In the Critics this week

Ryan Gilbey on Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, Douglas Hurd on David Hannay, George Saunders interviewed and Kate Mossman discusses Les Misérables.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, Ryan Gilbey reviews Steven Spielberg’s upcoming release, Lincoln. Gilbey praises screenwriter Tony Kushner for his creation of a “fine-grained procedural drama” that is abundant with “unique structural and linguistic strengths”. Spielberg doesn’t go without praise, though, particularly where  the portrayal of slavery is concerned. Gilbey notes that this is a significant improvement on his 1997 brush with the subject in courtroom drama Amistad. Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as the 56-year-old president Abraham Lincoln is “genuinely mesmerising” with interesting comparisons drawn with the younger Lincoln depicted by Henry Fonda in John Ford’s 1939 Young Mr Lincoln. Gilbey picks up on the questionably unintentional continuity between the characters, and the “baked-in wisdom and joyfulness” that is clear in both actors’ portrayals. Despite painting an “intimately gruelling” picture of the civil war, Spielberg achieves a kind of “magisterial grandeur” in the film’s cinematography.

In Books: Douglas Hurd reviews Britain’s Quest for a Role: a Diplomatic Memoir from Europe to the UN by diplomat David Hannay (“We shall need plenty of new Hannays if the opportunities of this century are not to be thrown away”); Maragret Drabble discusses John Burnside’s collection of short stories, Something Like Happy (“His characters are are reconciled to being almost happy when most alone”); Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s by Graham Stewart is reviewed by Stuart Maconie (“It is a largely consuming book, crammed with detail, anecdote and juxtapositions”); John Sutherland on Lara Feigel’s The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War (“An innovative exercise in this genre”); and Helen Lewis gives her opinion on Navel Gazing: One Woman’s Quest for a Size Normal by Anne H Putnam (“There are barely any characters other than the author and her stomach . . . it’s a one-woman-and-her-body-show”).

In the Books Interview, Sophie Elmhirst talks to George Saunders about his latest novel, Tenth of December. Saunders says: “When you bring morality up in relation to fiction, people think you’re propagandising and that, I think, is totally anti-art”.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Kate Mossman sings the praises of the film adaptation of the musical Les Misérables; Rachel Cooke is unimpressed by the second series of Borgen on BBC4; Antonia Quirke discusses the power of Radio 4’s Open Country; and Leo Hollis talks design at Missorts art project in Bristol.

Steven Spielberg with Daniel Day-Lewis at the recent premier of film Lincoln. Photograph: Getty Images
RICHARD KOEK/REDUX/EYEVINE
Show Hide image

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