In the Critics this week

Ed Smith on Shane Warne, Orhan Pamuk interviewed and Helen Lewis on video games.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, former Test cricketer and now NS columnist Ed Smith reviews Gideon Haigh’s biography of Shane Warne. “Facing Shane Warne was only incidentally about cricket,” Smith writes. “Sport was the medium but the substance was drama.” Warne’s cultivation of a distinctive and compelling on-field persona, Smith suggests, was not without its costs. “In seeking mastery of an authentic personality on the stage, authenticity in ‘civilian’ life becomes ever more elusive… All great actors sacrifice something of themselves in the pursuit of a truthful performance. So do sportsmen. Warne, the great method actor of modern sport, has perhaps paid a higher price than most.”

In the Books interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, about his latest novel to be translated into English, Silent House. The book was originally published in Turkey nearly 30 years ago. “There was some nostalgia in revisiting it,” Pamuk says. “I remembered the struggles of the 1970s, the political fights and killings in the streets of Istanbul.” The novel is written in the first person. “I always enjoy impersonating my characters in the first-person singular,” Pamuk tells Derbyshire. “The joy I take in doing that should be evident in this book.”

Also in Books: leading American critic Adam Kirsch writes about a new edition of Paul Goodman’s Sixties countercultural classic Growing Up Absurd (“This long essay or tract,” Kirsch writes, “was one of the early tremors of what would become the 1960s earthquake”); Stephen Smith, culture correspondent of the BBC's Newsnight, reviews Danny Baker’s biography, Going to Sea in a Sieve (“In one studio after another, Baker has been dauntlessly improvising a kind of epic poem in vernacular blank verse …”); Olivia Laing reviews Fire in the Belly, Cynthia Carr’s biography of the American artist and Aids activist David Wojnarowicz; Simon Heffer reviews Jonathan Dimbleby’s book about the North African campaign in the Second World War (“Was the North African campaign worth the terrible loss of life that resulted from it? It was.”); the NS’s lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson examines Dear Life, the latest collection from the Canadian short story writer Alice Munro; and Sunder Katwala, director of the think tank British Future, reviews Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?, Anthony Clavane’s history of Jewish involvement in English football.

This week’s Critic at large is NS deputy editor Helen Lewis, who surveys the state of video games journalism. “There’s so little criticism out there that writes about games belonging to the same genre,” Lewis writes. “Perhaps [the] revolution in games criticism will never happen.”

Elsewhere in the Critics: Thomas Calvocoressi visits three photography exhibitions in London – Seduced by Art at the National Gallery, and Tate Modern’s parallel retrospectives of William Klein and Daido Moriyama; Ryan Gilbey reviews Michael Haneke’s latest film, Amour; Yo Zushi writes about Psychedelic Pill, Neil Young’s new album with Crazy Horse; Rachel Cooke watches the BBC interrogate itself over the Newsnight imbroglio; and Antonia Quirke finds consolation in the ghost stories of E Nesbit on Radio 4 Extra.

PLUS: “Pavlopetri”, a poem by Olivia Byard and Will Self’s Madness of Crowds.

Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk in September 2009 (Photograph: 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