Faber & Faber, $29.99
Sixty-four hardly seems that old now, but for Paul Auster, sitting down to write through a bitter New York winter, it feels like a threshold crossed. He has arrived at the beginning of life's last act. So, 30 years after he wrote his first memoir - and first book - The Invention of Solitude, the novelist embarks on a second unconventional self-portrait, one that will be a kind of reckoning, of the past and of the person he has been: "You would like to know who you are."
Who Auster is turns out to have little to do with his career as a celebrated novelist, and nothing to do with nostalgia.
One thing the years have taught him is that "the Now and the Then are essentially the same". Searching for more intimate truths, Winter Journal is a candid and sensuous flow of memory fragments linked to the traces life has left on Auster's body.
His scars and hacking cough are like index entries that send him flipping back to the physical sensations of boyhood, with its neighbourhood baseball games and broken bones, to student hovels, the discovery of sex, marriages, travels and revelations. But it's all framed by an awareness of approaching old age. The book's last line, "You have entered the winter of your life'', circles back to tap the shoulder of the first: "You think it will never happen to you."
This associative reverie is more artfully constructed than it first appears. It's not by chance, for instance, that the account of the death of Auster's mother in 2002 occupies the book's physical, as well as emotional, centre. The Invention of Solitude described the murder of Auster's grandfather by his grandmother, and the aftershock of his father's death.
Death is a recurring preoccupation here, too, from the childhood memory of the boy who "was struck and killed by lightning, the boy whose dead body you sat next to and watched over for the next hour in a rain-drenched meadow", to the looming mortality of friends that is increasingly top of mind. "So many of them are gone already - but just wait for the deluge that is coming."
It's odd, this second-person address, even if it's a classic Auster complication: you're not sure if you're being spoken to, or merely witnessing an author haranguing himself in the mirror. When Auster's listing all the places he's lived, or all the tins of soup he's consumed, it's tempting to leave him to it. But, more often, the technique feels like an invitation to a trance-like intimacy in which you can relive Auster's past as if it were your own.
It doesn't take much persuading. There's Auster's sheer storytelling skill for a start, his renowned right hook. But it's his hard honesty and refusal to look away from the ugly and frightening that makes Winter Journal such a powerful, and sometimes quite beautiful, book. It may be winter, but there's warmth here, too, in the pleasure Auster takes in the richness of ordinary experience and his gratitude for how much of it there has been.