Paul Auster Meditates On Life, Death And Near Misses

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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."

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