4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

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Reviewed by Harriet

All along, from the beginning of his conscious life, the persistent feeling that the forks and parallels of the roads taken and not taken were all being travelled by the same people at the same time, the visible people and the shadow people, and that the world as it was could never be more than a fraction of the world, for the real also consisted of what could have happened but didn’t, that one road was no better or worse than any other road, but the torment of being alive in a single body was that at any given moment you had to be on one road only, though you could have been on another, travelling towards an altogether different place.

I must confess that when this large paperback, all 866 pages of it, appeared unsolicited in my mailbox, I wondered if I’d have the stamina to read it. I shouldn’t have worried. It did take me a while, but that was not only because of the length but also because I was savouring every minute. It truly is a remarkable novel, which no doubt will win every prize that can possibly be thrown at it.

This is the story, or rather the stories, of Archibald Isaac Ferguson, born 3 March 1947. Despite their unlikely surname (there’s a story behind it) his family are New York Jews, his father Stanley a dealer in TVs and radios, his mother Rose a talented photographer. We learn something of their origins, backgrounds and relationship in the first chapter, at the end of which Ferguson himself is born. From this point on, the novel separates into four narratives, each divided into chronological sections dealing with a segment of Ferguson’s life from early childhood to his mid-twenties when the book ends. As the quotation at the beginning of this review, which is taken from the end of the novel, eluicidates, this enacts Ferguson’s sense of ‘roads taken and not taken’.

So, the central protagonist in all four narratives remains the same – sensitive, intelligent, thougtful, kindhearted, talented. He has the same parents and other relatives, many of the same friends, who may or may not be, or remain, his lovers. But the circumstances of his life diverge from story to story. Some of the divergeances are owing to economics – his father becomes rich, or loses his business, or dies in an acciedent – which dictates where the family is able to live and where he can go to school and later to university (or can choose not to go at all). A girl who is his best friend in one segment becomes his lover in another and the object of his unrequited love in another. He becomes politicised, or rejects politics altogether. And so on. But throughout all these changes, as he grows up each Ferguson becomes a writer. Not the same kind of writer, however. In one strand he follows his love of the movies to write about films and their effect on the watcher, in another he creates beautiful translations of French poetry, and in a third he becomes a serious novelist – in fact the books ends with the final Ferguson writing the last word of the last chapter of his novel on 25 August 1974. 

Of course all the breathtaking changes that Ferguson, his family and friends go through in the course of the stories are set against a background of the larger social, political and educational changes of their era. Indeed the novel provides an astonishingly detailed sweep of the twenty-seven year period in which it is set, which included among many other things the Vietnam war, to which Ferguson and his friends react in varied ways according to their circumstances. Kennedy gets elected and assassinated; Martin Luther King starts his peaceful resistance. Ferguson also discovers baseball and watches some of the great matches of his day. One strand has him living a slightly dissolute life in literary Paris, and in another he becomes a journalist in Rochester, New York, reporting on the bombing of Cambodia. He joins, or doesn’t join, student protests and demonstrations.

This is Paul Auster’s first novel in seven years, and it’s logical to assume that much of that time was needed to research the background and craft the structure of this remarkable, multi-faceted story. In the final analysis it’s a meditation on identity, how it is formed and structured by the circumstances of our lives, but also what in us remains constant beneath the changes. This is something Ferguson himself muses on in all his incarnations. It’s about growing up and maturing, and what makes people develop in the ways that they do. It’s about love, its power and its mutability, and death in all its sudden unpredictability. It’s  intensely moving and beautifully written and I’d love to quote endlessly to prove it. But here’s just one more quotation to end with.

It could never end. The sun was stuck in the sky, a page had gone missing from the book, and it would always be summer as long as they didn’t breathe too hard or ask for too much, always the summer when they were nineteen and were finally, finally almost, finally perhaps almost on the brink of saying good-bye to the moment when everything was still in front of them.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1 (Faber and Faber, 2017). 978-0571324620, 880pp., hardback.

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