Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Christmas without treacle

Auggie Wren's Christmas Story, by Paul Auster, first appeared in print in The New York Times on Christmas Day 1990. The story made another appearance in the film Smoke, also written by Paul Auster and starring Harvey Keitel (Auggie Wren) and William Hurt (Paul, a writer).

This year for Christmas the story was published as a gift book, 36 pages sprinkled with illustrations by Isol, spine wrapped in red cloth. I saw it for the first time while doing some last-minute Christmas shopping last week and had to have it for myself.

I love Paul Auster, not least because in these pages he so clearly articulates what I was struggling to express just last week:

I spent the next several days in despair, warring with the ghosts of Dickens, O. Henry, and other masters of the Yuletide spirit. The very phrase "Christmas story" had unpleasant associations for me, evoking dreadful outpourings of hypocritical mush and treacle. Even at their best, Christmas stories were no more than wish-fulfillment dreams, fairy tales for adults, and I'd be damned if I'd ever allowed myself to write something like that. And yet, how could anyone propose to write an unsentimental Christmas story?

Paul Auster can.

The story-telling is matter of fact and fairly emotionless, but there are pauses for reflection and some axiomatic gems:
"If you don't take the time to look, you'll never manage to see anything."
"As long as there's one person to believe it, there's no story that can't be true."

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The pictures are warm colours. Some things are sharply in focus, while background things are sketched in. Scenes are gridded and boxed. Isol is effective in conflating the story's "action" to a two-dimensional plane.

I won't tell you the story here, but I will tell you that it is framed within one of my very favourite ideas, which has lived with me ever since I saw it expressed in Smoke. Auggie Wren takes a photo every morning at the same time of the same view outside his cigar shop. I think about his act almost every day. "By planting himself in one tiny corner of the world and willing it to be his own, by standing guard in the space he had chosen for himself," he is photographing time. This is how we all mark time, though we may not do so in such regular or recognizable patterns and we, most of us, don't have tangible photographs to show for it.

If you have 17 minutes to spare, you can listen to the NPR broadcast of Paul Auster reading the story, Christmas Day 2004.
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