Sunday, December 8, 2013

Twin memoirs of a writer's inner and outer selves (Books - Report from the Interior by Paul Auster)

I was quite taken with novelist Paul Auster's memoir of his corporeal self, Winter Journal, as I wrote last year.  It was an intimate account of what it has been like to inhabit and create from the body that is Paul Auster for his 64 years of existence.  His publishers were nice enough to pass along a copy of the sequel, Report from the Interior (Henry Holt and Company, 2013).  This one purports to do for the intellectual, spiritual, moral Auster what the last volume did for the physical.  I am a fan of Auster's artistry and have read nearly all of his fiction.  I felt this volume the less initimate of the two, but I admire this act of opening up himself in that it reveals much about how the development of the man intersects with the creation of his work.

Like Winter Journal, this is a second-person narrative.  In his bodily journal I thought this served both to facilitate Auster's openness and the reader's attempt to imagine being in his boots (or really, in his feet). Here, although I associate the interior with a deeper dive into self, the results were more self conscious, more abstract, more distanced.  Auster says:
January 3, 2012, exactly one year to the day after you started composing your last book, your now-finished winter journal.  It was one thing to write about your body, to catalogue the manifold knocks and pleasures experienced by your physical self, but exploring your mind as you remember it from childhood will no doubt be a more difficult task - perhaps an impossible one.  Still, you feel compelled to give it a try.  Not because you find yourself a rare or exceptional object of study, but precisely because you don't, because you think of yourself as anyone, as everyone.
An interesting premise.  Is this modesty acting as justification?  A way to allow himself in in order to allow us in? Is it disguised grandiosity?  After all, who wants to read about what is ordinary?  For that matter, who wants to write about it?  Somehow this second-person voice, which acted as a side-door to intimacy in the last book, here can be cold and impersonal.

There is nothing better than being six years old, six is far and away the best age anyone can be.  You remember thinking this as clearly as you remember what you did three second ago, it is still blazing inside you fifty-nine years after that  morning, undiminished in its clarity, as bright as any one of the thousands or millions or tens of millions of memories you have managed to retain. What had happened to cause such as overpowering feeling?  Impossible to know, but you suspect it had something to do with the birth of self-consciousness, that thing that happens to children at around the age of six, when the inner voice awakens and the ability to think a thought and tell yourself you are thinking that thought begins.  Our lives enter a new dimension at that point, for that is the moment when we acquire the ability to tell our stories to ourselves, to begin the uninterrupted narrative that continues until the day we die.  Until that morning, you just were.  Now you knew that you were...
Nearly everyone has knees, stomachs, genitalia, and so how they move, ache, and betray us, are at once specific and universal.  This fueled the pleasure of reading Auster's chronicle of his body.  Is everyone's interior sense of self narrative?  It is hardly surprising that a writer's is.  Does everyone share Auster's "sixness?"  My reaction here was not interest in gaining insight into Auster, nor did it translate to excitement about insight into myself.  My reaction to reading this was mistrust.  Is this his "real" memory or a story he made up later?  Do I remember my fourth birthday party or only the photograph in the album?  And if it's the photograph I remember, then is it a real?  This may be uniquely my problem, but here Auster's 'you' became an assumption that he took too much for granted.  Of course, maybe Auster truly does remember the birth of his meta-awareness as clearly as he remembers hitting his friend in the head with a golf club.  I have an analogue experience to the golf club memory, together with the guilt and fear that Auster describes, so I found myself accepting the 'you' in this case, rather than standing out in the cold. Alternatively, I wonder if perhaps it is not the specificity that gnawed at me, but rather it is Auster's assumption that he is everyone. An innocent assumption, I grant him, but in a passage such as the one that followed, I bristled as I read
By eleven, you were mutating into a creature of the herd, struggling through that grotesque period of prepubescent dislocation when everyone is thrust into the microcosm of a closed society, when gangs and cliques begin to form, when some people are in and some people are out, when the word popular becomes a synonym for desire, when the childhood wars between girls and boys come to an end and fascination with the opposite sex begins, a period of extreme self-consciousness...
Is that what being eleven is or is that what happened to you? There is a risk a writer takes in assuming he is everyone in order to conduct an examination of himself.  Himself is not necessarily myself.  When Auster made this assumption about my knees or my gut, I didn't care so much, but when he assumed he knew my guilt, the birth of my self consciousness, or my sexuality, that was something altogether different and, much as I loved Paul Auster's writing, I had a harder time swallowing it.  The second person voice, which functioned so effectively in the first memoir, when coupled with that assumption, placed me outside the narrative.

I don't pretend that it isn't intimidating to open your inner most self to the reading world, but I imagine that Auster may have made his job harder trying to take on the burden of writing everyone's memoir instead of his own.  This struggle is made evident in the second section of the book, where Auster shares with his reader two films he thinks of as formative to his sense of who he is and how he relates to the world.  When someone offers to speak about their inner life and spends 70 pages on an exhaustive plot summary of two tangential cultural artifacts, this suggests to me that he is having trouble getting down to business.  I had sympathy for his discomfort, but little interest in the films and his narrative failed to show me anything but superficial relevance to what makes Paul Auster, the man or the artist, tick.

I think it was psychiatrist Adam Phillips who suggested as a metaphor for psychotherapy turning a man upside-down so that everything falls out of his pockets and then asking them about each item.  That is to say, you reveal yourself through the trash in your pockets as much as through direct confession, and a good therapist facilitates a process in which everything is an excuse to turn back to you.  Here too, either by trudging through the ephemera, or in spite of it, there were some lovely moments of revelation.  I particularly enjoyed Auster's memory of a seventh grade dance partner, their eventual estrangement in their teens, and the perspective of his present memory of their reunion 26 years after their dance. These weren't pronouncements on what it is like to be 13, but rather Paul's memories of what it was like to dance with Karen, to meet Karen again as an adult, and to remember these meetings as an older man who is writing about his life.  His act of remembering is part of the story, one he includes his reader in.  This memory is at once complex, for the series of frames through which he glimpses this memory - reflections of reflections - and also simple: a flash, as Auster describes it.  Conveying the murky, difficult-to-hang-onto details, one indelible moment, and all the layers of subsequent narrative that color the memory, lend this episode a striking authenticity.   It is this authenticity I hungered for earlier in Report from the Interior.  

Auster offers many more of these personal revelations in the third section of the book, which he entitles Time Capsule.  It chronicles his romantic, political, intellectual, and moral coming of age in the 1960s, through his re-acquaintance with scraps of his own journals and letters.  Again, he writes not about what happened but about peering through the lens of his current day experience of self to get a reading of his past self.  This succeeded in being much more revelatory of both the man and the artists who inhabits the pages of Report from the Interior.  One such passage reads
The world is in my head.  My body is in the world.  You still stand by that paradox, which was an attempt to capture the strange doubleness of being alive, the inexorable union of inner and outer that accompanies each beat of a person's heart from birth until death.  
This experience of doubleness is revealed not just in Auster's writing these words in one of his early notebooks, his memoirs exemplify this in the fact that he wrote two different volumes - one for his head and another for his body - Descartes's mind/body dichotomy in action!  One for his inner and one for his outer self. So these are twin books of a single self, and of a lifelong conflict, if not of everyone, at least of Paul Auster.  Despite any criticisms I have of his efforts, if you like Auster's writing, or the memoir form, or the process of understanding a self inquiring about a self, then these books are valuable and courageously revealing in that they are willing to wage this battle out in the open.

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