Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Peter Hook, Ali Smith and Sylvie Simmons.

Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division by Peter Hook

This new Joy Division biography by the band’s bassist “isn’t just Peter Hook collecting some already exhausted stories for a quick pay out,” Michelle Kambasha writes in Clash. “It provides a kind of personal insight that most of us haven’t been privy to until now.” The Joy Division story is steeped in layer upon layer of myth. “Hook’s mission,” writes Dorian Lynskey in the Observer, “is to relate the chaotic day-to-day existence of four young men – kids, really – before it was smoothed into legend.” This is accomplished, according to Lynskey, through the author’s characteristic straightforwardness and lack of pretension: “The demystification process starts with Hook's portrayal of himself as a laddish delinquent who, thunderstruck by punk rock, spontaneously decides to form a band with Salford schoolfriend Bernard Sumner.” What makes Hook’s book so refreshing is the lack of linguistic and intellectual showboating, and its simple laying of facts on the line,” notes Tony Clayton-Lea in the Irish Times, admiring Hook’s unaffected style. The book emphasises the band’s focus on music, fun and friendship – famously at the expense of even a semblance of business-mindedness: it was only in 2008 that Hook “discovered neither Joy Division nor New Order had trademarked or registered their names.” But hanging over every youthful anecdote is Hook’s knowledge, shared with the reader, of Ian Curtis’ impending suicide. As Lynskey writes: “So the tragedy infects the farce, as Curtis's ultimate fate casts ostensibly amusing on-the-road antics as symptoms of denial: never mind the worsening fits and self-harming, let's pelt the support band with eggs.”

 

Artful by Ali Smith

“It's true, I think I am love with Ali Smith,” admits the Independent’s David Hahn halfway through his review of Artful. The inherent bias of the lovestruck reviewer aside, there’s no disputing his boundless enthusiasm for Smith’s latest book: “Inspired, inspiring, exhausting” is how he summarises the work; a genre mish-mash which weaves in and out of fiction as it takes on “the big questions about art”. Although the book consists of “a quartet of lectures on literary-critical themes”, Hahn is emphatic that Smith manages to invest the notoriously dry shores of acedemia with readability through her “smart, allusive, informal, playful” voice; “dense with ideas but sustaining always a heady pace.” Publisher’s Weekly similarly falls over itself in the quest for a higher hyperbole, praising Smith’s “contemplative, electrifying, and transformative book.” Her dexterity as a writer to navigate seamlessly between the academic and the poetic is praised, as are her “riveting reflections” which successfully transform a series of lecture notes into a rich, rewarding testament to the “immutable necessity for art”.

I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons

Whilst conceding that Sylvia Simmons’s new biography on Leonard Cohen is let down by the “inherent difficulty of telling the story of a storyteller”, A M Homes, writing in the New York Times, finds much to praise in this "exhaustive" biography. Homes is most approving of Simmons’s ability to direct her writing to creating an enriching experience of Cohen’s music, successful enough to make even seasoned fans fall think different about Cohen’s famed poetics: “Crucially, her book helps you add more detail and understanding to his lyrics”. Despite noting a slight lack of “historical context or counterpoint” in Cohen’s early life, Holmes avers that “as soon as you finish reading it you feel an overwhelming impulse to go back and begin again, revisiting the story with what you’ve learned along the way”. Fiona Sturges, writing in the Independent, is equally approving of the even-handed manner in which Simmons takes on this “serious artist who demands serious, if not too reverent, treatment”. She praises her extensive research, original interviews with Cohen himself, which “she elegantly splices … into the narrative”, as well as her uncovering of “delicious morsels that even dedicated Cohenites might find surprising”. And – crucially – Simmons has succeeded in investing a biography with a high level of readability. Tackling the book is like reading a “beautifully plotted piece of fiction”.

Leonard Cohen on stage at the Olympia, Paris. 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