Paul Auster is 65 and devotes a large portion of his recent memoir, Winter Journal, to the matter of growing old. I am a few years older, so I have been devoting an even larger portion of my time to the subject.
Several years before I read Auster’s memoir, I wrote,
“The business of growing old crept up on me slowly. It was not something I had thought about or planned for. There was no course on it in college. And then one day there it was, staring me straight in the face--grey beard, cold, dark hands, brittle bones, wrinkles here and there, and more, of course. … you have no idea how ferocious it will be…
Auster begins Winter Journal similarly,
“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.”
This is the way it is once you realize you’re growing old, there’s no escaping it, and Auster struggles and grumbles about it, as we all do. Winter Journal also meanders around other portions of his life—his mother, lovers, 21 different homes he’s lived in, illnesses, favorite foods, scars from many injuries, and a couple of traffic accidents.
And he has written his memoir in the second person “you” as if to distance him from himself and, to my way of thinking, from his readers too. It does seem a bit contrived.
He writes about a near-death experience somewhat more personally, “…you had learned that death was not something to be feared anymore, that when the moment comes for a person to die, his being shifts into another zone of consciousness, and he is able to accept it. Or so you thought.”
A few years ago I had a similar experience in Florence. At breakfast one morning I drank too much of the strong coffee they in Italy and experienced what is known as a vasovagal reaction, a mild form of fainting. I desperately wanted to lie down and sleep for a bit.
Luckily I happened to be passing by the Palazzo Strozzi, a center of cultural events in Florence. A smart Florentine designed the Palazzo with large stone benches on three of its four sides. They were originally intended as a shady resting place for servants and the motley assortment of characters the palace attracted long ago.
I laid down on one and immediately fell into one of the most peaceful moments of my life. I thought I was coming to the end and it did feel good and I was not at all fearful or worried about a single thing. Alas, I eventually recovered and moseyed off to join my wife for a lovely al fresco luncheon.
I wish I had kinder words for Winter Journal. But it rambles all over the place, with few meaningful insights. Nevertheless, I know that many readers enjoy confessional musings of this sort. For them, the book might be a pleasure
At the end Auster wonders, as we all do once we reach his age, how many days are left. Quite frankly, every day that I wake up, I feel it’s a bit of a miracle.
I am reminded of a film, My Life Without Me, that I saw several years ago. In the film, Ann played by the ever-lovely Sarah Polley, learns she is going to die. She is married and has two young children. She makes a list of things she wants to do before she dies. And does each one, in turn.
If you learned you were going to die, what would be on your list?