‘4 3 2 1’ by Paul Auster

4321 book coverThis is a great big door-stop of a book but 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster [London: Faber & Faber, 2017], a wonderful and fulfilling story on so many levels. It’s not surprising that it is on the short list for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Should it win? I’ll tell you later!

When Ferguson’s grandfather arrived from the Ukraine at the beginning of the 20th century he was processed through Ellis Island and took a more ‘American’ name. How he became Ferguson rather than Reznikoff is part of a clever family joke which is told in the opening pages. His American-born children survive the tough conditions of their childhood and Archibald Isaac Ferguson, his grandson, was born in 1947. You might wonder how this third generation American growing up in Newark, New Jersey, would get on and, to more than satisfy you, Paul Auster lays out not one but four alternatives.

Authors who deliberately choose a complex formula within which to relate a novel have to be judged on how well they make their chosen model sing. Auster gives his readers a barbershop quartet singing in perfect harmony. For readers of my bent, the fact that all four possible Fergusons are bright, enthusiastic readers, hungry for education and to be creative, especially as writers, makes 4 3 2 1 a special pleasure. One revels in that particular American institution, the eight week summer camp. Another opts to go to Columbia University in New York. A third decides against ‘college’ and spends a year or more in Paris perfecting his craft as a writer. The fourth is awarded a full ‘Walt Whitman’ scholarship to attend prestigious Princeton. However, although the individual circumstances alter the particular cases, each Ferguson is made of essentially the same stock and several of the other characters, adapting to the different storylines, appear in each part. As ever in these blogs, you will find no plot spoilers; just the assurance that the journeys are all worth taking and the gently post-modern conclusion richly satisfying.

The background of the whole novel is the troubled period of the fifties, sixties and seventies in the USA as the involvement in the deepening crisis of the Vietnam War poisons America and adds to the heightening unresolved legacy of the Civil War, the fact that there is no such thing as ‘equality’ for the black American citizens of the USA. Happily for me, the Fergusons are liberal Americans with a conscience but when you have to decide whether to let yourself be drafted or escape to Canada or even go to jail for your conscience this is no laughing matter for that generation and their families. The divisions between the pro-war and anti-war factions of that period have sad parallels with today’s polarised America.

Despite that frightening backdrop, my enjoyment of 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster continued undiminished. As well as being what my academic friends would call a Bildungsroman, it is a set of variations on the theme of Archibald Isaac Ferguson, its protagonist. Indeed it is probably four Bildungsromane intertwined with each other so that, just sometimes, the reader has to pause and decide which Ferguson is the subject of the current variation.

Auster seems incapable of writing an infelicitous phrase and the quality of the language as well as the writer’s willingness to expand and develop his ideas, which a book of 866 pages allows him to do, have made this a very enjoyable read. And as I read and enjoyed Auster’s delightful prose style, I was also being given a subtle refresher course on the literature and music that were a part of my own being young and intelligent, with a catholic taste during that time. Indeed, it will be well worth going back over the text again with a notebook. Already it has whetted my appetite for the outstanding novels of the 19th century that I have so far scandalously neglected, as well as many French and American authors and poets of the 20th century. It might not be a Man Booker prize-winner but it surely deserves to be in that charmed short list. Should it win this year’s Man Booker? Who cares? It is a personal prize-winner for me.

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