Not all sun and sea: a beach on the Italian island of Elba. Photo: Getty
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Tracey Thorn: Real life always intrudes on holidays. That’s how it should be

It’s taken me years to face up to the fact that, as Neil Finn so eloquently put it, everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you. Your own emotional weather. 

I’m writing this column on a sunbed by the pool. Don’t hate me. We’ve taken our holiday a little early this year. A week in a rented villa in the Med. It’s not like this is my life or anything. Although, as usual, life will keep intruding, even here.

It’s taken me years to face up to the fact that, as Neil Finn so eloquently put it, everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you. I was in denial about this for most of my adult life, insisting that holidays were nothing but joy, berating anyone who wasn’t having enough fun. But I’m getting better now, and coming to terms with the fact that, however idyllic the setting, you cannot help but bring with you everything that’s happening in your life, or in your head. Your own emotional weather.

I could also add that, because I’m an anxious person (I’ve told you this already), everywhere I go I take the contents of the bathroom cupboard with me. My suitcase resembles Mary Poppins’s holdall and can, on request, produce remedies, balms and unguents for any ailment you may choose to develop while travelling with me. This makes me a great person to go on holiday with if you’re prone to insect bites, allergic reactions to insect bites, infections of insect bites, or alarming complications arising from insect bites. Not such a great person to be around in the run-up to a holiday, when my anxiety levels rise at the same rate as the piles of lists.

This time, however, the weather proves ominous even before we leave home when we get the news that a friend who will be joining us on the holiday has just lost one of her closest friends to breast cancer. She’s going to come anyway, but warns us that she is sad, very sad. And then another friend due to meet us there has to cancel as he is in the grip of a debilitating depression and can’t get out of bed, let alone get on a plane. Sometimes the weather is so bad you can’t even take it with you. Sometimes rain stops play.

Holidays are supposed to be time out of time, perfect and dreamlike, but still they insist on coming at awkward moments, while we’re waiting for exam or biopsy results, or on the day a period starts. In his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts”, W H Auden talks about how moments of suffering take place “While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along”. Or indeed, on holiday. We can’t separate holidays from the rest of life, however hard we try.

Still, here I am in my bikini on my towel, and there is light, a lot of light, along with the shade. Other friends have arrived with their new baby, and nothing lifts the mood like the sight of that tiny creature, wriggling and gurgling, opening her eyes wide at the play of light through the leaves, all of us adults competing for her smile. Nobody’s weather changes faster than a baby’s, and the speed with which she can move from contentment to misery, nothing but a sneeze or a hiccup in between, is like a dramatisation of how close to each other those two states are.

The actual weather is interesting, too, bringing us a night-time Gothic thunderstorm, followed by a day of strong winds that leave shutters banging and send bottles of sun lotion skidding across the lawn. In between the hours in the pool and the sun, the youngsters have discovered Fawlty Towers and are practising their Manuel impressions. From somewhere inside the house, “I speak English VERY well, I learn it from a BOOK” comes ringing out. Hoots of laughter.

So, all in all, the week is working, but as I started out by saying, its tone isn’t entirely benign or neutral, any more than any other week.

There are teenage mood swings and menopausal mood swings; an earache, a splinter, an argument. A close friend texts to say that her mother has died. The boy bursts his football on a cactus. Through it all we bask in the constant warmth, the long evenings drawn out with wine and lazy chat, the things that enhance and soften everything.

And so, if anyone asks, I’ll say we had a lovely time. And we did, we really did. Look, here are the photographs to prove it. That view. Those smiles.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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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