"No more than an imposing folly": James Fenton at Mentmore

20 May 1977.

James Fenton’s portfolio is extensive. As critic, columnist, political reporter and theatre reviewer he has written both variously and extensively. His earliest years were at the New Statesman, where he was a political correspondent.

Fenton made the decision to become a journalist after graduating from Oxford University. It was there that he became friends with Christopher Hitchens, who also joined the New Statesman both as a writer and foreign editor. As political correspondent, Fenton showcased the kind of witty and masterful writing for which he has become known. He is first and foremost a poet.

Even before graduating, Fenton won the Newdigate Prize for best poem by an Oxford undergraduate, and later won an Eric Gregory Award when he published his first full poetry collection, Terminal Moraine, in 1972. Since then, Fenton has gone on to become, as the Observer put it, “the most talented poet of his generation”.

The following article exemplifies the kind of wit and flair with which Fenton writes about every kind of topic. Mentmore Towers is a stately home in Buckinghamshire, named for the village in which it sits. Fenton writes about the controversy surrounding the sale of the house’s contents after the death of the Sixth Earl of Roseberry in 1973. The Labour government refused to accept the contents of the house and after three years of discussion, the executers of the estate decided to sell it all by public auction. Fenton laments their lack of clarity.

Introduction by Sarah Howell.

Final View: Mentmore

I went last week to a charity open day at Mentmore, an occasion I would not have missed for the world. It was like being in at the kill. It had a splendour and a cruelty, a finality that was horribly fascinating. It was true that every attempt had been made to depersonalise the occasion. In the whole house there was practically no item which indicated that the place had recently been inhabited by human beings. There were no personal effects, no paperbacks or Tauchnitzes, no toothbrushes or letters, no pens except a box of swan quills. There was very little bedding. The feather mattresses had for the most part been burned. There was one rubber hot water bottle hanging on its peg.

And the crowd, for the most part, was searching for precisely such evidences. On the ground floor, in the vast hall, we were respectful and impressed. In the bedrooms we felt more at ease. In the servants' quarters, among the junk furniture, we were completely at home. "Well," said one lady, settling into an arm chair, "if I'd been in charge, I can only say that the place would have been a great deal cleaner." This was just the attitude one expected to find behind the green baize door. We felt immeasurably superior to the Roseberies. Another lady said airily: "I do hate to see beautiful furniture left in the sun, so that the veneer is allowed to crack." In her house, we were supposed to understand, such things would never have happened. Cowed in the presence of superior wealth, we fell back on superior discernment, taste or practicality.

There was not much, we told ourselves, that we would actually, personally, have wanted. Quite frankly, these Boulle armoires were not what we went in for. And yet had the collection been presented not as a series of numbered lots, but as a museum, our reactions would have been quite different. What a superb museum it was. There was a political, a historical character to the collection - it constantly evoked images of blood and the tumbrils. Here was the furniture and the frippery of the ancien régime. Here too were reminders of what had happened to the ancien régime. And here finally were reminders of what had happened to those who overthrew the ancien régime. How appropriate that, among all the ormulu and gilt, one should come across the thin-lipped sneer of Voltaire, Zoffany's painting of the crowd ransacking the wine cellars of the Tuileries palace, and a tiny, grey, menacing Fragonard depicting a tribunal. There was a series of revolutionary portraits, some of them purporting to show the leaders at the height of their power and at the moment of their eclipse — "Couthon au tribunal, Couthon sur la charrette", the pride of the orator, the humiliation of the tumbril.

No doubt the owners of Mentmore gained great satisfaction from contemplating such contrasts. But for us there was little satisfaction in observing the disintegration of a collection we could have owned. Mentmore was a museum. What can it possibly become when stripped of its collection? No more than an imposing folly. The philistinism of Peter Shore and the spinelessness of Shirley Williams have combined to throw away what could have been so easily preserved. Such thoughtless destruction makes one shudder. To save Mentmore was a mere matter of good book-keeping. To replace it will be impossible. Why does the Government think that by adding vandalism to its other vices it will repair its popularity? Are they hoping to appeal to the punk element in the electorate?

The 7th Earl of Rosebery at the Mentmore auction. Photo: Getty Images.

James Fenton is a poet, journalist and literary critic who wrote regularly for the New Statesman in the 70s and 80s.

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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