4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster
This is the book I’ve been most excited about since I got my hands on it before Christmas, yet, it has taken until now to review it.
My reading of this wonderful, ‘big fat book’ (Auster’s words) has history: I was invited to join an online book group at UK publishers Faber & Faber to discuss it (I wrote about that here, and it was excellent and enriching way to read the book); I went to see him talk at the Sheldonian in Oxford in March, then the day after I went down to London to Faber to meet him with other members of the book group (blurb and group photo here).
For those who don’t know about the book, here are a few words about the beginning sections:
Ferguson’s grand-father arrives in the USA from Minsk, and through a misunderstanding is registered as Ichabod Ferguson. He has a son, Stanley, who becomes a home goods store owner in New Jersey with his brothers and goes on to marry Rose, a photographer’s assistant. They have a son in 1947 and he is named Archie Ferguson.
From this point onward, we follow the life of Archie from a child to a young man, not once, but four times. Auster gives us four possible lives for Archie – four possible roads (less) travelled, (yes, Frost’s poem does get an early mention on p120). We follow Archie growing up four times, becoming an adolescent four times, experiencing first love four times and so on. For the most part, the same characters appear, from Stanley’s brothers, to Rose’s sister and Archie’s cousins – but Archie’s relationship with them varies, except with his mother Rose, who is constant. He falls out with his father, his parents divorce – or not, he’ll fall in love with cousin Amy and it’ll be requited – or unrequited, he’ll go and live with Aunt Mildred, and so on – different family arrangements and their long-term effects occur in the different strands.
The novel finishes on New Year’s Eve, as the 1960s turn into the 1970s and Archie is a young man. The chronology of what happened in America during his growing up anchors everything, but how Archie experiences it varies. Auster includes many of his own favourite subjects – from baseball and Laurel & Hardy to living in France and translating French poetry – but Auster is emphatic that 4 3 2 1 is not an autobiographical book. He said that he borrowed his ‘own geography and chronology’, and bar two real incidents that he has used from his own life, none of the Archies are him!
One of those events happened when Auster was 14 and at summer camp. A boy just inches from him was struck by lightning during an electric storm and died. This near miss has haunted Auster ever since, and made him realise that ‘anything can happen to anybody at any moment,’ and it has surely been a driver for the role that coincidence plays in his novels. Auster uses this in the second Archie’s second section (2.2), killing off Archie 2, aged 13. (p184). Although by this time, it has occurred to the reader that one, or more, or the Archies may die, it was a shock when Archie 2 died so early. Thereon, in each set of chapters, a blank page with the number on will remind the reader of what happened.
The four Archies may have different trajectories in their lives, but Archie’s character essentially remains the same. Archie 1 is a promising sportsman until he loses two fingers in an accident – the enforced change of interests make him more morose, but he’s the one that is particularly interested in the world and politics. He becomes an observer as a journalist, including during the campus rebellion at Columbia in 1968, (Auster was there).
The Archie I liked the best was number 3. He was the most sensitive and confused, the one that loves movies and poetry, but Archie 4 was also particularly interesting. He is the one that describes life as a newspaper:
Everyone had always told Ferguson that life resembled a book, a story that began on page 1 and pushed forward until the hero died on page 204 or 926, but now that the future he had imagined for himself was changing, his understanding of time was changing as well. Time moved both forward and backward, he realized, and because the stories in books could only move forward, the book metaphor made no sense. If anything, life was more akin to the structure of a tabloid newspaper, with big events such as the outbreak of a war or a gangland killing on the front page and less important news on the pages that followed, but the back page bore a headline as well, the day’s top story from the trivial but compelling world of sports, and the sports articles were nearly always read backward as you turned the pages from left to right instead of from right to left as you did with the articles in the front, […]. Time moved in two directions because every step into the future carried a memory of the past, […] each person lived in a slightly different world from everyone else. (p347)
This passage hit the structure of this novel right on the head for me. Along with reading forward and backwards, there is also the idea of parallel columns with different stories which makes sense of everything.
This novel is so full of riches. Auster sometimes rambles on in listy, long sentences and paragraphs that go on for several pages, but they are rarely boring. Actually, the only part that I did find tedious was the Columbia campus rebellion – probably that would mean a lot more to American readers of a certain age. But, it was only twenty pages or so and in a big fat book of 866 pages, can be forgiven, for I read entranced by the rest. Auster also takes the opportunity to build in a few references to his other books – I smiled when Archie visits the Moon Palace restaurant for instance.
The book took Auster three years to write, plus editing and ‘fiddling’. At first it was going to be called ‘Ferguson’ but events took over, and that title was no longer appropriate – but 4 3 2 1 turned out to be perfect. Originally, he had thought to carry on with the Archies’ lives, but elected to stop at 1970, as life gets less transformative as you get older, he was interested in the development of character. It’s funny – in our book group, we tended to refer to the hero as Archie, whereas Auster mainly calls him Ferguson.
4 3 2 1 will appeal to fans of The Goldfinch, readers who like detail and big, fat books. There is no need to have read anything else by Auster to enjoy it, (see Harriet’s Shiny review here for instance). The Red Notebook (which I posted about here briefly), a collection of essays which cover some of the themes in 4 3 2 1 would make ideal companion reading. Auster has hinted that 4 3 2 1 may be his last novel – I hope that’s only last – for a while, for I loved this one. (10/10)
Source: Publisher – thank you!
Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1 (Faber, Jan 2017). Hardback, 866 pages.