Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Alain de Botton, Joseph Roth and Nathan Englander.

Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton

In the current New Statesman, John Gray acknowledges Alain de Botton's view that religion and atheism could enjoy a more positive dialogue, but says he ought to paint religion more as a broad, overarching institution than as a hinge for individual belief: "Where he could have dug deeper is the tangled relations between religion and belief. If you ask people in modern western societies whether they are religious, they tend to answer by telling you what they believe (or don't believe). When you examine religion as a universal human phenomenon, however, its connections with belief are far more tenuous."

Terry Eagleton, in the Guardian, bemoans de Botton's liberal aesthetic, conceding its benignity but questioning its social utility: "Like Comte, De Botton believes in the need for a host of 'consoling, subtle or just charming rituals' to restore a sense of community in a fractured society. He even envisages a new kind of restaurant in which strangers would be forced to sit together and open up their hearts to one another. There would be a Book of Agape on hand, which would instruct diners to speak to each other for prescribed lengths of time on prescribed topics. Quite how this will prevent looting and rioting is not entirely clear."

Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, edited by Michael Hofmann

In the Telegraph, Julian Evans wonders if Roth the neurotic may emerge from these letters more vividly than Roth the literary figure. But he acknowledges that, for Roth, only artistry gave him a coherent view of reality: "Some readers might be disappointed that Roth writes so much about his personal problems, so little about his books or the process of writing. But what is on offer here is not a suave biography: it is instead an all-inclusive picture of what it was like to be a writer who, as he said, only understood the world when he was writing - and wrote magically beautiful books when he did. Michael Hofmann's translation is superb."

David Herman, in the Jewish Chronicle, says it is precisely the savagery of Hitler's rise to power and its aftermath that affords this volume its stark resonance: "Roth died of alcoholism in 1940, his schizophrenic wife was murdered by the Nazis in 1940 and [his friend] Zweig committed suicide in 1942. But his papers were rescued in Paris and later brought to New York. Now, brilliantly put together, full of illuminating editorial material, Joseph Roth's letters give us great insight into one of the outstanding writers of the 20th century and to the terrible times he lived through".

* Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the New Statesman.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander

In the latest New Statesman, Sophie Elmhirst is struck by Englander's capacity for deft, subtle changes of pace and theme: "He switches voice with uncanny agility, swerving from the casual, easy first-person of 'Anne Frank to 'Sister Hills', a dark, historical fable of Israeli settler history told through the lives of two women. The tonal contrast is not mere ventriloquism: Englander has the confidence and versatility to embody multiple voices, to create a complete and complex world within a story, each one distinct from the last."

Anthony Cummins, in the Telegraph, admires Englander's employment of the short story form solely on its generic terms, rather than as a nefarious through route to realising a perennial literary objective: "...short stories in their own right...gems worth polishing to perfection, rather than mere stepping stones to the traditional big game of the Great American Novel ."

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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