Author Interviews
11:57 am
Thu August 23, 2012

Paul Auster Meditates On Life, Death And Near Misses

Originally published on Thu August 23, 2012 2:28 pm

Paul Auster doesn't take living for granted. At 65, the author has had several "near misses," from sliding face-first into a jutting nail as a child to a traumatic car accident that almost killed him, his wife and his daughter.

Auster's new memoir, Winter Journal, is a series of meditations on his life, aging and mortality — including his mother's death.

In the book, Auster recounts staying with his mother's inert body while waiting for the paramedics to arrive. A few days later, he felt his "limbs turn to stone" and thought he was dying. It turned out to be a panic attack.

"Everything was bottled up inside of me," Auster tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "There were other factors — lack of sleep, too much alcohol, too much coffee. But still, I think my body would not have broken down if I'd been able to weep — I mean really weep, let it out."

Auster says he first approached the book as a "history" of his body — and it shows. Winter Journal contains a sensory catalog — including sexual feelings, a bursting bladder and scars — of some of the abuses and pleasures his body has been through. Auster traces his first awareness of his body's quirks to age 4, when he was mistakenly diagnosed with celiac disease. As a result, he had to live solely on bananas for two years.

"Bananas, so many bananas that, as I say in the book, I can't stand the sight or smell of them and I haven't tasted one in 60 years now," he says.

Auster is the author of The Invention of Solitude, The New York Trilogy and many other works. He has received several awards, including the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature in 2006.


Interview Highlights

On fights as a boy

"The way out was kneeing people in the balls. I figured this out. It would end the fight in five seconds. And, as I say in the book, I got a reputation as a dirty fighter. Perhaps that's true. But it was only because I didn't want to fight. And after I did that once or twice when people confronted me, and they're writhing on the ground and the fight is over, people stopped taunting me or trying to pick fights with me, so I was free. So dirty tactics liberated me from the whole business."

On seeing his mother's inert body

"[It] was almost more than I could bear. And I've seen other dead people, but none of them had been my mother. And there's something so intimate about a parent. It was hard, so after looking at her for a few moments and studying what she looked like, I turned my head away and I couldn't look anymore, and I kept not looking until her body was taken away by paramedics."

On why he doesn't drive

"I was 55 when this accident took place — meaning I had been driving all my life without any accidents, no problems. To make such a stupid mistake, I do blame myself. I made a turn, cutting it very close with another car coming from the other direction, and that misjudgment is so alarming to me, because the people I love most in the world were in that car with me and I could have easily killed them. So there's a kind of penance — I don't get behind the wheel anymore."

On embracing self-contradictions

"I think if we didn't contradict ourselves, it would be awfully boring. It would be tedious to be alive. Changing your mind is probably one of the most beautiful things people can do. And I've changed my mind about a lot of things over the years."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

My guest, Paul Auster, has written a memoir that reflects on his life by focusing on the history of his body - from his childhood to the present. He describes his pleasures, scars, smoking habit, travels, homes, and near-death experiences. The memoir is called "Winter Journal," a reference to reaching his mid-60s and entering what he describes as the winter of his life.

Auster is the author of many novels, including, "Sunset Park," "The New York Trilogy," and "The Music of Chance." He wrote the screenplays for "Smoke, Blue in the Face," and "Lulu on the Bridge."

Paul Auster, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start with a short reading from "Winter Journal." And this is from the beginning of the book. We - we've - we've, condensed it a little bit.

PAUL AUSTER: (Reading) 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.

(Reading) 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.

It is an incontestable fact that you are no longer young. One month from today, you will be turning 64, and although that is not excessively old, not what anyone would consider to be an advanced old age, you cannot stop yourself from thinking about all the others who never managed to get as far as you have. This is one example of the various things that could never happen, but which, in fact, have happened.

GROSS: That's Paul Auster reading from the beginning of his new memoir "Winter Journal." Why did you want to write a sensory catalogue, including a mention of all the times you needed to empty your bladder and no toilet was at hand?

(LAUGHTER)

AUSTER: Not all the times.

GROSS: Not all the times.

AUSTER: Just one, one, one time. One time.

GROSS: Referring to them. Giving them a shout.

(LAUGHTER)

AUSTER: I-I don't know why I wrote the book. I never know why I do anything I do. I guess I did it because I wanted to, and somehow the idea felt very compelling to me and I went with it. And I felt well, if I'm really going to do a good job with this, I have to be honest about everything and I have to open myself up to things that could be potentially embarrassing. And yet, nevertheless, what I'm writing about are things that we've all experienced and it's not difficult to identify with some of these little predicaments we get into every now and again - such as a bursting bladder in a place where you're not able to empty it. It's funny and it's part of everyday human life, so I thought I needed to talk about.

GROSS: A lot of the book really is about your body in a lot of ways, you know, like things that have happened to you, times you've nearly died. You, you write about sexuality without writing explicitly about it but, you know, about sexual feelings; panic attacks, so on. And I think some people just take their bodies for granted and live in them.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You know? And other people...

AUSTER: Really?

GROSS: Yeah. I, honestly, I think I've met people like that. And, and other people just have things happen to their bodies, some more frequently than others, and end up having to think about their bodies a lot above and beyond sexual arousal.

(LAUGHTER)

AUSTER: You see I - well, you see I really thought of this book as a history of my body. That's - that was the working idea and I launched into it with that in mind. But you see, there, there is also a very long section about my mother - her life and her death. And I justify it by saying well, it was in my mother's body that my own body and life began therefore, it's legitimate to talk about it. I also go through a catalog of all the places I lived in - all the addresses I've had over the course of my life - places I've been in for at least six months or a year - and I figured I could justify that by saying well, these were the places that sheltered my body from the elements. So, still, it's still sticking to the - to the general idea of what I was trying to do.

GROSS: Hey, you don't have to rationalize it for me.

(LAUGHTER)

AUSTER: It's OK. No, it's all right. Thanks.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But, I guess, have you always been just aware of being housed in a body, sometimes a cranky body?

AUSTER: Yes. I think I, I was not so well when I was a small child. I had some kinds of stomach problems and I don't even know what it was. At the time they called it celiac. But it couldn't have been celiac because that's a very terrible disease and I think it lasts forever and, there's nothing much you can do about it. But I had something. So in the early years of my life up, to the age of about four, I really wasn't so well. Then I got over this and just started running around and got terribly interested in sports and all kinds of intense physical activity.

GROSS: In that period where you were diagnosed with celiac, that's a, you know, a very terrible life threatening reaction to - to gluten, to - to...

AUSTER: Yes.

GROSS: ...to wheat and other grains containing gluten. So you were on a very limited diet. You said you lived on like almost the bananas, solely, for two and a half years.

AUSTER: I lived on bananas. Bananas. Bananas. So many bananas that, as I say in the book, I can't stand the sight or the smell of them and I haven't tasted one in 60 years now.

GROSS: So were you brought up with the message like Paul, you're not normal, you can't eat what other people eat, you're not like the other children, you're not like other people, you must be protected?

AUSTER: Probably. But you see, most of those years are before I have consolidated memories of those years. So, I can't consciously say to myself my mother said this because I don't remember. What I remember is a strange thing. When we would travel into New York - my mother grew up here in the city - and we'd go to see her parents sometimes staying overnight. I had a little suitcase and she would pack my bananas in the suitcase. And that suitcase stayed in the family for years and it still smelled of bananas.

(LAUGHTER)

AUSTER: And every time I saw that suitcase I'd, I'd have a, a sinking heart and I'd, I'd remember, you know, the terrible business with the bananas. So, a kind of sensory memory, rather than a conscious memory of those days.

GROSS: Now, in talking about your body, when you got active in sports, you loved what - football, baseball?

AUSTER: Baseball, football, basketball. I played everything. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. But you hated fighting, physical fighting.

AUSTER: Yes. Yes. Because it was too emotionally overwhelming. You know, the kinds of angers that are part of fistfights and wrestling and confrontations between boys when you're young are so intense and the emotions run so high that even if you win the fight - and I probably won as many as I lost - you feel wretched afterwards. Or I did.

And even if I had won, I felt as if I wanted to cry afterwards. So by the time I was about 13, I figured out a way not to have to fight anymore. And I never did.

GROSS: What was your way out?

AUSTER: The way out was kneeing people in the balls. I figured this out.

(LAUGHTER)

AUSTER: It would end the fight in five seconds. And as I say in the book, what is it, dirty fighter? Perhaps that's true but it only was because I didn't want to fight. And after I did that once or twice when people confronted me and they're writhing on the ground and the fight is over, then people stopped taunting me or trying to pick fights with me and I was free.

So dirty tactics or not, it liberated me from the whole business.

GROSS: One of the things we've talked about before on the show, which you write about in the book, is a car accident that you were in. You were at the driver's - you were driving. Your wife was in the front seat, your daughter in the back, along with the dog.

AUSTER: Yes.

GROSS: And you...

AUSTER: Actually, you talked about it once on the radio.

GROSS: We've talked about it. We've talked about it twice, actually.

AUSTER: Yes.

GROSS: Once you brought it up at the very end of the interview.

AUSTER: That's true.

GROSS: And then we had to end. Our time was up.

AUSTER: And then you wanted to talk again and then - so this is the first time I've written about it.

GROSS: This is the first time you've written about it.

AUSTER: Yes, all these years later.

GROSS: And, you know, it's gripping even knowing the story and the outcome. But I just wonder, like, if the story keeps changing in your mind. I know, you know, sometimes what you're remembering is the memory of a memory.

AUSTER: Of course. Of course.

GROSS: And, like, the actuality of the experience keeps, you know, fading away.

AUSTER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And you wonder, like, how accurately am I remembering it. Are you aware of the story of that really traumatic incident changing over time?

AUSTER: Not this particular one, and I'm sure there are details that have changed and I'm not even aware of them. But it's only 10 years ago. So it's not the distant past. I know there are things that I've distorted. And even, for example, after I finished the book and it was published, I realized that the name of someone I knew in childhood who's mentioned in the book I got wrong.

I gave the wrong name because I gave the name of the brother of the person rather than the person himself. And so there are all these little slips of memory that we almost can't control, I think.

GROSS: But you still don't drive.

AUSTER: No, I don't want to. I've lost all confidence in myself since then because I had been driving for many years, ever since I was 17, and I was 55 when this accident took place. Meaning that all my life I had been driving without any accidents. No problems whatsoever.

And to make such a stupid mistake - because I do blame myself for it. You know, I made a turn cutting it very close with another car coming from the other direction and that misjudgment is so alarming to me because the people I love most in the world were in that car with me and I easily could've killed them. So as a kind of penance, I don't get behind the wheel anymore.

GROSS: How has that changed your life, to not drive?

AUSTER: Not at all, because I live in New York City and you don't need a car here. So it really doesn't make any difference.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Auster and he has a new book, which is called "Winter Journal." Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Paul Auster. His new book is called "Winter Journal." So we're talking about how your new book is in part a book about your body and some of the abuse that it's taken, some of the pleasure that it's had. There's a chapter about your mother and there's a part about your mother's body in the sense that you are the second person to see her body after she died.

Her housecleaner called you and said that your mother was dead...

AUSTER: Yes.

GROSS: ...and you went right over.

AUSTER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: This is a strange question, but what was the difference between getting the news that she was dead and actually seeing her body?

AUSTER: Well, it was a surprising death in that she hadn't been ill. I was not prepared for it. You know, when a parent has been ill with a disease and one is prepared, then you have a different response to the moment. This came out of the blue. The telephone call came and I went numb, I think.

It's not as though I don't know that unexpected things happen and that people drop dead. I mean, my mother was 77. She wasn't terribly young. But she wasn't as old as many people get to be these days. But numb, I think, is the word. And then when I got to her apartment - it took a while to get there, she lived in New Jersey - seeing her inert body on the bed was almost more than I could bear.

And I've seen other dead people but none of them had been my mother, and there's something so intimate about a parent. And it was hard. So after looking at her for a few moments and studying what she looked like, I turned my head away and then I couldn't look anymore. And I kept not looking until her body was taken out of the apartment by paramedics.

GROSS: Was that in part so that that memory wouldn't be the primary memory, visually, of your mother?

AUSTER: No. There was nothing conscious going on. Maybe unconsciously. Maybe you're right. I just have no idea what I was experiencing then. I was in such shock. And it happened so unexpectedly and there I was looking down at the person, the inert body of a person to whom I'd been talking on the telephone just two days before.

And she'd been in buoyant spirits, cracking jokes. She seemed terribly - in good form altogether. So it was so, so strange to think, well, I'm never going to hear her laugh again and there's no more conversations either.

GROSS: But you were surprised at yourself. You didn't cry.

AUSTER: No. No.

GROSS: And you seem to think in the book, though, you weren't experiencing what you were supposed to be experiencing.

AUSTER: As I say in the book, it seems that - because I do cry in life every once in a while. I tend to cry more over books and films than real events, but every once in a while I've cried about things that have happened to me. But never over the death of anybody.

Something in me shuts down in the face of death and I think that's what led to the panic attack that I got a couple of days later, because I couldn't - everything was bottled up inside me and, you know, there were other factors involved with that attack as well - lack of sleep, too much alcohol, too much coffee.

But still, I think my body wouldn't have broken down. If I had been able to weep, I mean really weep, let it out, I think I would've been much better off.

GROSS: Is this the panic attack where you thought you were dying?

AUSTER: Yes. I absolutely thought I was dying. And I actually felt my limbs turn to stone. It was a feeling I'd never experienced before and never again since, this feeling of death creeping up in my limbs. And I think what was happening is my circulation was shutting down in order to keep my heart going. Something like that.

There's some medical explanation for what happened. But I really felt that it was death creeping up inside me and it was probably the most terrifying moment of my life.

GROSS: So before that you had thought, like, I don't know how many years before this, it was - you thought you were having a heart attack.

AUSTER: Yes. Right. Right.

GROSS: And that you were dying. But there was a sense of calm that came over you.

AUSTER: I know. You see, I've had those two supposed near-death experiences, neither of which turned out to be serious. The first time I was calm and accepting and ready to go. I thought, all right, this is it. My life is over. I think I was 50 when that happened and I was with Siri, my wife.

She was holding me and I said, well, here I am I the arms of my beloved and if this is it, this is it and I'm not frightened. And then five years later I got the panic attack and I was frightened out my wits. So two different responses to what I thought was the same thing.

GROSS: Oh, and also after the first time you thought now that I've seen what a calm experience dying can be, I'm no longer afraid of death.

AUSTER: That's right. Yes.

GROSS: And then you get this panic attack.

AUSTER: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: And, like, you're terrified. You're screaming in fear.

AUSTER: Exactly. Well, we're all made of contradictions, aren't we?

GROSS: Well, I am.

AUSTER: Yeah. I keep discovering more and more in myself.

GROSS: Does that disappoint you? I mean, do you wish, like, oh, as you get older you should be getting, like, more consistent and figure out what you really think? And, you know, consistency is something that's really valued in this world and it can be very hard to achieve. Like I think we are very contradictory.

AUSTER: We are contradictory. All human beings are. We have multiple selves. We have different aspects of ourselves that come into play at different moments for different reasons. I think if we didn't contradict ourselves it would be awfully boring. It would be really pretty tedious to be alive.

Changing your mind is probably one of the most beautiful things that people can do, and I've changed my mind about lots of things over the years. And in fact I was talking to a writer friend today on the phone who's even older than I am by about 10 or 12 years. And he's working on a book and I'm working on another book.

And we were talking about how each time we start, we want to just undo everything we've done in the past, take a new approach, shake things up for ourselves, and just take risks. And otherwise it's not worth it. And I think it not only applies to art but to life too. So long live contradictions. That's what I say.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

AUSTER: Well, it's been a pleasure talking to you again. I'm glad you invited me and thank you very much.

GROSS: Paul Auster's new memoir is called "Winter Journal." You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org where you can also download Podcasts of our show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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