Friday, 25 August 2017

Book Review: 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/34128180-4-3-2-1Who we are is the result of many influences to which we have been exposed since the day we were born or, to be exact, since the moment we were conceived. The people we met, the choices we made, the good and evil that “came over us”, everything had a more or less noticeable impact on our character and on our “fate”. Family history too has a part in personal development because, if we like it or not, the past shaped our surroundings, notably the people around us. And even small occurences can turn out to be of paramount importance. In 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster four versions of a Jewish boy called Ferguson step into life from the same starting point, but against the backdrop of recent American history their lives take very different courses because already after a short time their worlds are no longer the same and drift apart ever more.

Paul Auster was born in Newark, New Jersey, USA, in February 1947. After graduation from Columbia University, he moved to Paris, France, making his living as a literature translator for four years. After his return to the USA he published several translations along with volumes of his own poetry. In 1982, he brought out his much acclaimed memoir The Invention of Solitude under his real name and the novel Squeeze Play using the pseudonym Paul Benjamin. Other notable, often best-selling novels from his pen that appeared along with more poetry, translations and memoirs as well as some essays and screenplays are The New York Trilogy (comprising City of Glass [1985], Ghosts [1986], and The Locked Room [1986]), In the Country of Last Things (1987), Moon Palace (1989), The Music of Chance (1990), Leviathan (1992), The Book of Illusions (2002), The Brooklyn Follies (2005), Travels in the Scriptorium (2006), Invisible (2009), and Sunset Park (2010). His latest published novel is 4 3 2 1 (2017). Paul Auster lives in Brooklyn, New York, USA, with his second wife Siri Hustvedt.

The protagonist of 4 3 2 1 is Archibald “Archie” Isaac Ferguson who is born on March 2, 1947 to Stanley Ferguson and his wife Rose, despite the Scottish name both descendants of Eastern European Jews immigrated to the USA in the late nineteenth century and in 1900 respectively. There are four versions of him who at different stages of life disappear from the scene one after another. The family of A. I. Ferguson (#1) is hard up after a burglary in his father’s warehouse, and yet, he turns into a promising young man with a girl-friend called Amy.
“No talent for music, then, none for drawing or painting, and gruesomely inept at singing, dancing, and acting, but one thing he had a gift for was playing games, physical games, sports in all their seasonal varieties, baseball in the warm weather, football in the chilly weather, basketball in the cold weather, and by the time he was twelve he belonged to teams in all of those sports and was playing year-round without interruption. […]”
When he loses two fingers in a car accident, he exchanges the baseball bat for the pen and after his studies at Columbia University, he moves to Rochester as journalist. A. Ferguson (#2) starts out much the same, but his father’s warehouse burns down and with the insurance money he opens a tennis center. Not yet eleven-year-old he founds, publishes and writes a newspaper that gets him into trouble before he leaves for summer camp. The father of Archie Ferguson (#3) dies in the warehouse fire.
“[…] But he was too caught up in the tumult of his own life to pay attention to what was happening outside the circle of his immediate concerns, and because his parents weren’t the sort of people who shared their worries with small children, there was no way to prepare himself for the disaster that struck on November 3, 1954, which expelled him from his youthful Eden and turned his life into an entirely different life.
In his grief, he comes to love cinema and literature, but he hates school. Rejected by his cousin Amy, the lonesome teenager succumbs to the charms of homosexual caresses and after high school goes to Paris to translate French poetry and write. Ferguson #4 resents his father for caring about nothing but money and status. In summer camp he meets his soul mate who dies from a brain aneurysm before his eyes. Soon afterwards he writes his first short story. All through high school and college – first at Princeton, then at Columbia University – Amy is his best friend. And he keeps writing. When he publishes his first book, he adopts the pen name Isaac Ferguson.

The novel 4 3 2 1 is at the same time a chronicle of United States’ history of the twentieth century from the point of view of a New Yorker born after World War II and an exploration of how outward circumstances determine the course of a life and shape a person. The result is a bulky tome of four life stories side by side – or four novels in one – with empty chapters where the protagonist previously found his premature end. Since the book opens with a chapter 1.0 dedicated to the family history of Ferguson before his birth, notably to the immigration of his grandfather and the anecdote about how the family got its Scottish name, it doesn’t become clear right away that it follows the same concept as the nursery rhyme about Ten Green Bottles. In fact, it was quite confusing to start reading chapter 1.2 and to be thrown back into the boy’s early childhood without warning. Unfortunately, all four versions of Ferguson felt to me awfully clichéd models of the budding writer, and to my taste, their fates were too predictable. Despite rather too many references to books and films, it’s a well-written and smooth novel.

For me 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster was a long and mostly enjoyable, though occasionally a bit boring read. I particularly liked the idea of getting to know four different versions of the same boy growing into a man – moreover, a born writer – against the backdrop of the most striking events of twentieth-century American history. Some passages, however, seemed unnecessarily lengthy to me or even out of place in this book. The number of references to all-time classics of literature and film that permeate the novel virtually turned some passages into a reading list for the snob-to-be, not to say that they left me with the impression that the author wished to show off. I must admit that I’ve read quite a good share of these books myself, but it would never occur to me to draw that much attention to it! All things considered, it’s a pleasant read that I recommend without restraint.

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1 comment:

  1. Since I was born in 1947 I keep meaning to read this one. Great review! I think I can get past the overwritten parts and still learn things, especially because I am so involved with that period in My Big Fat Reading Project!

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