Reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Jon McGregor, Tony Judt and Faramerz Dabhoiwala.

This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You by Jon McGregor

In the Telegraph, Catherine Taylor notes the historically and geographically specific settings of the stories in Jon McGregor's debut collection: "[They are set] mostly around the sparsely populated flatlands of eastern England ... like all his work, precisely of [their] place and time". Taylor admires the specificities of character and situation: "The pivotal moments appear almost insignificant, but brim with drama and import - the dangerous listlessness of a couple of baleful ex-cons living in a caravan on a wealthy eccentric's estate; a harassed vicar's wife's angry, helpless acceptance of a mysterious uninvited guest". Though these stories can sometimes seem like "exercises in the limitations of the form," Taylor argues, "empathy remain[s] intact".

Linda Grant wonders, in the Financial Times, whether McGregor will commit himself to prose or aphorism: "One story is no longer than a two-sentence joke: 'Chinese restaurants, launderettes, baked potato vans. These are a few of my favourite extractor-fans.' " But, Grant goes on, debates about how to categorise the work would be a distraction: "Must we rummage around for new definitions of fiction? To do so would be to limit the pleasure for most readers of this evocation of the fenlands and towns of Lincolnshire, a place apart, the sky criss-crossed by military aircraft and the sounds of practice bombing." For Grant, McGregor's strengths lie not in structured eloquence but in explorations of the rugged: "The lyrical is not present in 'fine writing' but in the evocation of the feeling on your face of damp air and the sight of abandoned telephone boxes, soggy fields and the conical chimneys of power stations."

The NS published a story from This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You earlier this year.

Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt, with Timothy Snyder

Tony Barber, in the Financial Times, notes that Thinking the Twentieth Century, a series of interviews Timothy Snyder conducted with the late historian Tony Judt, is as much biography as it is historical analysis: "It escorts the reader through nine dimensions of Judt's life, each given its own chapter heading: Jewish questioner, English writer, political Marxist, Cambridge Zionist, French intellectual, east European liberal, European historian, American moralist and, finally, social democrat. As these labels indicate, Judt was no inhabitant of an ivory tower but an adventurous, restless man who rarely stayed in the same city or academic post for long."

But for all Judt's wit and spontaneity, a coherent outlook emerges here: "The central message of Thinking the Twentieth Century is what Judt calls 'the intellectual sin of the century: passing judgment on the fate of others in the name of their future as you see it'. If Lenin, Hitler, Stalin and Mao were abominable gangsters and tyrants, the intellectuals who defended them were also culpable." Barber concludes: "He is right: knowledge of history, though no guarantee against abuses of power, contributes something to sustaining freedom. Tony Judt's life was a brave and vibrant tribute to this truth."

In the Guardian, Neal Ascherson is struck by the improvised quality of the Judt-Snyder dialogue: "The two are talking without notes, references or inhibitions. As they grow excited, one thing leads off into another, and Snyder - as editor - hasn't made the mistake of imposing too much thematic order. He did, however, persuade Judt that he ought to talk about himself and his personal life as well as his opinions." For Ascherson, there is a defining paradox in the book : "[Judt is] right, surely, that we should remember th[e 20th] century not only for war and Holocaust, but for the most magnificent humane achievement in history. Judt and Snyder ask each other if it would take disaster, even wars, to retrieve that spirit."

The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution by Faramerz Dabhoiwala

Germaine Greer, in the Guardian, takes issue with apparent holes in Dabhoiwala's scholarship: "It is not enough to show that somebody somewhere was thinking thoughts that we might think of as amazingly progressive, without investigating whether those ideas were leavening public discourse or changing the attitudes of the multitude" she complains. She prods affectionately at Dabhoiwala rather than sternly upbraiding him: "Perhaps because he is a member of the other place, Dabhoiwala ignores the kinds of economic, social and demographic history that were systematised at Cambridge" . But soon she is back engaging in more abrasive critique, noting "He nowhere tests his basic assumptions against actual behaviour." Also missing is that essential historical tool, a grasp of chronology: "For Dabhoiwala, the whole of western history begins somewhere in the middle ages".

In the Financial Times, Lucy Worsley argues that looks can be deceptive: "The beautiful cover of The Origins of Sex shows a lady with an enigmatic smile, hiding her breast beneath a shawl. She's serene and lovely but there's nothing overtly sexy about her. You'll need to read what's inside to discover that she was the celebrity Georgian prostitute Kitty Fisher." Worsley wonders if Dahboiwala's overview of medical and theoretical thinking on sex, and his "laudable" inclusion of philosophical and literary sources, irnores more general questions of instinct and feeling: "Just occasionally", she allows, "there's a glimpse of them ... But this is a brief flash of colour amid a lot of grey."

The Origins of Sex will be reviewed in a future issue of NS.

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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