In the Critics this Week

This week's books pages feature everything from Disraeli to walls, futuristic distopias to an autism memoir.

The books section this week begins with David Marquand’s glittering review of Dick Leonard’s “crowning achievement”, The Great Rivalry: Disraeli and Gladstone. Marquand begins by pouring flattery upon Leonard’s literary skill, and approach to this book.

It is written with captivating panache, packed with well-chosen quotations, full of psychological insight and, at one and the same time, readable, entertaining and illuminating.

Marquand himself then goes on to explore Disraeli and Gladstone’s own crowing achievements, from their approach to imperial affairs, to their most significant pieces of legislation. Marquand subsequently questions who Leonard himself preferred in the Great Rivalry, believing it to be Disraeli, due to Gladstone’s somewhat perturbing charisma:

Disraeli [unlike Gladstone] was not charismatic in the Weberian sense. He was more fun to be with than Gladstone, perhaps because he didn’t take himself so seriously. But by definition, charismatic leaders do take themselves seriously. They think of themselves as the vehicles and instruments of a higher cause: Gladstone’s statement after receiving the Queen’s commission to form his first government that his “mission” was to “pacify Ireland” is a good example. There is something wild, un-controlled and untethered about charismatic leadership, and that disconcerts rational moderates such as Leonard and me.

All in all, Marquand manages to produce an inventive and analytical review.

Michael Prodger continues the Disraeli theme with his review of Douglas Hurd and Edward Young’s Disraeli: or the Two Lives. Once again, Disraeli’s character is closely examined, a man with an obscuring “vividness of character”, “a Boris Johnson but with substance”.

In a precise and insightful review, Prodger praises a “concise but balanced assessment, on a man who “was always led interested in other people than he was in himself””.

In contrast, NS deputy editor Helen Lewis’ review of Susan Greenfield’s 2121: A Tale from the Next Century is far from complimentary. After examining the author’s recent fall from grace in scientific circles, Lewis launches into a cutting, and at times humorous attack on Greenfield’s debut novel.

The prose is a mess. There are errant commas, clunking clichés and banal phrases such as “tossed about in a vast sea of heightened emotions devoid of passions. Everyone seems weirdly obsessed with comparing their current situation with that in the early 21st century- “she gestured to the high-speed pod, still recognisable as a distant descendant of its predecessors from a century or two ago” - which, when you think about it, makes as much sense as a writer now describing a car as “still reminiscent of a 19th-century landau."

Lewis combines a questioning of the author’s motive, and an attack on her literary ability to produce a biting and comical review.

Owen Hatherley’s review of Marcel Di Cintio’s Walls: Travels Along the Barricades, adds a global feel to this week’s book section. Hatherley explains that Di Cintio’s travel book offers far more than just his “acute” and “vivid renderings” of landscapes. Hatherley praises Di Cintio’s “unobtrusive and erudite” historical asides, before concluding with what he sees as one of the most enduring aspects.

What is memorable in Walls is its deep pessimism. Whenever a dismantlement appears to be imminent, as in Nicosia, inertia and cynicism invariably win out over the let’s-all-hold-hands anti-politics of the UN and the NGOs. In Belfast, Di Cintio notes the removal of the “peace line” that once divided a park in Ardoyne but considers the underground wall that runs between the Catholic and Protestant sections of Belfast City Cemetery to be “a more relevant symbol than the image of little girls frolicking through a gate that opens every once in a while. The constructions of brick, concrete and steel that divide people are not only enduring but thriving.

Hatherley’s examination of this poignant book proves to be expansive and engaging.

Caroline Crampton completes this week’s books section with her review of Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump, an inspirational and personal account which looks to enlighten readers on the reality of dealing with autism. Translated by David Mitchell and K A Yoshida, who themselves have an autistic child, Crampton delves into the book’s approach to autism. She discusses both our misconceptions, and the book’s genius in uncovering them.

Every page dismantles another preconception about autism. For a start, Higashida writes mainly in the plural- we need your help, we need your understanding- as if he is not alone but part of a great community of silent children around the world. He explains that it’s physically painful to hold back his “weird voice” (that loud, thick, over-worked diction that autistic people some-times use) because it feels “as if I’m strangling my own throat.

Reading this review in itself forces one to think on their own views regarding autism, invoking empathy and encouraging understanding.

This week's magazine also features Talitha Stevenson reviewing The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing, and Fiona Sampson on Clive James's translation of The Divine Comedy.

Also in the Critics:

  • Jason Cowley on Kenneth Branagh's Macbeth.
  • Ryan Gilbey reviews the latest collaboration between Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, At World's End.
  • All the latest in TV, radio, opera and theatre from Antonia Quirke, Matt Trueman, Rachel Cooke and Alexandra Coughlan.

This week's New Statesman is out now

An 1880s Vanity Fair image for Gradstone and MPs. Credit: Michael Nicholson/Corbis.
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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