Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Shalom Auslander, Jonathan Lethem and Richard Holloway.

Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander

In The Independent, Doug Johnstone makes plain that Shalom Auslander has done the unthinkable - made light of surely the darkest era of 20th-century history. Moreover, he has done so in a manner that would humble even the imagination of one of Hollywood's most celebrated names: "We all know that the Holocaust is a great source of comedy, right? OK, maybe not, but in the hands of the brilliant US writer Shalom Auslander, it becomes so ... In the strong tradition of Jewish humour, his writing is incredibly sharp, hugely self-deprecating, riddled with insecurities and hang-ups, and often stupendously funny. At times, Hope: A Tragedy, his first novel, reads a little like the kind of film Woody Allen wouldn't dare make anymore - or never had the balls to make in the first place."

In Johnstone's digest of the story, its absurdities become clear: "He finds Anne Frank hiding in his attic. A very old and decrepit Anne Frank. It turns out that she didn't die in Belsen but was smuggled out of Europe by guilt-stricken Germans, and has spent the past 65 years cooped up in various lofts, working on a novel ... Of course, having sold 32 million copies of her diary, she's suffering from writers' block. On top of which, her publishers don't particularly want her alive, as her non-death could affect diary sales." Auslander's sheer originality, though, says Johnstone, more than compensates for the uniquely dubious virtue of meddling with the brute facts of Nazi atrocities, the author's jesting as central to his polemic as his integrity: "Auslander previously wrote a fantastic story collection, Beware of God, and a jaw-dropping memoir entitled Foreskin's Lament, but the form of the novel seems to have focused his anger and humour into truly fearsome weapons."

Naomi Alderman, in the Guardian, sees pathos as well as brilliance in Auslander's characterisations, hypocrisy and purported infertility justifying and impeding their rhetoric and objectives: "Kugel's mother - who's lived in the United States all her life - transfers her anger at the husband who left her ('that son of a bitch') effortlessly to the Nazis ('those sons of bitches'), and excuses all her bad behaviour with the sigh "ever since the war". Kugel's sister and her husband come to stay, constantly having noisy sex in their "dogged, relentless" attempts to conceive." It is, says Alderman, as much through the techniques and form of Auslander's writing as through his descriptions that the moral import of the Holocaust is illustrated: "It's in the soliloquies and reflections that this book really shines. This is a novel about what happens when you realise that the Holocaust is right there. That it never went away and it's hovering, right now, just above your head."

In the Telegraph, Gerald Jacobs finds both an autobiographical element and the classic trappings of cultural humour pervading Auslander's latest offering: "Auslander has continued his iconoclastic rebellion against his upbringing by writing a novel, Hope: A Tragedy. Its narrative voice is that of the witty pessimist - a classic, Jewish comic stance..." Noting that Auslander's prose will deter as many readers as it attracts, he observes the creative miracle through which virtuosity supplants perversity: "Many will find the theme too serious - and the attic-dweller too revered a person - for humour. But the disarming enormity of the laughter that Auslander creates compels attention to the shocking enormity of his subject matter. Humour can be a serious business. Thank God."

The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. by Jonathan Lethem

Stuart Kelly writes in the Guardian that Jonathan Lethem's book is no haphazard collation of disparate pieces, but a series of essays that, for all their diversity, evince genuine coherence: "This is not, thankfully, one of those ragbag anthologies of non-fiction that fiction writers throw together when their cuttings drawer becomes full. Rather, like Zadie Smith's Changing My Mind or Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends, it is a curated selection of essays which thematically add up to more than the sum of its parts." The dual pleasure of this volume, for Kelly, is the enjoyment of reading about varied subjects that reveal something of how Lethem selects his themes: "The pleasure for readers is twofold: on one hand, there is the intrinsic interest in the subjects (as various as Shirley Jackson and nude life models, hitch-hiking in Utah and the top five depressed superheroes). On the other, there's the fact that this is Lethem telling us these things, and how it gives an insight into his own creative practice."

In the Independent, Joy Lo Dico recalls Lethem's 2007 essay on a Bob Dylan album and asks whether it borrows too heavily from canonical western texts: "Consider ...T S Eliot's The Wasteland and Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, each works that revel in cultural plunder. Then consider Disney, which has cartoonised the fairy tale Cinderella and J M Barrie's Peter Pan but guards its own intellectual property fiercely." As Lo Dico relates, that essay is included in Lethem's new book. There is a tension, she says, between Lethem's coveting membership of the literary canon and his later estrangement from certain of its key players: "You ...come away with an impression that this volume is about Lethem's anxiety about his own standing in the intellectual pantheon"/"....elbows himself into the proximity of great people, ideas and events, then angles himself away."

Dwight Garner, in the New York Times, remarkss Lethem's thoroughgoing adulation of those he admires most: "Like almost everything Mr. Lethem has written, The Ecstasy of Influence is a reflection of, and a pixelated homage to, those whose work he fetishises. If this book has a thesis, it's this: For an artist, influence is everything. 'Wasn't the whole 20th century,' he writes, 'a victory lap of collage, quotation, appropriation, from Picasso to Dada to Pop?'" Garner lists the remarks Lethem makes about his literary contemporaries, and how his frustration at Bret Easton Ellis's seamless graduation from affluence to notoriety was tempered only by his regard for him: "About Mr. Ellis, he writes: 'Bret stood perfectly for what outraged me at that school, and terrified me, too, the blithe conversion of privilege into artistic fame. It was inconvenient that I liked him.'" For Garner, the book is "fat, hip and garrulous" - not necessarily virtues one would have thought.

Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway

In the Financial Times, John Lloyd emphasises the moments of doubt and pure bafflement in Richard Holloway's memoir: "Leaving Alexandria, is a long wrestle with a lifetime in which knowing oneself is a matter of peeling away layer after layer of limitation, conservatism, unexamined belief, inherited instinct and incomprehension." Holloway wonders, says Lloyd, whether even the Bede-like capacities of Rowan Williams will be sufficient to mend divisions within the Church: "He believes the Anglican community will unravel, and that there is nothing that the 'saintly scholar', the present archbishop, Rowan Williams, can do about it."

Andrew Motion, in the Guardian, notes that although Holloway's doubts were sometimes a source of frustration, there was also something curiously seductive for him about that involuntary distance from belief: "Filled with self-arguing: he accused himself more or less continually of lacking faith and obedience ... but the sceptical Holloway felt the force of his doubts was irresistible. Although he did some wonderful work as bishop, especially in the cause of women priests, as well as gay priests, by his own admission, he was 'deficient in the carefulness gene'". What Holloway offers, says Motion, are tantalising speculations as to whether religion and God himself are human concoctions: "'The mistake,' he says, 'was to think religion was more than human. I was less sure whether God was also just a human invention, but I was sure religion was.' This is simply put, but with the whole weight of a very thoughtful and courageous book behind it, it summarises an argument that a lot of people will find sympathetic, as well as compelling."

In the Telegraph, David Robson wonders if Holloway perhaps steals his own show: "The human content is sketchy. Holloway marries and has three children, but none of his family are more than ciphers - one would have liked to know them better." That said, Holloway covers the many loyalties of his professional life with notable clarity: "As a curate in the Gorbals, Holloway focuses on the poor. In a wealthy parish in Boston, he is confronted with a growing clamour for women to be ordained as priests. Religious fashions come and go." Believers are entitled to their faith, says Robson, but would do well not to wear it on their sleeve: "Holloway certainly throws down the gauntlet - with a quiet, elegiac passion - to Christians who arm themselves in certainty... They should read this wise, erudite book as a matter of urgency, and with an open mind."

Each of the three books discussed above will be reviewed in forthcoming editions of the New Statesman.

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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