Lemonster: a sculpture of a giant lemon made out of lemons at the 2013 Fête du Citron in Menton, France. Photo: Getty
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It was the slice of lemon in my whisky that started it all

On the scale of outrages this ranks fairly low but I am driven to complain by a desire for simplicity and purity.

I am in a pub in the middle of town, taking my first sip of a whisky and soda, and it is all about to go horribly wrong.

It’s one of those pubs that you now find all over central London near the major tourist attractions: gussied up and overlit, faintly reminiscent of how it used to be but overlaid with a kind of corporate blandness so that no one going in there, from any nation on earth, need feel overwhelmed or in a place that is not like millions of similar places around the world. They serve fat chips with little tubs of mayonnaise and tomato sauce; the staff are young and foreign and wear tight black shirts.

This one is popular with people spilling out – after either work or pleasure – of the Royal Opera House, which is close by. You can tell that once upon a time (but not for about 60 years), it was a very nice place indeed.

The night is getting on. I want to go home but the person I’m with wants to do some catching-up with others and quite understandably so. When she gets up to get a round in and asks me what I want, I say, “Just a small whisky and soda, please,” as I was full from the beer I’d had while waiting alone, with a book, at the originally agreed venue, the Lamb and Flag. I take a sip of the whisky and notice that there is something wrong with it and I see a slice of lemon bobbing about.

The point of whisky and soda is that it is one of the safe, easy and universal drinks. There’s a gag in one of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books that goes that every civilisation in the cosmos has a drink with a name sounding exactly like either “gin and tonic” or “whisky and soda”; it’s the kind of drink, moreover, whose instructions of manufacture are entirely included within the name. And yet, here it is, with a lemon where it has no place to be.

On the scale of outrages that can be perpetrated against the self, this ranks extremely low, I have to admit. So what perhaps moves me to go to the bar and ask for a replacement is not just the unwelcome taste of the thing but a desire for simplicity and purity to be protected. I wait for one of the little blackshirts behind the bar to notice me. I have distinguished myself from someone just standing at the bar with a drink, which isn’t going to get me served any faster, by taking the lemon out and holding it between pinched finger and thumb, like a small, wet, severed ear.

“I’m afraid someone has put a lemon in my whisky and soda,” I say.

“Who served you, sir?”

“No one served me,” I say. “Someone else got it for me.”

I am beginning to get a bad feeling about this. That “sir” was one of those “sirs” that serves just as well as an insult.

There is a bit of faffing about behind the bar as the drink is taken away from me and my small Gauleiter returns to ask me again who served me. I repeat my answer and there is some more faffing about and when he comes back to ask me the question a third time, something in me snaps, for I am tired, I’ve already had more to drink than even I strictly want, the past three months have been shit, this whole business of making a fuss about a lemon is getting me down and, to tell you the truth, I am beginning to get very tired, in a big-picture kind of way, of life’s boring party trick of giving you a bit of happiness and then taking it away again and there is something ugly within me that needs to be let out, so I say, “I’ve told you, no one served me. I just want to know what a slice of fucking lemon is doing in my drink.” I waggle the lemon in an offended manner. At which point he plonks down a couple of two-quid coins and tells me to leave his pub.

“His?” I ask myself, irrelevantly, as I go back to the table and say that, for the first time since I can remember, although it must have happened before in 35 years of pub-going, I have been thrown out of a pub and the faces of the company are suddenly doused in embarrassment and I realise very quickly that no one is going to be on my side for this one and I wonder if my mini-Mussolini realises that, because of a simple slice of lemon, events are going to be set in motion that will possibly have momentous effects on at least two unsuspecting lives.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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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