I recently emailed the editor of a newspaper book review section to tell him to watch for a galley of Winter Journal, Paul Auster’s forthcoming work of personal memoir, a bookend to his now-classic The Invention of Solitude. I mentioned to the editor that 2012 is the 30th anniversary of The Invention of Solitude. “Can it really have been thirty years already?” he asked.
This sly and cruel passage of time is central to both The Invention of Solitude and Winter Journal. Pulling my well-loved copy of Solitude off the shelf, I quickly find the line that has stuck with me most. It’s a comment made by an old man to a young man. Speaking of becoming old he says:
“What a strange thing to happen to a little boy.”
This hits so close to home, I think, because we like the safety of thinking of the old as a race apart. Not as the natural progression of the young. Not as where we, ourselves, all end up (that is, I suppose, if we are lucky).
There is a strong echo of Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych“ here. From Part 6 (translation by Michael R. Katz):
“The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: ‘Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,’ had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but it certainly didn’t apply to himself…. He had been little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with toys, a coachman and a nanny, afterwards with Katenka and with all the joys, griefs, and delights of childhood, boyhood, and youth…. ‘Caius really was mortal, and it was right for him to die; but as for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilych, with all my thoughts and emotions, it’s altogether a different matter. It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible.’”
In The Invention of Solitude, it is the death of Paul’s father that urges him to write. In Winter Journal, he writes about the death of his mother, but the focus is more broadly about his own mortality. This book, unlike The Invention of Solitude, has after all been written by a man in his mid-60s, and the sentences carry an honesty that comes from direct experience. The opening of Winter Journal reads:
“You think it will never happen to you, that it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the world to whom none of these things will ever happen, and then, one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else.”