Fiction & Non-fiction
Faber and Faber, £12.99
A month before he turned 64 last year, Paul Auster, the American writer known for his intricate and inconclusive narratives, made his first entry in this journal, which now constitutes his second memoir, following The Invention of Solitude 30 years ago.
His novels, clever as they are, have always had the potential to irritate as well as to impress, but the best of them revel in a questioning uncertainty that is a theme in itself. So it is disconcerting, in Winter Journal, to find Auster delivering such a plainly written and somewhat complacent portrait of the artist as a soon-to-be-old man.
The most experimental aspect of the journal is that its entries are addressed throughout to “you”, meaning not the reader but the author himself. This device is probably intended to provide distance, but in practice it merely makes the tone of Auster’s musings more cosy. It is as if he is a benign older relative, looking back indulgently on his younger self as he goes to college, struggles for his art, picks up prostitutes in Paris, marries twice (first unhappily, then blissfully), has children, travels, and ultimately becomes so successful that he can support his elderly mother, “which put you in the awkward spot of having to scold her every now and then” for overspending her “allowance”. Elsewhere, we are told that “All your life, you had been sticking up for people who had been pushed around”, which perhaps sounds marginally less self-satisfied than it would if the pronoun “I” had been used.
Although Auster has interesting stories to tell, some of them have been told before in greater detail: we learn little here, for example, about the murder of his paternal grandfather by his grandmother, the family secret at the heart of The Invention of Solitude. He seems to struggle to find a way into his material, spending 50 pages describing all the addresses around the world (but mainly in Brooklyn) he has lived in, without managing to dig up any compelling themes or insights.
What emerges are two conflicting strands that don’t work well together: first, a positive tale about a journey to artistic and domestic fulfilment; second, an attempt at a dispassionate meditation on ageing and mortality. But it is never clear why Winter Journal had to be written, and the persona that Auster presents in it risks detracting from his mysterious and playful fictions. GILES NEWINGTON
The Myth of Wu Tao-Tzu
The Chinese Tang-dynasty painter Wu Tao-Tzu is looking at a mural he has just completed. It shows a magnificent valley with a temple. He claps his hands. The temple gate opens, the painter walks through, the gate closes behind him and he is never seen again.
The Swedish essayist Sven Lindqvist uses this story as a starting point for this lyrical, but hard-hitting, examination of the ways in which we use art as escapism. Speaking of which, if you haven’t heard of Sven Lindqvist you have almost certainly heard of his countryman Henning Mankell, whose creation Kurt Wallander has become a favourite art-as-escape companion for those of us who are addicted not just to his series of crime novels but to the ubiquitous television adaptations that have colonised weekend viewing schedules.
Lindqvist has been hugely influential on Mankell’s philosophy and, in particular, on his ideas about social justice. The Myth of Wu Tao-Tzu, which was first published in 1967 and is now appearing in English translation for the first time as part of Granta’s celebration of Lindqvist’s 80th birthday, asks whether, as a species, we can face up to the unpalatable realities of the world we have created, or whether we will continue to clap our hands and vanish into whatever beautifully created distraction happens along at the crucial moment.
It’s a tough question, and the bluntness of Lindqvist’s style – portions of this extraordinary book read like blogs or tweets – doesn’t sweeten the pill even slightly. One minute he’s thundering from the pulpit, the next he’s calmly considering the ramifications of Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. When it comes to classical Chinese culture, he knows what he’s talking about: he studied Chinese in Sweden in the early 1960s, then travelled to Mao’s China to study calligraphy with the masters. To read this book is to spend a couple of hours in the spin cycle of a washing machine with an opinionated companion and a bottle of wine: messy, confusing, unforgettable. ARMINTA WALLACE
Religio Medici and Urne-Buriall
Sir Thomas Browne, edited by Stephen Greenblatt and Ramie Targoff
New York Review Books, £7.99
How many eyes has a lamprey got? Is it true that a beaver, escaping a hunter, will bite off its own testicles? Where was the soul of Lazarus during his time in the tomb? And what manner of disposal – burning or burying – best fits our mortal remains for resurrection? Such, and even odder, questions exercised the vagrant mind of Sir Thomas Browne, a 17th-century physician once ranked among the greatest stylists in English literature, now hardly read even by scholars of his age. If Browne is known at all today, it’s because of WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, a book partly inspired by this most curious and humane of essayists. Even a svelte edition of just two of his works is a thing of delightful rarity and strangeness.
Browne wrote at a time of reckless experiment in English prose. His century gave us the delicious Guignol of Jacobean tragedy, the soaring morbidity of John Donne’s sermons, the pseudo-clinical bizarrerie of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. Browne can sound like all of these, but outflanks them too in terms of invention and eloquence. Self-tasked with reconciling science and Christianity, or recounting the discovery of funeral urns in Norfolk, he sculpts a new language for his “conjectures” (a favourite word). He famously coined such terms as “suicide”, “bisect”, “precocious” and even “literary”. But it’s the rhythms and phrasings that truly astonish – here he is on the deity himself: “We behold him but asquint upon reflex or shadow.”
It’s formulations like that which amazed later writers. Samuel Johnson, predictably, baulked at Browne’s stylistic excrescences, but Thomas De Quincey aped his genial self-obsession in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Melville filched gobbets of whale lore and a mock-scholarly tone for Moby Dick, and Borges was fascinated by the scope and guile of Browne’s imagination.
If he’s relevant (dread word) today, it’s as much for his confection of mixed genres – memoir and medical tract, popular science and lyric prose – as his bravura style. As Virginia Woolf put it:
“A halo of wonder encircles everything he sees.” BRIAN DILLON