Best-selling Brooklyn novelist Paul Auster (The New York Trilogy) is a likable sort of guy, certainly in this memoir, which he began on January 3, 2011, one month before his sixty-fourth birthday. You could indeed imagine him getting the pieces of his life together, shoring up the memories, sifting the reminisences, in those dead days after Christmas.
Indeed so affable does Auster appear to be, that one could imagine having a few jars yourself with the self-same Paul. Early on in the 230-page memoir, which skips easily back and forth in time, he recalls adjourning to an unnamed Dublin hostelry, 13 years previously.
He had been directing the final scenes of a movie at the Ha’penny Bridge.The two month shoot had been fraught with problems (budget, union, location, weather ), and he needed a drink after standing in “the frigid Irish air” for hours.
Auster ordered four whiskeys in succession at the pub in question, and subsequently fell asleep (presumably he was told this later.) He wraps up the story: “In spite of the frenzy all around you, you manage to go on sleeping until the good man who is your producer hoists you to your feet and half-drags you, half-carries you back to your hotel.”
The entire 230-page memoir is told like so, in the second person singular, which mostly works fine, although not always. It can impose a certain distance when particularly resonant personal stuff is being imparted.
There is some other Irish-related material in the book, but it is rather tangential. In the 70s, the young American woman who would become his first wife once left him alone in Paris to spend time in Sligo. There she took up with a Sligo-man. She eventually returned to Auster and although they did have a child together, the marriage was not a happy one.
The newly-marrieds moved into a house in remote, rural Stanfordville, in upstate New York, a house which appears haunted to the author, in retrospect. “. . . every inch of the house was impregnated with the malevolent spirits of the previous occupiers.“ he writes, of the Stemmerman sisters, one blind and one deaf, who had lived in the house for almost 60 years. His wife found a dead crow, “the classic omen of bad tidings. “
Auster is master of creating a mood, be it eerie and sinister, such as this one, or wistful, as when recording the list of bereavements in his life and the last days of loved ones.
For many years, Auster considered himself a failure, a failed poet firstly, whose two books could not have been read by more than 100 readers, he estimates. He observes his shortcomings clear-eyed, and admits to a fondness of drink and cigarettes. He discourses on the pills he has been prescribed for the panic attacks that literally pull him, flailing to the ground. How little we know of the true lives of successful authors was one of the blander of my reactions to this illuminating book.
Aside from the list of all the places he has lived in, he makes a long and detailed inventory of all the accidents, illnesses, sudden and otherwise, that have befallen him, from childhood to the present. There is a particularly vivid account of the car crash, a few years back, which he, his wife and daughter were incredibly lucky to survive. The three were just minutes from their home in Brooklyn when a very nasty woman drove her car into his. His present wife, the writer Siri Hustvedt took most of the impact on the passenger side.
There is a tolerant and deeply incisive portrait of his mother, recalled in light of her unhappy marriage to his father. Auster senior died in his mid-sixties, in the act of making love to his girl-friend, which the author regards as a “horrible” way to die.
His Norwegian in-laws who live in Northern Minnesota, are brilliantly portrayed and he is deeply attached to them. Indeed the abiding sense from this companionable journal is of a man who banished some demons, and found a significant degree of contentment on the day he met his present wife. Siri appears to care for him just as deeply as he does for her, and what more can a nice Jewish boy ask for, when he is 64?