Pickled fish and rotten oranges

"£150,000 wrapped up, please"

"Yes, hello, I’d like to pay off my mortgage with a pickled fish" isn’t the most likely of banking requests, but then it’s not everyday that somebody has a Damien Hirst trevally-in-formaldehyde worth as much as their house. Darren Walker, a childhood friend of the Leeds-born artist, hopes to make £150,000 from the fish, a gift Hirst made to the Farsely chippy where Hirst’s brother worked, when it is auctioned later this year. Ever-concerned that art should not be about privilege, this follows on from last November when Hirst donated one of his sketches as a prize in a £1 raffle for Heart Research UK. At least the fish should help his humility rating, which plummeted last year when he created a diamond-encrusted skull.

Delia’s Bread and Butter

In the unlikely event that nobody fancies the Hirst fish at auction, perhaps Delia could pop it between two slices of long-life bread. Her 'How to Cheat' cookery series may have been denigrated by just about every food writer and TV critic with senses, including the New Statesman’s Rachel Cooke, but sales of the accompanying book soared last week, and saw Delia take the top slot for the best-selling UK title.

Oranges are not the only fruit

Ahead of the Orange Prize, Whitbread First Novel Award-winning author Tim Lott has dared to venture into the lionesses’ den by suggesting that the women-only writers’ prize is "discriminatory, sexist and perverse." Feminism has long-opposed the argument that women-only arts prizes actually increase the gender inequality gap in writing and publishing. In a rhetorical question, Lott debated whether a men-only prize might actually be more justified, "given their level of relative exclusion in schools and the marketplace." He might have immediately dismissed the idea, but Lott’s planting the seed suggested that secretly, he quite liked the idea. His statement that "pupils are taught reading mainly by female teachers promoting mainly female writers" was proved factually inaccurate by the F Word, where blogger Sian pointed out that Lott had neglected to heed the predominance of men in the English literary canon: "we had lectures entitled 'women in modernism'; next to lectures entitled 'ts eliot'."

Blogger Caitlin reiterated this, and criticised the poetry booklets the Guardian and Independent gave away last week: “in the Guardian series, Sylvia Plath is apparently the only 'great' female poet from the 20th century, out of the seven chosen (and while she was amazing, that is beside the point) while the Independent fairs slightly better with Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charlotte Mew and The Bronte Sisters - out of 38 poets! THIRTY EIGHT!”.

Meanwhile John Sutherland, A S Byatt and Anita Brooker have rallied round Lott. Considering the Orange Prize winner won’t be announced until June, there is of course still time for judge Lily Allen to pen a suitably anthemic pop song about it.

Anthony Minghella

The untimely death of British writer and director Anthony Minghella was met with unanimous regret and reverence this week. Alan Yentob called him “a great champion of British cinema, an elegant advocate for the craft and a marvellous mentor for new talent” and Tim Walker summed up Anthony’s significance on IndyBlogs – “Say what you like about The English Patient (and I know it gets right up some people's noses), but it put Britain back on the cinematic map.” Although there was debate at the BBC about whether screening was still appropriate, his final directorial effort, ‘The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency’, will be shown on BBC 1 this Easter Sunday. Check out the next issue of the New Statesman for a full review. The tribute that Anthony Minghella wrote to Samuel Beckett here in the New Statesman suddenly seems all the more poignant.

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

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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