer's block, and he could barely eke out a living.

After its publication, Auster threw his considerable energy into prose, producing a stream of novels, essays and screenplays — including the 1995 Wayne Wang film "Smoke" — that, in the years since, have won him acclaim.

Now 65 — just old enough to collect Social Security but to his way of thinking, almost at death's door — Auster gives us "Winter Journal," a bookend to "Invention of Solitude" and a somber meditation on growing old.

Amid some lovely observation and a few distracting literary devices, the book is roughly organized as a catalog of "what it has felt like to live inside this body." Thus, the scars on his face trigger memories of childhood accidents. We learn about a false heart attack, other curious psychosomatic ailments and the inevitable, and predictable, "years of phallic obsession."

Memoir writing is hard — unless the author is a recovering addict, former president or aging rock star — and readers may well wonder why they should care. Fans of Auster's postmodern fiction will, of course, and so might the bohos of Brooklyn, where Auster put down roots long before that borough became trendy.

But readers who aren't as familiar with Auster's work may find themselves put off by his intensely self-conscious mannerisms, especially his unfortunate decision to write this in the second person.

In an interview before publication, Auster says it "would have been too hermetic, too egocentric" to use the traditional "I'' voice. In fact, it's just the opposite.

Readers are so used to the first person that it goes almost unnoticed, while the "you" continually calls attention to itself. Even worse, the cumulative effect is one of an unseemly self-regard, as though he is admiring himself in a mirror.

Although it's a given that writers are unusually interested in their own artistic process, Auster is best when he steps outside himself and observes the world around him. He has a good eye, a long memory and an elegant way with words, and these skills, without all the gimmicks, often combine to produce memorable results.

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