The novelist and the Jewish pugilist

Ned Beauman on foxes, beetles and boxers.

At my cousin's wedding there was a lot of cake, a considerable amount of expressive dancing and some botched Hebrew from the rabbi. As raucous disco classics overtook the traditional klezmer beats, I learnt about Daniel Mendoza, an ancestor of my now cousin-in-law, from a solemn young man who -- once he was no longer eating mozzarella in a gazebo -- became something of a whirling dervish on that memorable Essex dancefloor. Daniel Mendoza was an 18th-century Jewish boxing champion. He reigned supreme in the ring until one opportunistic opponent -- "Gentleman" Jack Johnson -- grabbed his sidelocks and pummelled him into submission. Henceforth, boxers have had short hair. According to Wikipedia, Mendoza was "intelligent, charismatic but chaotic" and the first Jew to talk to King George III. He died in 1836, at the age of 72, leaving his family in poverty. (Since my cousin's wedding, a new Daniel Mendoza has been added to the clan; currently 14 months old and the proud owner of a T-shirt with a squid on it. Perhaps he will grow up to be a boxer -- but probably not).

This is why the phrase "Jewish boxing champion" caught my attention when I first heard of Ned Beauman's debut novel Boxer, Beetle. Among other things, Boxer, Beetle tells the story of a nine-toed gay Jewish pugilist called Seth "Sinner" Roach and a repressed beetle-fixated eugenicist whose interest in Roach is both scientific and sexual. The backdrop is 1930s London. In the present day, the tale of these two characters is linked to a Nazi memorabilia collector, Kevin Broom, who suffers from trimethylaminuria, a rare condition that makes him smell of rotting fish: "Along with trimethylaminuria I also have asthma, eczema, cystic acne, mild irritable bowel syndrome and half a dozen other absurd non-terminal diseases." Consequently, Kevin spends much of his time trawling Third Reich-related internet forums (and in a brief self-reflexive flourish, "nbeauman" appears in an online chat).

Both past and contemporary fictional worlds are conjured with a kind of Dickensian vividness and relish for the grotesque. There are characters called Horace Grublock and Leonard Bruisleand. The latter's effeminate son appears as "two unctuous costly pale limp shiny things, one of which was a silk dressing gown that contained the other". Noir influences are also at work -- the novel contains murder, a (Welsh) hitman and a quest for truth undertaken by Kevin. In the 1930s sections, the narrator's use of startling metaphor evokes the spirit of Chandler, as when a boxer "crashed into the gamblers like a bad idea into a hungry nation".

Beauman's invocation of other authors is a combination of tribute and irreverence. The country-house scenes in which assorted fascists assemble bring to mind Ishiguro, Waugh and McEwan. Here, Atonement's Briony Tallis is re-imagined in the form of the precocious Millicent Bruiseland, a freckled 12-year-old who appears at opportune moments to make explicit sexual accusations about the adults: "Mr Erskine, I have just seen your friend Mr Morton brutally sodomising your dear mother!"

Far from being derivative, Boxer, Beetle has an expansive range that merges the outlandish and esoteric into a narrative propelled by wit and inventiveness. Here is a passage that illustrates this:

Gittins was a fat otter-faced bureaucrat in his fifties who for nearly twenty years had carried around a glass vial containing a small colony of cimicids -- bedbugs -- which every night he tipped out on to his hairy thigh so that they could feed on his blood as part of some obscure long-running experiment into mandible size versus nutritional preferences.

Beauman is now working on his next novel, The Teleportation Accident, and promises that another forthcoming work will feature urban foxes in a major way. A fascination with foxes is apparent in one particular episode in Boxer, Beetle, which becomes a rare moment of aesthetic wonder : "Mangy and thin, it had sinews like twisted telephone wires, a stink like a petrol station forecourt, and a coat the colour of a traffic cone left in a skip full of rainwater. It was -- if I'm not making myself clear -- impossibly beautiful. For perhaps a full minute, the animal stared at me with a strange scepticism and a boy's eyes." Personally speaking, as a fox enthusiast, this is possibly the best piece of fox-themed writing since Ted Hughes set pen to paper. Or Roald Dahl. A loftier encomium cannot be given.

"Boxer, Beetle" is now available in paperback from Sceptre (£7.99)

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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