Lucy Wadham: "Class is this great, open wound that nobody can leave alone"

The Books Interview.

Your book Heads and Straights is part of the “Penguin Lines” series, which celebrates the 150th anniversary of the London Underground. Why did you choose the Circle Line?
I was floored when Penguin asked me to write about the Tube but I knew I had to do it. When I thought about the various lines, I realised the only one I knew anything about was the Circle Line, because I’d been brought up near it. I also liked the metaphor, the paradox, of the circle and the line.

There were a number of key events in the life of my family, in my grandmother’s life in particular, that had happened near Circle Line stops. One of my sisters, when she found out about the project, said: “Of course, that’s the posh line.” And immediately there were alarm bells going off in my head, because I’d very carefully managed to elude questions of class in my writing.

You’ve lived in France for over 25 years. Is class handled differently there?
It still feels to me, every time I come back to Britain, that class is this great, open wound that nobody can leave alone – and, in a way, that it isn’t in France. In this country, class provides endless fodder for television programmes and newspaper articles; you don’t get that in France.

You write about returning to the King’s Road, where you grew up, and finding it terribly homogeneous. The French like to congratulate themselves for avoiding the worst of globalisation, don’t they?
They do. Though Paris hasn’t avoided becoming a museum. And Paris has a homogeneity of its own, doesn’t it? It has done since [the renovation of the city by Georges-Eugène] Haussmann in the mid-19th century. But yes, France has definitely avoided the homogeneity of unbridled capitalism.

How would you describe your relationship with London now?
There were two opportunities that were offered to me by this book: one was to look back at my relationship with Britain and London in particular; the other was to look at my relationship with family. In both cases, it became clear to me that I’d been running away from them for a long time.

Your grandmother sounds remarkable – she met Virginia Woolf when she was a child.
I’ve searched high and low in Woolf’s letters for any mention of Gran! The thing you have to remember about my grandmother is that she had a very loose relationship with the truth. So she could have made it up. I like to think she didn’t but she may well have.

My mother always warned my sisters and I to be careful in our understanding of what Gran told us about her life. I think the gap between my grandmother’s loquacity about her life and the restraint and silence of my mother is partly what made me – as a child and an adolescent – very eager to know the truth, to dig for psychological explanations.

It made you a writer, in other words?
Yes.

You organise the book around the distinction between “heads” and “straights”. The interesting thing about this distinction is that it’s not generational.
Not only does it slice across generations, it slices across class. I think that was the usefulness of it as a label for my rebellious sisters in the early 1970s – they could elude the distinctions of class by categorising people in that way.

Your parents, by contrast, were straights, weren’t they?
They were. They were definitely straights. My father liked to live dangerously but I think it was very important for us to believe he was a straight – but actually, with hindsight, I’m not sure he was.

A lot of people of their generation woke up to the excitement of the 1960s, belatedly, in the 1970s. They were clawing to recapture a touch of experimentation and excess. My parents were definitely in that category. But then, suddenly, it was too late – suddenly, you were looking at Thatcher and the party was over.

Lucy Wadham’s “Heads and Straights” is published by Particular Books (£4.99)

Lucy Wadham.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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