Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story by Paul Auster is so short that it feels like something of a cheat including it on this list at all. In fact, unless I keep this review relatively short it runs the risk of being longer than the book itself. Well, not quite, but you get the idea!
I’ve read a fair bit of Paul Auster over the past few years and I’ve found a mixed reaction from others who have read him. Some find him a superb craftsman, an American Samuel Beckett; others find him pretentious. I can see the position of both camps and whilst I generally like Auster’s work, I do so not without reservation.
Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story tells the story of a writer – in the book he remains nameless, but we are meant to assume, I guess, that it is Auster himself – who receives a commission to write a christmas story for a magazine. The writer is unsure how to write about christmas without lapsing into cloying sentimentality. That is until he confides his problem to Auggie Wren, who works in the local tobacconist shop. Auggie tells the writer an unsentimental christmas story, which becomes the story the writer uses for his commission and the story within this short book. Whether the story is entirely unsentimental is rather debatable, but it is undoubtedly a simple, moving story, full of humanity. And this, I think, is where Auster is at his best – when he is describing the human relationships between ordinary people and their extraordinary lives, rather than the pseudo-Beckettian ramblings of In ther Scriptorium, for example.
Some years ago Auster participated in a radio project where he asked listeners to send in their stories of extraordinary incidences and coincidences. He read the results on air and published them in Tales of American Lives. It is a wonderfully humble testament to the extraordinariness of the everyday and Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story is in the same vein.
I should also mention the wonderful illustrations by ‘ISOL’ that accompany the story. If you have a spare half hour or so, it is worth spending it with this handsome little book.