Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdict on Naomi Alderman, Mick Jackson and Bert Trautmann.

The Lessons by Naomi Alderman

For Alice Fisher in the Guardian, the second novel from Naomi Alderman is "sturdily plotted and hooks you in: it's a good read if not unique". Its plot is reminiscent of Brideshead Revisited, The Line of Beauty or The Secret History, while "if you've read all three you'll find it impossible to read The Lessons without attributing each story development to one of these predecessors". However, "Alderman evokes the shock of the fresh start at university well", and "she's particularly good at describing the arcana and intensity of Oxford life." Amanda Craig in the Independent argues that "Nothing could be more different, superficially, from Alderman's prize-winning debut, Disobedience", and warns that "at times the novel becomes brittle to the point of self-parody, and The Lessons will certainly annoy many who are automatically hostile to Oxbridge and elitism". However, "Alderman's sharpness of observation punctures the parties, sex, drugs, eccentrics and conversation while never quite descending into satire", and she concludes that "this is a second novel from a young writer of huge talent, ambition and energy and, despite falling into an over-familiar genre, it is a pleasure to read." Damian Barr in the Independent on Sunday looks beyond Waugh's influence: "Alderman's book goes far beyond the Brideshead she carefully evokes. For a start, her Mark is ferally and unashamedly gay - lustily cruising fellow students and fusty academics", and "Whereas Brideshead is basically the story of Charles and Sebastian, The Lessons deals with the complex web of relationships spun between all the people under Mark's influence." But "Oxford is the biggest character in The Lessons, and the city, so inextricably bound with the university, is the harshest teacher."

The Lessons will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

 

The Widow's Tale by Mick Jackson

Mick Jackson's third novel is "is tightly packed with explosive emotion", writes Hilary Mantel in theGuardian; however, she finds the central character to be "a stereotype", which is unfortunate because "the book's success as a novel stands or falls by whether the widow convinces us, whether we are motivated to stick close and see her through ... All her opinions are weekend-supplement truisms, and her voice itself is uneven". Mantel's concludes that "Jackson has thought deeply about bereavement, and it seems shabby to dispraise a book so acutely observed", but "you need to pay your dues to fiction's form as well as its content." Of the eponymous widow Lucy Daniel in the Telegraph writes that "her droll monologue plays over a background of muddled grief", though "after a while the book seems to consist of nothing but asides." She feels ultimately that "in keeping with our widow's interest in the ascetic life, the book itself has an ascetic discipline." For Helen Rumbelow in the Times, The Widow's Tale is "spare, short, utterly contemporary", and "very funny". Like the other reviews, Adrian Turpin's recognises that the story is a "pilgrimage", though for him it is a "a writer's commonplace book moonlighting as a novel. For all its aphoristic tartness - which is reminiscent in places of Simon Gray's diaries - it never entirely convinces as fiction."

 

Trautmann's Journey by Catrine Clay

Simon Hattenstone in the Observer asks: "why did Trautmann agree to collaborate with this book? To ease his conscience, get the truth out there, or did he simply feel he had nothing to hide?" Catrine Clay's account of the Manchester City goalkeeper with Nazi origins is "a fascinating if dispiriting read", Hattenstone decides, summing it up thus: "Clay's book is not a conventional biography and it's certainly not a sport book. Rather than using the times to tell the story of Trautmann, she uses Trautmann to tell the story of Nazi Germany. In a way, he becomes an everyman, soaked in the blood and horror of the Holocaust." Miranda Seymour in the Telegraph writes that "much of the poignancy of Trautmann's story derives from the skill with which Clay develops our sense of the discrepancy between his experiences and what was actually going on", and, more sympathetically: "Trautmann's participation in Clay's book fits with his admirable commitment to the promotion, through sport, of Anglo-German relations". She sums it up by saying: "a thoughtful biographer has given depth and substance to the plainly told story of an uncommon life." Roger Moorhouse in the Independent writes that "Trautmann's Journey is a remarkable story, well told", and is keen to stress that "Though it is not short of affection for its subject, this is no hagiography. Trautmann emerges as an often equivocal character; a sport-obsessed curmudgeon with a quick temper and an apparent inability to accept authority."

 

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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