Saturday, July 21, 2012

Writing in and of the body (Books - Winter Journal by Paul Auster)

In America, the public understanding of an artist's work generally occupies two opposing extremes: one can either be a star or a person who hasn't grown up yet.  This can make pursuing serious artistic work in the absence of the visible success that comes to few in any field a punishing choice.  One's profession is free of the satisfactions most lines of work confer - regular engagement and challenge in the field one was trained in, a respect for the value of what you do from others, and enough money to make a living and plan a future.  I admire American artists of any kind who are able to amass a body of work and Paul Auster is a writer who has done so.  At a level of high respect but maybe just shy of stardom, he has over his 64 years produced 16 novels, several volumes of poetry, nonfiction, screenplay, and memoir, and he has translated and edited French poetry, so I was excited to be offered an advance copy of his Winter Journal (Henry Holt and Company, to be released August 2012). As someone fascinated by artists' creative processes, I looked forward to searching for clues to how he produces his work from the record of his life that he shares with us in this journal.

Paul Auster's Winter Journal is a contemplation of the body.  Whether one thinks of being in possession of one's body or possessed by it, and Auster has experienced both, he considers his corporeal residence, how it has survived the assaults of time, and how it has contributed to the man and writer he has become.
Speak now before it is too late, and then hope to go on speaking until there is nothing more to be said.  Time is running out, after all.  Perhaps it is just as well to put aside your stories for now and try to examine what it has felt like to live inside this body from the first day you can remember being alive until this one.  A catalogue of sensory data.  What one might call a phenomenology of breathing.  
I found the results as beautiful for their profundity as for their mundanity.    Auster's life is not exceptional in its biographical details, which are familiar to the point of ordinary -classic urban Jewish boyhood marked by aches of heart and body and love of baseball, Columbia education, writer's apprenticeship in Paris attics, marriage and divorce in the 1970s, regrets for one's excesses, and indignities of age - but for the fact that he considers his life deeply and creates from the experience he has of it.  What I am moved by in this journal is the way that what is most elusive about quotidian experience of being a person is made remarkable.  We suddenly value what we usually ignore and then valuing it, we regret its passing.  This may be the single thing in art that I prize most.

When I think about favorite works it is Giacometti's walking figures as they grab the accidental moment of intersecting lives in cities, Maguy Marin's adaptation of the mazurka in her Coppelia in which the classic corps de ballet diction is replaced with a danced version of the everyday moves of young people kicking around a soccer ball and flirting in front of their apartment building, Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, and Mikhalkov's films Anna, Burnt by the Sun, or An Unfinished Piece for Player Piano.  It is these creations that make me suddenly catch my breath in recognition of a piece of life I thought of as ordinary, and let me feel it all over again as appreciate its beauty. Though Auster's Winter Journal takes the self-acknowledged form of a inventory, a potentially trivial form, and offers many such revalations.

It is perhaps not in spite of, but because of this form that Auster could take on the onerous task of contemplating his moments of shame, his neuroses, regrets, and constant but now more salient awareness of mortality.  It is in the use of form to hold content, not in the content itself, that art ever achieves originality. Similarly, the reader can, amidst the quickly flowing lists of...
Your body in small rooms and large room, your body walking up and down stairs, your body swimming in ponds, lakes, rivers, and oceans, your body traipsing across muddy fields, your body lying in the tall grass of empty meadows, your body walking along city streets, your body laboring up hills and mountains, your body sitting down in chairs, lying down on beds, stretching out on beaches, cycling down country roads, walking through forests... 
accompany Auster, in his stumbles over little moments of transcendence.  There is something patent but just in Auster's choice of a list to contain his writing as it mirrors the body - itself a container for the life he contemplates. 

What must it have been like to go to his writing room each day and write this book - I kept asking myself.  Did he wish to write a journal because contemplating his body and its life right now was simply unavoidable and what he does is write?  Or does he always keep a journal and so he wrote about this and then thought - I could make this a book?  Did he write this with a mind to publish?  The form we receive as readers of this book is evidently composed.  The voice is melodic and his corporeal inventories invoke prayer.

Most noticeable of Auster's compositional decisions is his choice to write Winter Journal in second person.  Initially I found it strange to read a book so fundamentally about someone else with the pronoun 'you' in every sentence. continued to succumb to various infatuations with girls such as Patty, Susie, Dale, Jan, and Ethel.  No more than kissing and holding hands, of course...
No I didn't, I wanted to say to the book.  This is not about me.  This is about you.  Why this affectation?  Then I began to feel sympathy for the act of courage making public close examination of one's private self constitutes.  I recognized this as perhaps the technique by which he could find enough distance to look closely.  He is almost tricking himself, I thought, because the second person seems impersonal and lists seem mundane.  Then I began to appreciate the unique music of the sentences that this created - appreciation to the formal level of the work.  But finally, I was struck by the fact that in using the second person, Auster was inviting me to imagine being him and in so doing find some identification with his experience.  I was surprised during Auster's description of a painful accident, whacking his head on a door frame, that I winced as though remembering my own pain.

Most of the gems on creative process that I crave in artist memoirs are gleaned through inference in this book as opposed to instruction.  But Auster shares a wonderful memory toward the end of Winter Journal of a dance concert he attended in New York in 1978.  It is remarkable not for any great insight it offers into choreography or art in general, but for the awareness it evokes in him of the visceral origin of his writing.  A refrain for Auster, if you read any interviews he has given.
Writing begins in the body, it is the music of the body...
In so doing, the book justifies its inventory of body as a fitting form for the consideration of the life of a writer - a satisfying marriage of form and content.

A couple of interviews with Auster are linked below:

Jonathan Lethem interviews Paul Auster at The Believer

Goodreads interviews Paul Auster (hat tip: A Piece of Monologue)

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