As he prepares to grow old, Brooklyn’s Paul Auster delivers a ‘Winter Journal’
If there is any novelist in recent years who is synonymous with Brooklyn, it’s Paul Auster.
He settled in the borough in 1980, before it became a trendy international brand, entering the public eye in 1995 as screenwriter of the Harvey Keitel film “Smoke,” which takes place in a cigar shop on the corner of 16th Street and Prospect Park West in Windsor Terrace.
Several of Auster’s books have Brooklyn titles, such as “The Brooklyn Follies,” about the return of a cancer survivor to his native Park Slope; and “Sunset Park,” about a group of young squatters who take up residence in an abandoned house across from Green-Wood Cemetery.
Auster, who lives in the Slope, has taken part in events at the Community Bookstore in Park Slope and BookCourt in Cobble Hill.
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.
“Winter Journal” is not a Brooklyn book per se — much of it takes place in Manhattan, in Dutchess County, in Paris, and in Minnesota, where his wife, Siri Hustvedt, hails from. But since this is an autobiographical book, Brooklyn is obviously mentioned.
“Your journeys between Brooklyn and Manhattan, thirty-one years of traveling within your own city since your removal to Kings County in 1980, on average two or three times a week, which would add up to several thousand trips, many of them underground by subway, but many others back and forth across the Brooklyn Bridge in cars and taxis, a thousand crossings,” he writes.
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 enjoy the book.
In an interview before publication, Auster says it “would have been too hermetic, too egocentric” to use the traditional “I” voice. However, it may be the opposite.
Readers are so used to the first person that it goes almost unnoticed, while the “you” continually calls attention to itself.
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.
In an interview with “Travel and Leisure” two years ago, Auster talked about his close relationship with Brooklyn.
Among his favorite places in his own neighborhood of Park Slope, he said, were the Sweet Melissa bakery, La Bagel Delight and the Al Di La Italian restaurant.
In the same “Travel and Leisure” interview, he talked about his fascination with Green-Wood Cemetery.
“A couple of years ago I was thinking of setting a new novel in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and in walking around the neighborhood, I visited Green-Wood Cemetery for the first time. In fact, maybe it was the cemetery that convinced me to write the novel. I had known about Green-Wood for years — had driven by it scores of times — but I had no idea that I was passing one of the most remarkable places in all of New York City.
“It’s so big, so bursting with history, and to meander among the trees and plantings is to leave the city behind. … It’s a forgotten corner, an eerie, beautiful place,” he said in the interview.