Eat my shorts!

The Sky Arts adaptations of Chekhov are a little too decorous.

Chekhov expressed some disappointment when his work was taken to be a catalogue of human misery. He apparently thought it was a bit of a hoot. Or at least, that there was some hooting to be done along the way. It was certainly a canny idea on the part of Henry Normal to cast such comedy big-hitters as Johnny Vegas, Sheridan Smith and Steve Coogan to star in Chekhov: Comedy Shorts which will doubtless be seen as a bit of a coup for Sky Arts.

Airing the man's shorts, as it were, does present problems. Most obviously, he didn't write sitcoms. He wrote for living, breathing theatre, with all the firing of synapses and pheromones that entails -- not to mention the liberties and possibilities of staging. Television opens up possibilities, too, but to trap the performance in a 1970s version of a 19th-century lookalike set seems to confirm it as antique and moribund, and besides, all that cloying Victoriana detail is distracting.

However, there's a pleasing tension between the familiar household names -- with whom we mistakenly believe we have some sort of pally relationship -- and the old-fangled, faded references of Chekhov's sketches. The TV doyens appeared to be having fun, in a let's play grown-ups kind of way: you could almost hear the quotation marks curling around some of the lines.

At other times the delivery seemed oddly flat: the habitual underplayed patter of Julian Barratt (The Mighty Boosh) tended to err on the side of wood, though he did perk up a bit when sparring with "real-life partner" Julia Davis. Steve Coogan had no-one to feed off but himself in his one-hander, ostensibly a lecture on the evils of tobacco, but actually a long digression on the evils of marriage. The lecture format translates to telly neatly, and at least Chekhov is released from the amber drawing room. Coogan himself looks the picture of disappointment: mouth welded in a downturn, unkempt hair, it's Alan Partridge with ten years of suffering behind him and the "aha" ground out of his lexicon.

Vegas does Chekhov like he does everything else and it works rather well. With no concessions to time and place, some of his rants -- on tenors, for example who "attack the central nervous system" -- might have been his own; in this he is helped by a peppy translation from Paul Schmitt, who freely introduces words like "creep" and "bugger". Vegas has a muzzle built for latent tragedy, a knobbly root vegetable with a twinkle in the eye that looks as if it might turn teary at any moment; he wheezes and blusters at Mackenzie Crook with the hoarse whine of an artillery bombardment. Crook, as Vegas has pointed out, has a face you just want to shout at and merely has to look riven and pointy to Vegas's massy tuber.

And it's quite funny. Maybe not roll on the floor laughing funny, but still. There is wry humour in the running joke (or running sore) of the battle of the sexes; Coogan's off-stage wife calls him, among other pet sobriquets, Satan. Matthew Horne and Sheridan Smith are on fine form as they repeatedly derail a marriage proposal by arguing about who owns what and who has the best dog. And it's the men who get the vapours, pass out, and have nameless nervous complaints.

Barratt's Smírnoff is almost Petruchio-like in his disdain for the female of the species, who has, apparently, the soul of a crocodile and the brain of a pigeon. He gets his come-uppance as he falls in love, à coup foudre, with his widowed debtor. There are mock-Shakespearean echoes in Vegas's character, too, as he howls out Othello's "blood, Iago, blood!" in response to his exhausting schedule of matrimonial errands and tasks. Some of this could have been written yesterday: who hasn't asked their significant other to just pick up a few things while they were in town?

Our enjoyment seems predicated, somehow, on familiarity with the performers, and perhaps the biggest joke is that these light entertainment types are doing Chekhov at all. This stunt does rely on a knowledge of their back catalogue, a sense that they have more jokes in their rear pockets. The comedians prove wholly capable of doing Chekhov's light and dark; but next time, spring him from the parlour and shake him up a bit, like they do in the world of 3D that he called theatre.

RICHARD KOEK/REDUX/EYEVINE
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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