The book that flew: A hawk used for pigeon control in St Pancras station. Photo: Getty
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Peregrines over Westminster, my bloody great beehive and the Samuel Johnson Prize

The winner of this year’s Samuel Johnson Prize for her book H is for Hawk chronicles a life-changing week. 

Saturday is a disconcertingly beautiful day. The November air is like hot gin. I’m driving down from Newmarket to Hastings in a glorious mood – until I realise with horror that I’ve still not sent the BBC people a release form for the Samuel Johnson Prize interview they filmed last week. I panic all the way to Hastings, where the employees of a local branch of Waterstones come
to my rescue. They and other high-street booksellers have been fantastic champions of H Is for Hawk – my book about the death of my father, training a goshawk and the life of the novelist T H White – but this is way beyond the call. I email them the form from my phone. They print it out for me. I sign it, photograph it and email it to the BBC, feeling half like a spy, half like a complete idiot. Then they give me directions to my destination – the Beacon, a huge Victorian villa perched on an inland cliff. Carefully I write the directions on a piece of paper and promptly leave it behind.

I’m here for the Black Huts Festival, a bewitchingly eclectic event run by the poet and publisher Nicholas Johnson. He publishes my poetry and invited me to give my first public readings decades ago. Eventually, I find the Beacon and haul my case from the car. Distant police sirens, a waxing moon, a sprawl of end-of-season courgettes over winter garden frames – and above, a migrating woodcock flying in from over the sea, uplit in the sodium dusk. Where has it come from? Finland? Russia? Then inside to greet Nick and hear the folk musician Alasdair Roberts rehearse. Astonishingly beautiful, playing to an empty room.

Explosions in the sky

Sunday is lunch with friends and a ride on the Hastings funicular – seaside architecture is so magical – before a reading with Patrick McGuinness. His Other People’s Countries is one of my books of the year. Then I set off back to Newmarket in darkness. It’s Bonfire Night weekend: all the way, sprays of light blossom and fall across the horizon, turning Essex into a scene from Tron. The best moment was sitting in the car park at Birchanger services munching a cold samosa alongside scores of other drivers, all of us transfixed by a huge local display across the road. It was extra thrilling for being unexpected, for not being meant for us at all.

Peas and progress

I’m at the RSA for a Samuel Johnson Prize event. Six white chairs on a spotlit stage under James Barry’s extravagant 18th-century paintings The Progress of Human Culture. No pressure, I tell myself. I stuff my face with wasabi peas from a bowl in the green room and spend the first few minutes onstage necking glass after glass of water, my throat on fire. The diversity of the shortlist is thrilling. There are many memoirs on it this year. I am fascinated by the reasons you might write yourself into a narrative about wider historical and cultural phenomena. Doing so is a good way to explore how your assumptions colour your understanding of the subject, how your view, like everyone’s, is always subjective and inevitably partial.

Too much adrenalin

Tuesday is lunch at the British Museum with a fellow historian of science. We talk about invasive tamarisk, rescue dogs, British empire shipping maps from the 1930s and the ecologist Charles Elton. I rush off to get my hair done for the Samuel Johnson Prize ceremony. I’ve decided on a bloody great beehive. It is a ridiculous creation and I love it. Back at the hotel, hyperventilating and spaced on hairspray fumes, I drag on a frock, stumble into a taxi and zoom off to the awards at Riba. Rosy light, crowds, pilasters, smiles, the whole thing already surreal.

“Did you manage to eat anything?” I was asked afterwards. Well, yes. Only because the dinner was so lovely I kept forgetting what it was in aid of. Then I’d remember, put down my cutlery, all appetite gone.

One by one, the judges take the podium to deliver acute critical assessments of each book. Then the impossible news from the chair, Claire Tomalin, that H Is for Hawk has won. Shock, disbelief, delight, then waves of dizziness. I manage to hug my dear mother, my editor, Dan Franklin, and my publicist, Ruth Waldram, without falling over but trying to make it up to the stage in high heels is very dicey. I promised myself I wouldn’t cry if I won. But I cry anyway, right the way through my acceptance speech.

Then I’m whisked away for interviews, feeling oddly as if I’m made of helium and hay – buoyant, airy, liable to fall apart. All social ability has vanished. When the BBC’s Nick Higham describes the book to the camera as being “three in one”, I blurt out that I like the comparison because it makes the book sound like washing powder. Oh, God. Too much adrenalin. I can’t sleep a wink that night. I spend most of it playing “match three” games on my phone and when the taxi comes to collect me for the Today programme at 6.40am I resemble an extra from Night of the Living Dead.

How to make books fly

Wednesday’s hero is Ruth, my Jonathan Cape publicist, who accompanies me all day, organising things to perfection. We race between the BBC, Four Colman Getty and newspaper offices; a whirl of podcasts and photo shoots. Cranes, denuded plane trees, burnished silver light. There’s one glorious moment of stillness in stationary traffic: I look out of the window and see a pair of peregrines circling over Westminster, high in a cirrus-hatched sky.

By lunchtime, I’m almost hallucinating with tiredness but a quick stop for fish and chips works wonders. Then to the Random House offices for a celebration. I’m reminded once again that, however lonely the writing of a book might be, it’s other people who make books fly: editors, designers, artists, proofreaders, sales people, booksellers and all the others behind the scenes. The prize belongs to them, too. As I stand there, cup of tea in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other, I try to make a less emotional speech. But seeing how happy everyone looks, I burst into tears all over again. 

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

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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