In search of feral apples and underground men

My village, just outside Barnsley on the A635, used to supply the workers for lots of coal mines: Darfield Main, Grimethorpe, Houghton Main, Dearne Valley Drift, Goldthorpe, Barnburgh, Cortonwood; names of closed pits ringing like bells.

It’s a Sunday evening in late, late November and I’m just about to walk down through the village with my wife to her mother’s for tea. There will be homemade pies and celery sticks in a jug. I’ve got my thick coat on and my lucky Barnsley FC hat, and I’m carrying my carrier bag and my stick. Actually, it’s not really my stick: it was the one my mother had for the last few years before she died, the one she hung on to in the hope she might walk again.

The sky is clear as we set off and the full and insistent moon lights up the field behind the high wall; the herons are there, four of them sitting on the bare earth like constructions, like toys. We stand and watch them not moving, being still. Behind the field the Grimethorpe bypass is lit by passing cars, and the huge ugly Asos warehouse glows beside the hill that used to be the Houghton Main pit stack.

I’m pointing with my stick at the stars. I wish I knew more about the names of the constellations. Maybe I could just make some up: Uncle Frank’s Cap. The Unravelling Muffler. Somebody did it once, after all. Beyond Asos is the RSPB site, the ducks rising and falling from the water to the air and back again beside the double-glazing place.

My village, just outside Barnsley on the A635, used to supply the workers for lots of coal mines: Darfield Main, Grimethorpe, Houghton Main, Dearne Valley Drift, Goldthorpe, Barnburgh, Cortonwood; names of closed pits ringing like bells. Winding gear and slag heaps were slapped on to landscapes that had hardly changed over decades and miners like my father-in-law walked to work down a bridle path that had been there for centuries.

There was a persistent rumour of a mandrake growing in the swampy patches near the river; “When tha pulls ‘em up they scream!” Jim Marsden said one afternoon as we stood together in the drizzle at the top of the hill listening for sounds of the men working in the mines underneath. Jim insisted that some days you could hear them. “Blokes coughing” he’d say, “and blokes swearing.”

I walk this route every morning at the crack of dawn and I tweet about it; I see the most amazing things and I struggle to squeeze them into 140 characters, like the time I saw that man in a camouflage jacket walk by that man in a hi-vis jacket and as they passed they cancelled each other out.

The owner of the big house put a wall up some time in the last century so that he wouldn’t be able to see men like my father-in-law walking to Houghton Main, and now the workers from Asos stroll that way too, a historical continuation with boots and snap bags. I never found the mandrake but there are three or four plum trees down there, grown from spat stones; the jam glows (metaphorically) at the back of my pantry.

Now we’re at the top of the bridle path and I pull the carrier bag out of my pocket and get my stick ready. This is the reason for the stick – the apple tree by the wall, still full of fruit even this late in the year. Us hunters of the feral apple know what a good year 2013 has been: that mini orchard by the roundabout at Junction 37 of the M1, that huge crop of green beauties across from Tesco’s at Stairfoot near the fossil bank that my kids used to dig in, those heavy cookers that fall to the ground beside the fishing tackle shop in Low Valley.

And these: Yeats’s “silver apples of the moon” hanging just out of reach. Potential crumbles that I poke with my stick until they tumble and I catch them in the carrier. Some are as small as marbles but I’ll take them home anyway. Some roll into the road and a car passes and somebody beeps their horn and gestures to me. It’s either a thumbs-up or a raised pair of fingers. You can’t tell round here, in this Barnsley of the mind where layers of history cover the ground like fallen apples. I’ll just keep poking with my mother’s stick.

 

This season has ssen a bumper crop of British apples. Photo: Nicolo' Minerbi/Luzphoto/Redux

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The North

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era