The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.


The Barbican Center, London EC2: Bauhaus - Art as Life, until 12 August

The largest Bauhaus exhibition to be staged in the UK for 40 years, this show comprises a rich, diverse spectrum of work from the infamous art school known for its utopian ideals to shape post-world-war society through their philosophy of “art as life”. The show celebrates the varied artistic faculties that comprised the school during its “turbulent” 14-year history, displaying an engaging scope of work from both Bauhaus masters and students, including Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Gunta Stölzl.

The Queen's Gallery, Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist, until 7 October

The Buckingham Palace gallery space opens its door for its largest ever display of the Renaissance polymath’s anatomical drawings. The artist intended to publish his groundbreaking series of medical sketches based on human and bestial cadavers, though his death in 1519 meant the staggering collection was effectively lost for almost 400 years. Today we can acknowledge da Vinci’s pioneering contribution to cataloguing and deepening our understanding of the human body. 



Montpellier Gardens, Cheltenham: Cheltenham Jazz Festival, until 7 May

This self-proclaimed “start to the summer” runs through the bank holiday weekend and features top British and international jazz stars, including the acclaimed Guy Barker Orchestra and festival artist in residence Paloma Faith. Supplementary events like the Screening Room, a specially designed “boutique cinema”, and the Jazz Fringe Stage, featuring un-signed talent, make this vibrant event a staple in the summer music calendar.



Barbican Center, London EC2: Einstein on the Beach, until 13 May

Phillip Glass and Robert Wilson’s seminal and rarely preformed avant-garde work finally gets a revival almost twenty years after its last UK production. The non-narrative, four-act opera features Glass’ classically minimalist score composed for synthesizers and woodwinds as well as abstract dance sequences choreographed by Lucinda Childs. At five hours long (the audience is permitted to enter and exit at their liberty), this is unconventional theatrical immersion on a dazzling scale.



The British Library, London NW1: Writing Britain - Wastelands to Wonderlands, opens 11 May

This new exhibition charts the literary role of the British landscape - from the foundational legacy of romanticist William Blake through to 21st century mavericks like JG Ballard. Featuring over 150 works and a myriad of supplementary videos, letters, photographs, maps and drawings, the exhibition promises to “allow visitors to read between the lines of great works of English literature, discovering the secrets and stories surrounding the work’s creation, shedding new light on how they speak to the country today.”


Bauhaus - Art as Life at the Barbican Centre (photo: Getty Images)
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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